Doesn’t this fire pit and seating area look inviting? (Contributed)

Looking at your yard and thinking “This year I’m finally going to make some changes and enjoy my garden more”? Take my advice: go on a garden tour for inspiration. Even a visit to a neighbor’s beautiful garden will work to get your creative juices going and motivate you.

I do have to say that the gardens I visited recently in Palo Alto were spectacular. Definitely “the garden of my dreams,” and I may just have to practice what I preach in my own little space. 

While some of the gardens were clearly out of my price range—this was Palo Alto remember—there were elements from every one that I could imagine in a regular garden around here.

Everybody’s garden looks the best in the spring. Plants are full of new, healthy growth and the heat of summer has not yet descended. Early flowering plants are at their peak and those that wait until summer to flower so that their nectar will attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees are patiently awaiting their time in the sun. It’s a glorious time in the garden.

Because the Gamble Garden Spring Tour is a walking tour, I got as many ideas from the gardens featured as I did passing by the front yards of the other houses. This is the neighborhood where Steve Jobs used to live.

The theme of the garden tour, “Gardens are for Living,” came through loud and clear in each of the gardens. Many featured sustainable features, such as a decomposed granite patio, poured in place concrete pavers, corten steel raised beds and path edging and dry laid flagstone paths. Edibles were included in every garden—from a grape-covered pergola to a cleverly designed raised veggie bed complete with steel corners and banding and lighting for evening dinner harvesting.

While walking the neighborhood, a low water use plant combination of ornamental olive trees underplanted with rosemary and Iceberg roses complemented one Mediterranean style home. Another garden nearby featured a rustic fence made from fallen tree branches. I must have taken a hundred pictures to remind me of all the great design ideas I saw that day. The gardens were very approachable. Most are maintained mostly by the homeowners.

Many of us have meandering paths in our gardens separating the different garden rooms. The elements of garden design, like arrangement of paths, planting beds and open spaces, shape your garden. Your eye is drawn along a path through a garden. The plantings along the sides serve to frame but it’s the style of the path itself that enhances your experience in the garden. Some of the paths can be gravel, some walkable ground covers with pavers, some flagstone. All draw the visitor deeper into the garden to explore and linger at each spot.

Over the years I have gotten lots of inspiration from other gardens and tours. Valley Churches has held several fundraiser garden tours. I remember how fun it was to see the Enchanted Gardens of the Valley, which was in San Lorenzo Valley one year, in Scotts Valley only a few years ago and one in Bonny Doon quite a while ago. On each of these tours I knew some of the garden owners and had spent time in each. Also I’ve gotten inspiration from visiting Camp Joy and everybody loves Filoli Gardens as well as Hikone Garden in Saratoga.

So go outside in your own garden and imagine the changes—big and small—that would make it spectacular. 

Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California-certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at [email protected], or visit

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