By Jim Bishop.
After just one year in the Bay Area, I was anxious for a place with real soil to garden. About the same time, I realized that my job had little opportunity for advancement, but most of all was really boring. So, I found a new job working for a software company that developed computer aided drawing and design (CADD) software and had an R&D facility in San Diego. I was employed there for the next 14 years and would work the next 28 years in the software industry. And, after getting over the sticker shock of Bay Area real estate, I bought a two bedroom one bath downstairs unit in an apartment-to-condo conversion project.
The condo complex had very dense landscaping and was across the street from Central Park in Santa Clara. Between my building and the next one was a row of coast redwoods underplanted with purple leaf plum, Prunus cerasifera. Under the trees grew an assortment of shrubs with agapanthus in the more sunny areas.
The condo unit had a small patio that was mostly covered with concrete and surrounded by a 6 foot fence with a gate to the walkway in front of the building. The first thing I did was borrow a bender bar and sledge hammer and removed the patio. I threw the concrete in the garbage dumpsters and next week everyone in the complex received a notice about the proper use of the dumpsters. In front of the glass sliding door, I replaced part of the concrete with a small wood deck that was the same elevation as the living room floor, making the space feel larger. I was very surprised to find that the soil underneath the concrete was the consistency of potting soil and understood why this had once been a very productive farming area. I created a large soil mound in front of the dining room window and another long mound between the deck and the fence.
I enjoyed the beautiful roses I saw growing everywhere, but I knew they needed at least 6 hours of direct sun to be successful. I decided if I planted rose standards they would be tall enough to get sufficient light and planted 5 on the mound between the fence and deck. However, there was still too little direct sunlight and one by one they died starting with the one in the densest shade. I replaced them with dwarf azaleas and a standard fuchsia.
On the mound in front of the dining room, I had more success with an Australian tree fern. Underneath, I planted various narcissus bulbs and seasonal annuals. I fell in love with primroses, especially the lacy fairy ones that come in shades from white to hot pink. I grew Cinerias (now named Pericallis) with their rich dark blue and deep magenta daisy flowers with white bands. I had once tried to grow one in Texas - thinking it was some sort of strange delicate African violet, placing it indoors under grow lights and quickly killed it. I filled all the pots from my apartment with more shade-tolerant annuals, and again grew wax-leaf begonias and coleus in summer. Originally, I put the redwood planters from my prior apartment on top of the fence and envisioned growing trailing plants to hide the fence, but the homeowners association swiftly informed me that they needed to be removed. So, I placed one on the edge of the deck and the other on top of the air-conditioning unit under the dining room window and planted them with fuchsias. I put half-round wooden hanging pots on the fence and planted more fuchsias and trailing lobelia. I had one pot that got a little more light and planted a Paludosum daisy in it. It did, as I was warned, drop seed everywhere and did well in the soil beneath the pot.
Everything filled in very quickly and I was able to have lots of year-round color. I used the concept of borrowed space and hid as much of the fence as possible. Above it you could see the plum trees with their pink flowers in spring and purple leaves in summer. They were set against the dark green of the redwoods. I loved gardening in my tiny space and the view of all the plants from inside.