A garden that looks good enough to eat

Beauty and function go hand-in-hand in unusual garden

Take two landscape designers who are in love with plants, give them an acre of land on which to do whatever they want, and what have you got?

Drama. And fun.

California's lush Napa Valley is the stage upon which landscape designers Freeland and Sabrina Tanner perform, working in tandem to create original and functional landscapes for their clients while constantly "editing" their own surroundings.

And it's obvious they're enjoying what they do. One look at their new ornamental and edible garden exemplifies Freeland's feeling that, "If a garden is too utilitarian, it's no fun."

Leading guests on a tour of the garden, he enters what once was simply a functional vegetable-garden area and lets the sight of colorful flowering plants and vegetables sink in.

"We played the vegetable garden out with a little drama," he says, smiling. "Vegetables can really be fun because there are so many colors to work with, and a lot of the plants, like artichokes, are very architectural.

"You can do some 'color echoing' with things like purple beets, purple-flowered alliums, purple cabbages, and even purple bell peppers.

"And it's just as easy to do the same thing with yellow," he continues. "Yellow Swiss chard, yellow bell peppers, and yellow-foliaged plants like golden lemon balm. Just pick up a vegetable book or full-color vegetable catalog and look at the wide range of colors in things like beans."

Grasping the red stem of a rhubarb chard that has gone to seed, Freeland says: "Look at the ribbing on this stem. It's simply gorgeous. We sometimes take sections of the stems inside to put in a vase to arrange with red roses. I'm sure most people would simply compost them."

The welcoming atmosphere of the garden isn't created solely by plants. A green pyramid-topped wooden arbor, which serves as the entryway to the garden, signals that something special lies ahead.

Likewise, a Victorian potting shed (originally a pump house built by Freeland's grandfather) adds further color and depth to the garden, being both practical and an artistic opportunity for Sabrina to demonstrate her interior-design skills using antique garden tools and watering cans to best effect.

Although it's not a particularly large section of the garden, measuring roughly 40 by 55 feet, the vegetable garden seems much larger because there's so much to see. Pieces of garden sculpture are artistically interwoven with flowers and vegetables. And low, looping fences - reminiscent of gardens in the English countryside and potagers in France - were created using branches cut from pears, elderberries, and box elder trees.

"Sometimes the cuttings take root," Freeland says, "and that adds even more interest."

Here, as in the main garden - with its low boxwood hedges and gravel walkways framing an abundance of colorful plants against an evergreen backdrop - the emphasis is on "framing" plants.

Each bed has a tall plant in the center to provide height. It may be a shrub or a vine growing on a structure. As Freeland explains, this eliminates the feeling of everything moving in a straight line.

The basic design focus of the Tanners is always on greenery, not on flowering plants.

"It's like looking at a black-and-white photograph by Ansel Adams," Freeland explains, "in which you can really see the strong points and weak points. People are often so influenced by color they push aside the fact you need a little more strength in one area and softness in another. Then if you have color on top of that, it's the icing on the cake."

Roses have long been standout specimen plants in the Tanners' garden, but another beautiful favorite is Oriental poppies from Mohn's Nursery in Atascadero, Calif.

"This is a strain developed from sterile seedpods," Freeland explains, "and unlike those that bloom once and wither away the rest of the year, this one keeps blooming until winter."

Sabrina recalls that it wasn't long ago that the "vegetable garden" was just that - useful and productive with rows of corn and mounds of squash, but not the eyeful it is today.

"I tend to be more conservative than Freeland," she admits, "but I've found you can have a bit more creative freedom in here. So you say, 'Let's poke this herb in here,' or 'Let's try some huckleberries for fun.'

"Movement is an important element in the garden for me," she adds. "Sometimes when you're in the garden surrounded by roses and shrubs, where nothing moves, you just feel hot. But the least little breeze can move vegetables like giant fennel and flowers in the cutting garden. That creates a sense of comfort and being cool."

Freeland nods agreement with his wife. "Sabrina and I have drawn a lot of inspiration from authors like Rosalind Creasy and Beth Chatto, as well as work done by Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse in England," he says, "and we try to replicate the natural beauty of plants in nature.

"I like a lot of color, but I think a plant is as pretty when it's going to seed as when it's in full flower," he says. "The trick is to exploit the beauty of each plant so it's not overpowered by something else."

How the garden got the way it is

"Gardening is not just another day at the plant."

That's the message on napkins that Freeland and Sabrina Tanner use when entertaining guests and clients in their attractive garden. Established on a former one-acre prune orchard, the garden was initially designed to showcase more than 150 heirloom roses.

But the couple soon realized that after the flush of spring bloom was over, the garden they dubbed "Malmaison West" - in tribute to Empress Josephine's garden in France - was lacking in interest.

Japanese maples, dwarf conifers, ornamental grasses, perennials, bulbs, and evergreen trees and shrubs now serve as a framework for both old and modern roses (particularly the new David Austin varieties) in what the Tanners call "controlled chaos."

The design for the entirely organic garden borrows from both traditional English cottage gardens and the elegant 18th-century French parterres. The result is a strolling garden with elevated borders that show off the plantings and offer viewers a sense of scale and spatial interest.

And, although it looks like a high-maintenance garden, the Tanners have used automated irrigation systems and a liberal application of mulch to lessen time spent weeding and watering.

"We come out here together on weekends," says Sabrina, "and spend most of a day getting things in order. It's really not much of a job, particularly when you enjoy being here."

The garden is also a showcase for the Tanners' talents, and inspires potential landscaping clients to broaden their own interests.

Amenities include a fish pond, two rock gardens, a gazebo, several seating areas, and the ornamental and edible garden.

Above all, the garden is an ever-changing enjoyment for the Tanners.

"You have to edit and recognize your mistakes," Freeland says. "My grandmother taught me more about gardening on nature walks and seed hunts than I ever could have learned in school. You give your heart and soul to it.

"Our goal here is to make the garden more interesting while learning from failures. But this is a lifestyle, not just what we do for a living."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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