Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Hillside Garden in Jerusalem


When you drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem you climb up through hillsides and valleys, coming across new communities built along the ridges to take advantage of the views.  They move harmoniously for such large developments, as the building materials are limited to Jerusalem stone, a pale buff and rose limestone. 
A Typical Jerusalem Street
The Kaufman house is built into such a hillside, 52 steps up from the street along a public stairway to other houses along the way further up the slope.  The house is modest by American standards, about 1,000 square feet, but the garden is splendid: two levels with a sweeping view of the Jerusalem Forest.  Elizabeth and Joseph Kaufman raised a family of four here, and those children are now bringing children of their own to the garden. 
The Public Stairway, Kaufman Garden on the left
It looks very different now than it did in the early years. It started out on three levels, first the porch (which we would call a terrace) plus a semi-circle of grass, then two steps down to a flower border, and on the third level a sandbox.  The sandbox rapidly became a kitty-litter box, freely used by the roaming cat population.  The grass was high-fiber, deeply-rooted zoysia which rapidly spread to the planting level below, making it virtually impossible to grow anything else.  Then came ten dry years -- a seven-year drought bracketed by very little water for over a year before and after.  Eventually the walls holding the levels began to crumble.
Demolition of the Old Garden 
Liz: “ We put off a new garden year after year, anticipating a permit to build out, which never happened.  I would say we spent at least 10 years pondering the change.  Twenty-two years after we moved in, our needs were different.”

Now the plan includes two levels instead of three, a larger porch (about 500 square feet) with a gas grill, a second level of artificial turf (about 250 square feet), and minimal planting.  Changing access to the house became a major decision: the old entrance gate was from the public stairway, and since “no one ever closed the gate behind them, everyone passing had a straight line of vision into my kitchen.”

The trek up 52 stairs did not deter the contractors, since they had no intention of making the climb.  All heavy lifting was done by cranes.  Cement was made at street level and hoisted up; all building materials arrived at the site this way.  When the contractors were ready to deploy soil, it was hoisted up in huge bags, the bottom of the bags slit open and the soil poured in place. 
Soil Poured on Site
A pergola shades part of the porch, small children play down below on the artificial turf (which I believe is vacuumed rather than mown), cooling off in a water-filled plastic tub.  An olive tree, planted when the garden was new 22 years ago, provides the only shade. 
The Olive Tree, Sole Survivor of the Original Garden

Year One
The flower border is now on one side of the porch, in a raised bed 25 feet long and three feet wide.  The tall back wall is painted a vivid terra cotta and provides a handsome background to plants which grow at an astonishing rate by our northeastern standards.  The bed is filled with high-quality potting soil and an irrigation system. 

Year Two
Liz is a veterinarian at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, a horticultural wonder with an extraordinary array of plants.  Joni Goldberg, the Chief Horticulturalist, was the unofficial consultant, while I was unofficial commentator.  In the interests of full disclosure Liz is my daughter, which is why I have been in and out of this garden over the years, and why I have no problem offering unsolicited advice.  

If you only have 25 feet to work with, every plant is important, and when a plant peaks and wilts, Liz is ruthless in removing it.  On my last visit non-performing snapdragons gave way to tuberous begonias and calibrachoa.  Her favorite place to shop is the Nursery of the Jerusalem Botanical Garden.  Adjacent to the garden itself, the nursery grows for the garden but also sells to the public. 
Bougainvillea in the Nursery
 Jerusalem is a Mediterranean climate, so bougainvillea is everywhere, lavender looks glorious, rosemary survives chilly winters to become broad and hardy, and plumbago, which we grow only in tiny hanging baskets, is rampant on fences and sprawls over walls.  Some of the plants are familiar to us, but others we have never seen outside California or in greenhouses. Cannas, an acquired taste here, proliferate in Jerusalem, Clarkia, a popular California flower, is offered for sale in the nursery.
Clarkia in the Jerusalem Botanical Garden
The entire process took four to five months from demolition to completion, not counting the decade of pondering. The result is a cool, sophisticated private space enclosed in sand-blasted glass. Planting is kept to a manageable minimum.  The porch comfortably holds an ever-increasing family, it’s floor pitched to a pipe under the grass so that the water runs down the public stairs and out into the street.  Nobody seems to object. 
A Typical Sidewalk Wall of Plumbago





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