There's not a lot of flat land on Sandra Baker's property, and that's the way she likes it. "I have trouble when my land is flat," she says, laughing, "I don't know what to do with it!"
Sandra and her husband, David Speigel, live and garden on five and a half acres near the top of Coleman Creek Road in Phoenix, surrounded by forest and within sound of the creek. "We bought the property about seven years ago," she says, "and we spent our first year here building our straw bale house." The house is lovely; a warm-looking terracotta-colored structure that seems as native to the landscape as the trees on the surrounding hills. Large windows look out onto the garden that wraps around the house, blurring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors.
Sandra Baker offered up some suggestions for gardeners interested in exploring her intuitive approach to garden design.
Sandra began work on the gardens as soon as the house was finished, and today paths curve and weave between lush garden beds, which are framed by low stone walls. "I learned to build flagstone walls when I was a kid," and since then most of her gardens have featured paths, rock walls and terraced garden beds. She clearly relishes a hands-on approach to garden design. There are paths everywhere you look; leading from bed to bed, dividing and defining her growing areas, and inviting you to walk and explore the diverse gardens on the property.
Flowering trees and shrubs like quince, crape myrtle, flowering pear and crabapple provide splashes of color during the spring and summer months, and Japanese maples and ginkgo light up the garden with their brilliant fall foliage. Perennial mainstays like lavatera, delphinium, daylilies and rudbeckia give the garden form and structure, but the real stars of the show here are extravagant displays of five different types of flowers, each with their own distinctive bloom season. "It's a garden that's different from month to month," explains Sandra.
Tulips provide the earliest spring color, and the garden is home to an extensive collection of them, ranging from large flowering traditional varieties to small, wildflower-like species tulips. The next flowers to bloom en masse are bearded irises. Sandra admits to being a bit of a plant collector. "I just like to have one of everything!" she laughs. She comes close with irises; the garden features about 120 different varieties.
As blooms on the irises begin fading, the garden transforms into an exotic tapestry of poppies. "I have four or five types of poppies here, ranging from varieties that are a few inches tall to ones that are almost 5 feet tall." Sandra has collected and traded seeds with other gardeners over the years, and has an impressive collection in soft, vivid colors that remind you of impressionist paintings, with tissue-paper thin petals.
Once summer arrives, poppies are replaced by dahlias in a rainbow of bright colors. Sandra once grew cut flowers commercially, so it's no surprise the flowers that figure most prominently in her garden work well as cut flowers. She often cuts bouquets from the garden to bring into the house. As fall rolls around, the garden palette shifts once more, this time to chrysanthemums. "I've got about 40 different varieties of chrysanthemums, mostly the big pom-pom types. I usually like to pot up a few plants to bring into the house, too, so we can have fresh flowers at Thanksgiving," she says.
One of the more distinctive features of Sandra's garden is the way she integrates features like ponds, arbors and birdbaths into the overall design to create focal points in her design. A handmade arbor of twisted madrone wood marks the entrance to the garden, and every few feet a piece of "found" art catches your eye and invites you to slow down and enjoy the view. "I love old rust, and I'm forever hauling home pieces that intrigue me," she says. Scattered artfully throughout the garden are a number of these pieces: an old cream separator, large rusty gears, old lunch boxes, even wheelbarrows and tea kettles that have been turned into planters. The overall effect is a garden that feels as organic and integral to the landscape as the straw bale house it surrounds.