A Visit with Harland Hand

Harland Hand [1922-1998], inspired by the principles of fine art and rock formations in the High Sierra, designed this hillside garden with breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay.

Using concrete, curving lines and dramatic color combinations, Hand created an emotionally evocative space that houses an extraordinary plant collection.

Text and Photos by Mark A. Kane

I met Harland because I was chasing gardens for Fine Gardening. I called him cold, and he said “Come over.” At the front door, I was eyeing the largest staghorn fern I’d ever seen when Harland bounded out in his sandals, introduced himself, and took off around the side of the house. The path was steep and the steps small, so I watched my feet. When I caught up with Harland and looked up at last, we were on the terrace at the top of the garden. I took in everything thing at once, dumbfounded. There’s a poem about Balboa, transfixed when he first catches sight of the Pacific from a ridge on the Isthmus of Panama. I was on my own private isthmus.

I could see that the garden below us, descending the hillside by rocky paths from terrace to terrace, was immensely rich, with thousands of plants that somehow Harland had placed to create both openness and density, design and naturalism. Harland must have noticed the look in my eye. He said that he had modeled his garden on the granite glades of the Sierras, his favorite place in the world. This explained everything and nothing.

Cymbidium orchids do not grow in the Sierras, nor do the glades pave themselves with stepping stones, and Harland clearly loved every beautiful plant that will grow in the Bay area as much as he did the Sierras. Reading my mind again, he said “There are about 2,300 species and cultivars in the garden.” Not a palette from the Sierras, in kind or number. And yet, we were in the Sierras. In Japanese gardens, raked gravel, a few boulders and a spot of moss evoke with great restraint the views that the Japanese love the most; steep, distant peninsulas of rock and weathered cypress plunging into the Sea of Japan. Harland had managed to bring the Sierras to a hillside in El Cerrito by setting rocks, giant flagstones and boulders to form outcroppings, clearings, tight spots, dangerously steep and narrow steps, benches, and cliffs, and then filling every open space, large and small, between the rocks with a botanical garden of plants.

When we reached the second terrace, I remarked on a striking plumbago in bloom. Harland said, “Do you see where that blue picks up again?” He pointed across the next terrace below us and there was a Siberian iris in bloom in the same color. “I do that throughout the garden,” Harland said. “I want to lead your eye from place to place, and I want to surprise you.”

Over the next two days, while I made photographs, Harland talked in bits and pieces about how he gardened. He said, “Gardening is an art like painting, but more. You have color, shape, line, and texture. You also have three dimensions and the seasons.” So he made the spaces flow and change personality, he narrowed a flight of steps so you’d have to slow down and notice the echeverias and aloes in the rock wall beside you, steep slopes plunged into level flagstones, short views gave way to long views. He said if I came back in summer I’d see a new palette of colors.

Harland’s vision was demanding. He pointed out that his property came with a sensational view, almost directly across the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island and San Francisco. He found it “distracting.” Another way to say that might have been the view didn’t fit what he wanted from the garden. So he allowed the trees at the foot of the property to grow and swallow the bridge and the bay and the city.

Harland was the only gardener I know who used value—the amount of light reflected by a plant—to add an increment of shape and drama to his garden. “I like to group different plants that have similar values,” he said, pointing to a sweep of sedum, burro’s tails, cerastium, and sedge. “Then I’ll put in a few plant that are much darker or much brighter.” Here he pointed to a clump of black liriope. Most gardens have little variation in value—the plants are a green not far from middle green. Some gardens have a little variation, dots of chartreuse, purple, and silver. Harland’s garden had sweeps of the darkest values, the lightest values, and values in between. He placed them the way a painter of abstractions places paint.

Harland also painted with color, silhouette and texture. I remember several vivid vignettes. Blooming stalks of babiana rising loose and bright through the stiff severity of a dasylirion’s radiating needles. Much-branched clusters of cymbidium flowers, mottled in brown and white, rising from rosettes of pastel salmon and lime echeverias, under a twisted, dwarfed madrone with chocolate bark.

I noticed, dimly, that the rocks varied too. There were quartz and granite boulders and a lot of flagstones the size of bathtubs. Eventually I noticed that most of the rocks were concrete. Harland explained how he made the flagstones. “I mix concrete in a wheelbarrow and pour it right on the ground. I make it stiff so it holds a shape. When I have enough on the ground, I trowel it flat and round the edge, and then I dust pigments on top and trowel them into the concrete.” For the outcroppings and the 10 foot cliff with an overhanging top he reinforced the concrete with rebar. Over 35 years of steady work and inspiration, he sculpted an entirely new hillside below his house.

I could have made a thousand photographs, but I had to go. Harland said, “Come back,” and I did. I am deeply grateful that Marjory has committed herself to preserving Harland’s masterwork and I can keep coming back, and so can all of us who love gardening.