Miraloma Hilltop Garden: Design for Flora Grubb Gardens

A big part of my growth in plant palette over the past six-plus years working at Flora Grubb Gardens has been in palms. Prior to working at the nursery, I naively thought I knew the five or so palms of the world. It was daunting to learn there are well over twice that many (snicker), and even more so to learn the different growth habits and preferred habitats for so many. I’ve been working at the nursery as a buyer for the design team pretty much since its inception, and last year stepped in to start doing some designs myself. It’s exciting to get to use some of these palms I’m continuing to learn more about.


One design I did last year was for a front garden in roughly the geographic center of town, in an area called the Miraloma neighborhood. Miraloma sits atop the hills that create the spine of SF, nested between a couple of the higher spots like Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson. The homes are all midcentury/postwar houses, more or less architecturally the same throughout the neighborhood, as is the case with most neighborhoods developed at once. Over the decades, homeowners have set their individual lots apart through use of plants and house colors. Every house started off with the same layout: the house set back about 12-15 feet from the street, front yard transected by a concrete driveway and a straight runway of a concrete path from door to sidewalk.

(Before, with the standard front yard of the neighborhood.)


This particular house sits high atop a hilled street, fully exposed to the east, and with little to block the winds that ricochet up the north-south street. Because of the street’s curvature, they have a slightly wider front yard than neighbors do. That meant there was a lot of space to play with despite the relatively shallow space. I wanted a statement plant for the garden, and had been getting excited about some huge specimen palms – Parajubaea torallyi – that we had gotten in 36-inch boxes. Our resident palm expert and horticulturist, Jason Dewees, had mentioned how these were even more wind-tolerant than known wind-hardy palms like Canary palms, but with much more excitement to the canopy in terms of movement and shadow. They’d even planted a row out on the promontory in Emeryville across the bay, in full westerly wind, and they were performing spectacularly. I knew this was my focal plant. Here, they’ll be fairly fast growing. This one will grow twice as tall as the house, and the canopy will spread a good twenty feet in diameter. My hope is that it becomes a landmark on the skyline for the immediate neighborhood.


The homeowners had just painted the house a light neutral beige, so I knew the fine feathery foliage of this palm needed a stronger foil behind it to set it off. I did this by adding some giant birds of paradise against the wall behind it, providing a solid and glossy background. To soften the repetition of straight lines down the block, I redesigned the front walk with a soft curve towards the driveway, one that gently hugs the home of the palm. I flanked each end of the house with a favorite tree of mine – Azara microphylla – that will also grow twice the height of the house. Its tiny, waxy leaves (thus the micro phylla) will tolerate the windy setting brilliantly, and they are so shiny that they reflect the blue of the sky in a way that makes them appear teal on a sunny day.

(Curved path and background of giant birds of paradise.)


Elsewhere in the front garden I had the installers put in some succulents and my favorite grass (Lomandra ‘Breeze’), some Agave attenuata that will make a real statement once they mature, a succulent fuzzy Kalanchoe beharensis to create a secondary focal point, and a California native shrub, Carpenteria californica, near the side gate to continue the hedgerow of natives down the block and to soften the transition from the clean style of their garden and the, how shall we say, “casual informality” of the neighborhood gardens at large.

They’re thrilled with the front design, and hope to install my rear garden design in the coming years. They like to vacation in tropical places, and love how the palm brushes against the house in the consistent winds, reminding them of warmer climes. Originally, my whole design had incorporated all the same plants in the largest containers readily available, and after some shuffling we reduced the sizes of everything but the palm. We decided the big focal plant was the one place to not make a cut, and they’re glad they went with that decision given how great the palm looks right off the bat. It’ll only grow even prettier from here!

Here’s the rest of the Flickr set, with additional before and after pix, as well as the as-yet-untouched back yard.

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