Garden Tips | News | Palo Alto Online |

Real Estate

Garden Tips

How can gardening reinvent itself?

In the not too distant past, estate gardeners were the masters doing fine pruning, plant maintenance and even some design. Supervised by European or Asian immigrants, the properties on the Peninsula were showplaces to be proud of. Home gardeners sustained themselves and their culture with vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs. Family-owned nurseries provided seeds, plants from cuttings, bare roots and divisions, bulbs, rhizomes, tubers and succulents. They also stocked peat moss, manure, fertilizer, potting soil and sand for amending soil. Bulbs would come from Holland, and then from Oregon as the industry took off, providing designers with a palate of color for spring through summer.

More recently, the "mow, blow and go" garden service came into being. Estate gardeners became supervisors for maintenance contractors or got their licenses to run their own business either in landscape construction or maintenance. Some became designers and a few became design/build businesses. Homeowners became busy and gardened less, depending on the contractors to act as a clean up crew before the weekend when guests would visit.

And now we are still in a drought. A historic drought causing many property owners to cut way back on watering, and, in some cases, stop caring for their garden all together. We are just beginning to see the results with some creative relandscaping and new maintenance regimens. I see this as exciting and challenging. What better time to watch new design and creative ideas come about in the horticultural world.

This kind of challenge is exactly what is going on in the industries that are starting up across the Bay Area. Young people are coming out of college with ideas and creating businesses that didn't exist before. Some that have started as one thing and transformed into completely different. Look at the smartphone evolution. It started out as a phone that could save numbers and evolved into a complete media studio with audio, video, Internet, data communication, voice recognition and publishing capabilities unimagined 50 years ago.

Will gardening catch up with this renaissance? Not all people are software savvy or engineer types. There are many who think with an ecological, biological and hydrological intelligence just as the high-tech people think on sociological information technology mind set. This month I am going to suggest some ways to think gardening out of the box in major ways — ways that will not only save water but will change our culture. You can also come up with the ideas and try them. Some will go nowhere and some will be the new paradigm of the future, sort of like the Tesla in the back yard. I will also have some what-to-do-now-in-your-garden tips for those who just want to get their hands in the soil.

1. If plants could talk, what would they be saying? Where would they be growing and how would they look in relationship with you? You would still have to cultivate them and water them, but what kinds of plants would want to be in your garden rather than the other way around?

2. What if all your plants were moveable? What if they were all in containers that could be rotated throughout the property? Plants could be outside in the day and inside at night. Or who knows what. They did it at Versailles.

3. How could ones property be a nursery, growing ground, showplace and food/flower provider all at the same time?

4. Can a home garden provide an education from preschool through graduate school? And if so can a neighborhood be a botanical/design university?

5. There have been studies for years on plants ability to respond to their surroundings, including their caretakers. Some people have told me they are completely unable to grow anything. There is a lot to learn from this. I think it is much deeper than simply killing a geranium with neglect. If harm to living things can be done then healing can be done too.

6. We are all going to grow old someday. I would like to grow old in a garden. How can we think like this? Giving one another the garden of our dreams right when we decide we are ready to retire. Some won't want a garden; that's all right — more for the rest of us.

7. Why do we need houses? What if we can live outdoors year-round?. What if we only lived indoors? What would the outdoors look like? If we lived our lives as if home was a spa, would we get bored with the health and beauty?

8. Experiments have been done with biospheres. There is more to learn. Instead of taking those ideas and building from them why not start from scratch and think about it like a new idea all together.

9. In the interim time we still have chores to do. Continue cleanup, harvest, and remove dead ,dying and diseased plants. Replenish the soil with compost, set up watering systems to just water the plants you want to grow and spread mulch on every patch of bare soil.

10. Plant peas, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, bulbs (for spring) and fall/winter flowers as they come into the nurseries. Don't give up on the garden you have. Until the new designs and architecture comes in, we still have to have flowers and fresh homegrown food. Keep up the good work.

Good gardening.


Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at or 650-455-0687, or visit

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


1 person likes this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 25, 2015 at 12:55 pm

I now see so many Palo Alto yards are just dead looking, including my own.

Can you or someone recommend a resource, service, process or business
that can help with re-inventing the Palo Alto landscaping universe?

The look of Palo Alto is just not doing so well these days, and I have a
sneaking suspicion that those that are may be using more water than they
really should be.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Umami Burger calls it quits in downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 14 comments | 7,868 views

Please Apply So We Can Reject You!
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 6 comments | 2,551 views

Chocolate – I Love Thee. Let Me Count The Ways.
By Laura Stec | 3 comments | 1,717 views

Couples and Premarital : "Who we are . . . depends in part . . . on who we love."
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,432 views

City’s “priorities” have become meaningless – and a waste of time
By Diana Diamond | 10 comments | 1,365 views