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September 17, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, September 17, 2004

An eye for color An eye for color (September 17, 2004)

New garden room extends living outdoors

By Carol Blitzer

When Shelby Valentine and her husband Doug Molitor bought their Palo Alto home in 1983, there were three curly-leaf willows in front that dated back to when it was a Mackay model home.

The Molitor family enjoyed the trees for years, but last fall two of them fell, and the other was diseased and had to be removed. Without those trees, a whole new vista opened up.

They decided to create a garden room in their front yard, defined by a new stucco wall in front and a metal gate. Incorporated in the large Verdun green gate is a willowy sculpture, commemorating their lost trees.

Valentine, a longtime member of the Garden Club of Palo Alto, designed a new mounded area where the trees used to be, and plans to fill it with an edible garden -- after a field trip to Copia in Napa.

Each interior wall in the patio is painted a different color -- yellow, rust or "Doge's Palace" purple. "That was fun. We went through 13 combinations of colors to get these three," she said.

Slowly, they're choosing plants that will complement those colors -- including heritage specimens of throated dark purple iris and golden sage. A new pathway is under construction, using Arizona rose sandstone, Satillo pavers and gray pea gravel.

A mature Napa grapevine will soon be trained to wrap around the new arbor swing, then guided by grommets atop the stucco wall. In the middle of the patio is a 15-year-old "opportunistic" English walnut tree that the Molitors credit to an industrious squirrel. "It's taken on a life of its own," Valentine said.

And, despite its reputation for having toxic roots, the 50-year-old wisteria thrives next to it, as do the tiny white Lady Banks roses. When the willows were healthy, it wasn't unusual for brides in the neighborhood to snip some switches for their wedding -- and adorn them with those Lady Banks blooms.

Valentine is looking forward to adding edible plants to her patio garden: perhaps gray-green artichokes, "which are gorgeous. You can let them go to flower or eat the bulbs." Or, maybe nasturtiums and arugula -- delightful to look at or eat in a salad. Or fennel, with its lacy greenery and yummy bulbs, or maybe even flowering chives and onions.

Instead of grass, the Molitors placed a tall, manzanita olive tree in front of the new stucco wall -- something Doug has been craving since reading his 1970 edition of the UC Berkeley Extension volume on how to use and press olives. With a crown of about 25 feet, "the scale is right for the front of the home," Valentine said, adding that they plan to extend the St. John's wort under the tree, and move their blue fica grass near the wall.

Putting together their new outdoor room and front garden is similar to creating a quilt, Valentine said. "I know the colors, I know what plants need for their growing conditions. I use my eye for color to do what I want."

Goal of project: Create a garden room

Unexpected problems: Getting the color right was a challenge; difficult to remove stumps and root system of willows

Year house built: 1955

Time to complete: About three months

Budget: Under $5,000 and a lot of "sweat equity"


Gate: Francisco Hernandez, Hernandez Welding, 2928 #B Middlefield Road, Redwood City; 364-0280

Nursery (big trees): Regan Nursery, 4268 Decoto Road, Fremont; (510) 797-3222

Nursery (edible plants): Copia, the American Center, 500 1st St., Napa; (707) 259-1600

Outdoor arbor, swing: Cypress Flower Farm, 333 Cypress Ave., Moss Beach; 728-0728

Paving, rock: Ciardella's, 2027 E. Bayshore Road, Palo Alto; 321-5913,

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