Innovation begins at the driveway in the Ashland home of Michael Koester and Susan Fay, where unusual fencing surrounds a broad, peak-roofed arbor that opens the way to the entry garden and the front door.
It's custom-cut cattle panel, with roof flashing woven through the metal grid, says Koester. He had the panel etched and painted green to blend with the house color, then wove the brown flashing through in irregular patterns, which were finally framed in wood.
"It's an architectural geek thing," he says modestly. "It keeps the deer out."
The construction is vaguely Asian and marvelously calming, allowing "just enough" visibility into the garden without losing its sense of privacy. The broad arbor is handsome but also has a serious side. Koester has a rare form of muscular dystrophy and needs a wheelchair. The arbor provides weather protection as he disembarks from his van.
Koester's motivation to make the utilitarian beautiful defines the landscaping. He has gradually modified the landscape on one of Ashland's steepest hills to accommodate his power wheelchair.
He bought his house "above the boulevard" 25 years ago, fully aware that he would not be able to negotiate the yard's steep slopes.
"I couldn't get in it for five years," he says. "The yard was really a desert zone."
The property's long view of Grizzly Peak and down the valley sold him.
"I figured if I was going to be spending a lot of time at home, I wanted to see beyond the fence line," he says.
From the deck off the main floor of the house, a wooden ramp slopes to the yard's highest point and a shade garden. A meditating Buddha sits between two ferns. Hostas and columbine populate the narrow space between the path and the fence at the edge of the property. A small landing and a gate to the alley behind the house are at the first switchback of the smooth path that zigzags along the sloped yard.
The changing amount of light across the property has created a number of microclimates, with the shade-tolerant plantings at the top transitioning to more sun-loving plants and then a raised-bed vegetable garden. Several comfortable seating areas have been incorporated into the design.
The materials used also change across the terrain. Koester used stone found on the property, supplemented with similarly shaped local granite, to create a dark and light dry-stone wall. The effect matches the dappled sunlight that filters through the trees above.
"Even though this is a small yard, I don't get bored here," says Koester. "I do have pretty good access to the entire yard with all the terracing."
One stretch of the path has added concrete-block pavers, but most of its length is decomposed granite natural to the site. Carefully graded, this creates smooth and stable pathways. The steep slope on the property meant that American Disability Act codes could not be met, but that's not a problem on private property, and electric wheelchairs have no trouble negotiating the grade, says Koester.
Between each switchback, Koester and Fay have created raised beds with a variety of perennials and annuals. Koester had his introduction to gardening as a teen, watching his father grow an organic garden.
"As a kid, I thought plants grew way too slow," he says, smiling. Over the past 10 years he's begun to pay more attention.
A recent studio addition changed the sunlight patterns, so plant placement is still experimental. A few asparagus plants dot the landscape as the couple tests the best location for a bed.
"We're not formal here," he says. "There's more to gardening than I want to know. We've had some notable failures."
Fay laughs and adds, "We've had fun going to local nurseries together."
The garden beds have added topsoil and amendments. The vegetable bed is full of tomatoes growing on a wooden, A-frame trellis. It's designed for removal at the season's end to make tilling easy. It's also been used to shelter overwintered spinach. Tall, metal plant-stands, now weathered by the sun, support sunflowers and green beans at each end of the long bed.
Innovation, unconventional use of materials and repurposing are integrated into Koester's life. "I have to do that all the time just to survive," he says.
But the most notable aspect of this garden — and the couple's life — is the beauty that dwells within