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Garden Makeover: Hillside Paradise

Decades in the making, this terraced garden offers 360-degrees of color, while providing layers of privacy from nearby neighbors and a lush habitat for visiting wildlife.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

Cut into a steep hillside, homeowner Diana Magor’s house in Santa Cruz, CA, overlooks a Japanese-inspired front garden and Monterey Bay, while the back offers views of a colorful terraced flower garden. Dense plantings along the sides of the one-third-acre property provide privacy.

Not every homeowner welcomes backyard sightings of bobcats and gray foxes. Nor do many make a habit of eating lunch while watching monarch butterflies lay eggs in potted milkweed plants.

A Garden Sanctuary

But Diana Magor is the exception. Her garden is as much a sanctuary for her as it is for the wildlife that take refuge there. A zoologist by training and profession, Diana spent her younger years studying manatees in the Amazon, Puerto Rico, and Belize. Now retired, her scientific observations take place much closer to home—oftentimes in her own backyard, where all but the deer and gophers are made welcome.

From the start, Diana set out to create a serene natural setting—“a house inside a garden,” as she describes it. Perched on a terraced hillside in Santa Cruz, California, with sweeping views of Monterey Bay, her house defies its suburban setting, its garden enclosed by mature trees and packed with fragrant flowers handpicked to lure birds and other pollinators. “It’s like living in a tree house,” she says. “From every window you can see something green.”

The scenery was quite different back when Diana purchased the property 30 years ago. The house was a typical 1970s California Contemporary—clad in vertical plywood siding with awkwardly placed windows—built into a steep hillside of clay soil prone to puddling. “The prior owner told me I’d need heavy-duty muck boots if I wanted to garden here,” she says. “He wasn’t kidding.” As luck would have it, just three days after closing on the property, an earthquake struck, prompting Diana to start upgrading the house sooner than planned.

Following the advice of engineers, she reinforced the foundation and replaced a rotting redwood retaining wall along the parking area with one made of reinforced concrete—“mudslides do happen here,” she points out.

Rebuilding the back deck came next, then installing a French drain beneath it to improve stormwater drainage. Diana replaced a 4-foot retaining wall bordering that deck with one just under 2 feet. The ground behind the wall was level—until it reached another retaining wall farther uphill, that is. So she regraded the level area into a slope, terracing it with low, dry-stacked rock walls, to put the entire garden on display. “I wanted to see every plant from inside the house and while sitting on the deck,” she explains.

Working with the Clay Soil

Roses, magnolias, and wisteria were among the first plants to go in, all adhering to a palette of soft pink, peach, blue, purple, and white, with pops of magenta. The soil, however, presented a challenge. No amount of trucked-in topsoil or compost ever turned the heavy clay into friable loam. “I eventually just gave up trying to amend it,” Diana concedes. Through trial and error, she settled on this planting method: She digs a planting hole at least twice as wide as the plant container and a little deeper, adds drainage rock, secures the hole’s downhill sides with two or three stone ledgers, then backfills with organic potting mix and a little native soil.

Through the years, Diana has also assembled a trusty list of clay-tolerant plants, which includes blue-flowering Pride of Madeira, everblooming Santa Barbara daisy, and magenta-hued watsonia, one of the few perennials Diana saved from the previous owner’s garden. As for drainage, the slope partly compensates for the heavy clay. “Good Mediterranean plants and natives are really what you need here,” she says—although she’s too much of a plant lover to garden within those boundaries.

Japanese-Inspired Design

Her forays into Japanese garden design are a good example. An admirer of Greene & Greene’s iconic Arts and Crafts designs, Diana undertook a dramatic whole-house remodel five years after moving in, turning her California Contemporary into a cedar-shingled Craftsman-style house.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Clare Owen

In the early 2000s, after redesigning her driveway to gently curve rather than beeline to the parking area, she put in a Japanese-style front garden punctuated by non-clumping bamboo, Japanese maples, and a persimmon tree. She added a dry stream bed and a pond along the new driveway, and stone stairs between her sidewalk and the front entry. While not authentically Japanese, the thoughtful stone placement and palette of layered greens echo that aesthetic.

Now, decades into lavishing attention on this plot of land, Diana is mostly editing, and observes, “There’s always something flowering.” The magnolias and cyclamen are winter bloomers in her temperate climate, followed quickly by native ceanothus, or California lilac.

For this nature lover and birder, there’s often reason to get out her binoculars. Butterfly gardening is her latest fascination, causing her to break from her long-standing color scheme, as the hot shades she avoided are the ones monarchs like best.

And so she’s begun introducing milkweeds, Mexican sunflowers, and other pollinator favorites in sunny hues. A little surprised, Diana admits, “I actually like how the yellow nectar plants look with the purples in the back garden.” After all, just as a garden keeps evolving, so does the gardener.

1. A wall of windows across the back of the house looks out on a colorful hillside that blooms year-round; herbs and salad greens form a kitchen garden along the deck’s edge.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

2. Stone steps leading up from the sidewalk to the house disappear into stands of weeping bamboo, Japanese maple, and purple-leaved Chinese fringe flower.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

3. Magenta watsonia and the salmon-colored blooms of Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbon’ punch up an otherwise pastel border featuring blush and yellow roses.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

4. Stone steps off the back deck lead up to a Japanese-style redwood arbor engulfed in Chinese wisteria and a 20-by-10-foot flagstone patio with ocean views.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

5. Sun-loving and drought tolerant, blue-flowering Pride of Madeira attracts droves of pollinators—the drivers behind Diana’s chemical-free, organic garden practices.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

6. A dirt path cuts through the middle of the back hillside, providing wheelbarrow access for garden chores.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

7. Diana designed this greenhouse around upcycled materials.

garden renovation in Santa Cruz, CA, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

The 10-light entry door and two skylights (one operable), snagged from a house-parts recycling center, provide ample light and air. An antique Japanese finial decorates the roof, while leftover cedar shingles serve as the siding. Inside, wall-hung shelves provide storage and a work surface for starting seeds.

Pollinators, Fragrance & More: Incorporating Plants with Purpose

Some provide color and fragrance to lure pollinators, while others offer lush foliage

plant varieties, Magor Garden, July/Aug 2020 Saxon Holt

‘Sally Holmes’ rose (left)
(Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’)
Only slightly fragrant, this top-rated climbing rose earns its keep in Diana’s garden by growing vigorously and flowering profusely in shades of peachy pink all summer long. Zones 6 to 11

Bugle lily (right)
(Watsonia borbonica)
Splashes of fuchsia from the blossoms of this fragrant, summer-blooming bulb appear throughout the back garden. It has thrived over the years despite the clay soil, allowing plenty of divisions. Zones 8 to 10

plant varieties, Magor Garden, July/Aug 2020 iStock

Narrow-leaved milkweed (left)
(Asclepias fascicularis)
A West Coast native, this easy-to-grow wildflower, blooming white to mauve, is an essential for any California butterfly garden; its foliage nourishes the monarch’s baby caterpillars. Zones 6 to 10

Sweet pittosporum (right)
(Pittosporum undulatum)
In spring, this broadleaf evergreen’s creamy flowers fill the air with a gardenia-like scent and buzz with bees. Adaptable and easy to prune, it grows as hedges along the garden’s edges. Zones 9 to 11

plant varieties, Magor Garden, July/Aug 2020 Visions/Gap Photos

Mexican sunflower (left)
(Tithonia rotundifolia)
These cheery orange flowers are a recent addition to the garden, to entice butterflies. They’re long-blooming and quick-sprinting annuals, known to top 6 feet in a single summer. Zones 2 to 11

Chinese fringe flower (right)
(Loropetalum chinense)
Purple-leaved cultivars of this carefree Asian import grow along the driveway, offering showy foliage through the winter, with long-blooming magenta flowers for contrast. Zones 7 to 10