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It looks like wilderness, but it's a garden in San Francisco.

The plants are tough. They need watering only four times a year

Walk into this wilderness garden and civilization's cares seem to fade away. You smell the resin of pines, feel the spray of miniature waterfalls, and hear the crunch of wood duff underfoot as you hike to the view seat up top. Mornings, the pond draws preening birds; at night, you may spy raccoons scrubbing up in it.

When the owner, C.D. Robinson, wants to relax in such a natural setting, he doesn't have to slog through weekend traffic; he just walks out the back door.

His garden looks as effortless as if nature had planted it. Most of the plants are California natives, needing minimal care. But only 15 years before we took these pictures, the slope was bare but for weeds. Mr. Robinson began the transformation at his potting bench, starting seeds and cuttings of natives (many available now were hard to find then). Next came truckloads of redwood soil amendments, followed by some shaping of the soil,

Many gardeners try for a natural look, but few achieve such impressive results. How did Mr. Robinson do it?

"To dig the stream bed, I started at the top corner with a trickling hose, and followed the channel the water made. Every few feet of construction, I turned on the water and checked its flow pattern again." Most of the rocks are half-buried, and camouflaged by plants.

Planting begins with the canopy

Mr. Robinson started by figuring out what he wanted to screen from view, then placed his main trees and shrubs so that fences, neighbors, and poles would disappear over time. He worked from the largest plants down-trees to ground covers. "Many natives bloom," points out Mr. Robinson"California azalea, ceanothus, Oregon grape, and wild iris all do. But compared to garden hybrids, their flowers are small and simple. Any non-natives I

used had to blend with the natives.

"I focus on the foliage. It comes in an infinite diversity-light to dark greens, large or lacy shapes. Big leaves frame the foreground; the small ones seem to recede into the distance, making the garden seem larger." At 2,100 square feet, the back yard is small, so Mr. Robinson concentrated on shrubs that top out at 9 to 20 feet, and used few full-size trees.

"The plants grow as light and gravity pull them. I don't stake the trunks, although I may prune to encourage an effect I like." Although Mr. Robinson chose California natives almost exclusively, many plants can be used to achieve similar effects. For a grove in a small garden, prune tallgrowing shrubs into single and multitrunked tree forms.Good choices include eugenia, photinia, pittosporum, xylosma, and others used for hedges. Larger choices adapted to arid climates include eucalyptus, liquidambar, mesquite, Russian olive, and palo verde trees all less thirsty than the ever-popular birch.

Last, fill in with the carpeters

In sunny spots, Mr. Robinson crammed crevices with colonizers such as piggyback plant, redwood sorrel, and sword ferns. Where it's too shady, he just mulches with wood chips or tree. I don't use fertilizer"' he says. "Constant mulching takes care of it."

The first two years, he watered often to get faster growth. Since then, in normal years, he waters only about four times a year-every four to six weeks ftom late spring through summer. Two impulse sprinklers cover the entire slope.

Now that the plants are mature, the main jobs are pulling things out and clipping them back. By thinning trees and shrubs lightly in late summer or early fall, Mr. Robinson minimizes suckering that would need follow-up pruning.
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Date:Oct 1, 1988
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