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Napa Country Garden

Carole and Keni Kent's Napa Valley garden is filled with thriving plants.

The Kents in their garden

On their 10-acre property in the picturesque countryside just east of Napa, California, retired college professors Carole and Keni Kent have created a landscape that embraces both the English cottage-style of gardening and the Mediterranean aesthetic. Called Wombat Farm (the Kents spent time in Australia and became enamored of the marsupials), the spread includes the main house, a cottage and a swimming pool, each surrounded by gardens.

Although there is some structure to the gardens, Carole says her emphasis is not on design, but on "having plants and trying to make them happy." In just a few short years, she and Keni have planted thousands of perennials, shrubs and trees, plus fruit and olive orchards and two large vegetable gardens.

Along the road leading to Wombat Farm are thousands of irises. Once inside the gates, the driveway is lined with olive trees underplanted with a row of English lavender ('Munstead Purple') and masses of lavender.

One garden flanks a small cottage that overlooks vineyards and distant mountains. This garden has raised rock walls with perennial borders, a small lawn and arches laden with roses. Sculptures of wombats "frolic" on the lawn. Opposite the cottage is a small, formally planted rose garden. Beyond are the vegetable gardens and compost gathering areas. At the very edge of the cultivated areas is a fruit orchard. There is also a newly planted olive grove that is already producing olive oil. A hedge of jasmine and flowering tobacco runs alongside the olive trees.

Carole lets the California climate and summer dry periods dictate what she plants. She has recently turned to grasses and other drought-tolerant plants like phlomis and California poppies to fill the dry, sunny areas.

The Kents believe that huge amounts of compost have been the key to the quick success of their garden and to the health of their plants. Some favorites include:

Tuscan olive

Tuscan olive (Olea europaea 'Leccino')

The plant: This cultivar from Tuscany is widely planted throughout the world and has a vigorous, open, semi-pendulous habit. In Italy 'Leccino' is used for table olives as well as oil. The medium-sized, oil-rich fruit ripens early to a purplish-black color and produces a mild, fruity flavor. The long-lived evergreen tree grows to 25 feet and is hardy to 15 degrees F (USDA Zones 8 to 10). 'Leccino' is highly resistant to drought, wind, fog, olive rust and fungus and has a relatively high tolerance to low temperatures and high humidity.
How to use it: This is a beautiful, highly ornamental tree with a willowy nature. It lends a very rustic, European feel to a landscape. If you have just one tree, it will be fruitless but still ornamental. In colder climates, grow in containers and protect in winter.
Cultivation: Grow in full sun in shallow, alkaline soils with little fertilization. Provide good drainage and do not overwater. To obtain fruit, plant near another olive tree to cross-pollinate. Good pollinators: 'Frantoio' and 'Pendolino'.
Source: Sunnyside Nursery

'Profusion' fleabane

Fleabane (a.k.a. Mexican daisy, Santa Barbara daisy) (Erigeron karvinskianus 'Profusion')

The plant: Native to Mexico, this perennial groundcover has small, daisy-like flowers that start out as white, then age to pink and mauve, with several different colors at once on the six- to nine-inch-high plants. Leaves are gray-green. The habit is low and spreading. Easily grown from seed and hardy in USDA Zones 6 to 9.
How to use it: Since it naturalizes easily, use as a groundcover to discourage weeds. The trailing habit of 'Profusion' makes it a good candidate for hanging baskets, window boxes or patio tubs. The plant can be grown in the crevices of rock walls as well.
Cultivation: Grow in sun in well-drained soil. Water evenly until plants become established (after that, they are drought-tolerant). Can be invasive.
Source: Joy Creek Nursery

'Francis E. Lester'

Hybrid musk rose (Rosa 'Francis E. Lester')

The plant: This very floriferous rose originated in California and was introduced in 1946. Hybridized by Francis E. Lester, the rose is the result of a cross between the hybrid musk rose, 'Kathleen' and an unnamed seedling. Growing to 15 feet high with a bushy habit, the rose is covered in spring with huge clusters of single flowers that start blush pink and fade to white. The foliage is glossy and healthy. This extremely showy rose, a favorite in Europe, often produces second, lighter crop of flowers in the fall.
How to use it: Excellent to smother a fence in spring or grow against a wall. One cluster makes a gorgeous bouquet.
Cultivation: Grow in full sun in rich, well-drained soil. Keep evenly watered and fertilized. Prune in late winter to keep in bounds.
Source: Roses Unlimited

'Munstead Purple' lavender

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia 'Munstead Purple')

The plant: This dark-blue lavender is said to have been raised by the famous English gardener Gertrude Jekyll at her home, Munstead Woods. The mounding herb is evergreen and forms clumps of grey-green foliage 12 to 18 inches tall. Both the leaves and flowers are highly aromatic. Dense spikes of blue-purple flowers appear in spring. Highly attractive to bees; hardy to USDA Zone 5.
How to use it: Grow as a low hedge in a sunny, well-drained site, or use in a knot garden or to line a walkway. Good for drying and as a container plant.
Cultivation: Grow in full sun in fertile soil that is well-drained. The plant can be sheared after flowering to maintain a tidy form.
Source: Joy Creek Nursery

Dwarf cupflower

Dwarf cupflower (Nierembergia caerulea 'Purple Robe') (syn. H. hippomanica)

The plant: In warmer climates, this native of Argentina is a perennial, but is usually grown as an annual across the U.S. The plants have finely textured foliage and, beginning in spring, are covered in rich purple, cup-shaped flowers. The flowers measure 3/4-inch across and appear continuously throughout the growing season. The five- to ten-inch-high plants form a dense, slightly mounding mat on the ground. 'Purple Robe' holds its rich color, even in heat. USDA Zones 9 to 10.
How to use it: Use as an edge to a border, along the top of a rock wall or in containers. Great in windowboxes.
Cultivation: Grow in sun or filtered sun in well-drained soil. Treat as an annual in areas with frost or freezes.
Source: Stokes Seeds

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