By Alexis Davis Millar (January 26, 2020)
For over 150 years, Balboa Park has shone as an ever-changing gem of San Diego. The 1,400 acres was originally set aside for public recreation in 1845, a portion of which would become Balboa Park. Officially designated a public park in 1868, its master plan evolved in the early 1900s by landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. With the 1911 pivotal decision to celebrate the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, competing renovation plans for the park would forever set the tone for all that would follow.
Water feature in Alcazar Garden (Credit: Alexis Davis Millar, 2019)
John Charles Olmsted and local horticulturalist Kate Sessions’ regionally sensitive planting design and site planning design, which prioritized capturing views, local land, and views of the bay, would be rejected in favor of architect Bertram Goodhue’s central mesa siting of the primary exposition space. Fulfilling this siting premise, Frank P. Allen, Jr. and Paul G. Thiene then created a planting design with turf and spectacular exotics. Allen and Thiene’s dazzling design choices, hailed as a huge success and captivating many visitors to San Diego, informed our definition of garden beauty in California – lush year-round, high-maintenance flower beds, and high water-dependence. Political might and funding pushed forward the central mesa siting and lush design, with Olmsted resigning from the project over these differences in long-term vision for the park. Along with Olmsted’s resignation, the design also lost the local expertise of Kate Sessions, as her role as consultant to Olmsted dissolved.
Twenty years later in preparation for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, architect Richard S. Requa expanded the building design and vernacular landscape style to include Moorish influences and styles relevant to the contextual architectural history of the Southwest. Throughout the design, he judiciously used water features as accents. Still preserved today was a key feature of his landscape design, that of transforming the formal garden to become the Alcazar Garden. The Alcazar Garden, with its Moorish tiled water features, was reconstructed in 1935, true to Requa’s design.
The guiding principle in Requa’s planting design for Balboa Park was one of green textures with colorful islands, leaving much of the park largely undeveloped. Though Requa ultimately considered his design unsuccessful, he was proud of a space he created for a specifically California native plant garden in the park.
The decades that followed the Exposition brought additional buildings, garden additions, and uses. Of the original 1,400-acre park created in 1868, 200 acres have now been lost. During the WWII era, for example, as a continuing resource for the local community, the park buildings also served as adjunct U.S. Navy buildings for the Balboa Navy hospital. Renovations during the 1990s included the Japanese Friendship Garden near the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
As Balboa Park’s design continued to evolve into the late 1980s, local landscape architecture firm Estrada Land Planning produced a Park Master Plan and continues to re-envision how the park’s visitors can best experience the museums and outdoor spaces. Guiding the master plan by Estrada Land Planning and Civitas landscape architecture is that the core design is returned to the main plaza in an essentially vehicle-free zone while providing universal access to the museum buildings and landscape spaces. The community context and voices have been vigorously considered in the process.
Credit: Estrada Land Planning and Civitas, Plan for Plaza de Panama, May 2012
The Plaza de Panama Project concept, shown above has generated much passionate conversation. To stroll the Plaza unencumbered by the ever-dominating vehicular traffic was perceived as the next chapter in the evolution of this Park.
As illustrated in this very recent San Diego Union-Tribune article, the dynamic discussion continues to this moment, as to what is most appropriate in the next evolution of this community treasure.
Perhaps even the planting design of historic contributors such as Samuel Parsons, Jr., Kate Sessions, and John Charles Olmsted will also be reconsidered in this water-conscious time.
A special thank you to Nancy Carol Carter and Vicki Estrada for providing me such valuable Balboa Park materials in preparing this post.
David Laws (August 18, 2019)
La Purísima Concepción: The Enduring History of a California Mission by Michael R. Hardwick (The History Press, 2015)
Superb, concise history of the mission, the Chumash Indians of the region where it was established, the mission system, and its economics, priests, and soldiers. There are brief treatments of the “Mission Garden” created by the CCC and their reconstruction of the buildings.
Changes in Landscape: The Beginnings of Horticulture in the California Missions second edition by Michael R. Hardwick (The Paragon Agency, 2005)
An invaluable horticultural resource. Introductory chapters cover the introduction of European-style agriculture to the California landscape followed by a chapter devoted to each of the Spanish colonial missions.
Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson (Roberts Brothers, 1884)
Jackson was outraged at the condition of California’s Indians under the Americans and wrote this novel as a sort of west coast Uncle Tom’s Cabin to stimulate sympathy for their plight after the end of the mission period. (The Spanish colonizers wanted to Christianize the Indians, not exterminate them, which was more or less the American approach.) Sure, it’s romanticized, but it’s the essential text for understanding the period that followed its publication in 1884.
California Mission Landscapes: Race, Memory, and the Politics of Heritage by Elizabeth Kryder-Reid (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
It has long been posited that the mission gardens we see today are phony-baloney, Colonial Revival-style artifacts. The author deconstructs mission landscapes and links the patio garden at Mission Santa Barbara, created in 1872 by Father José María Romo, to the romanticized mission gardens that were created in the years that followed and became “touchstones” for interpreting California history and politics.
New Deal Adobe: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Reconstruction of Mission La Purisima 1934-1942 by Christine E. Savage (Fithian Press, 1991)
There is no better history of the CCC project at La Purisima. Based on interviews with people who worked on the reconstruction and historic documents, it is filled with interesting photos and ephemera.
Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson (UC Press, 2005)
This is a corrective to the notion that California was a wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans and that native American Indians lived simply hunting deer and gathering acorns. Great bibliography.
David Laws (May 5, 2019)
Western Hills Garden will celebrate its 60th anniversary with events scheduled on the weekend of May 25 & 26, 2019. The Winter 2015 issue of Pacific Horticulture magazine published an article of mine on "The rise, fall, and renaissance of one of horticulture's brightest stars" to mark the reopening of the iconic garden. The website included the following brief biographical information on the founders that was not shown in the print version.
Dining in the garden, 1978. Left to right: Lester Hawkins, Marshall Olbrich, Bill Day, and Jim Hickey. Photo: Jim Flack
Lester Hawkins (1915-1985) and Marshall Olbrich (1920-1991), founders of Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery in Occidental, California, came from distinctly different worlds and backgrounds.
Born in New York State in 1915, Lester Hawkins was raised in Olympia, Washington where his father ran a small grocery store. He went to live with an aunt in Texas who was married to an oil millionaire. The plan was for Lester to attend the Colorado School of Mines to study geology and enter the oil industry but instead he moved to New York where he lived on 40 cents a day. Charismatic, opinionated, and with strong views on the ills of the capitalist system, Lester studied economics in the public library and made plans to write a book on the topic. Three years later, he moved again, eventually arriving in San Francisco where he worked as a journalist and edited book manuscripts.
Robert Marshall Olbrich and a twin brother were born into the family of prominent Madison, Wisconsin attorney and civic leader Michael B. Olbrich in 1920. In politics a Progressive Republican, Olbrich senior served as deputy attorney general for Wisconsin, a special counsel for the state, and a regent of the University of Wisconsin from 1925 to 1929. He initiated a movement to acquire land for a garden site near Lake Monona that today is the nationally recognized Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Despondent over health and financial problems, in 1929 the senior Olbrich hanged himself. The family remained in Madison where Marshall earned an M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Berkeley in 1942 to continue graduate work in philosophy at the University of California.
Lester and Marshall met while associating with colleagues in Berkeley having similar socialist leanings and opposition to the politics of the McCarthy era. They lived together in San Francisco in a relationship that, while enduring, was described by friends as like “two monkeys fighting in a barrel.” To escape the urban political scene and prejudice against their gay lifestyle, in 1959 they left their San Francisco apartment and professional careers to homestead on three acres of pastureland in Occidental, California, that Marshall purchased with a $2,300 inheritance.
While neither partner had any formal horticultural training, at Western Hills Lester emerged as a talented garden designer and Marshall as a master plantsman. Over the next 30 years, their unique combination of skills and personalities led to their development of the property into a garden and a place for sharing ideas that inspired a generation of horticulturists and landscape designers.
In addition to their work at the nursery, both men contributed research material and articles to many professional publications including many that appeared in the pages of Pacific Horticulture.
For information on the history of the garden, see "Western Hills at 60" on the Garden Conservancy website.
David Laws (February 25, 2019)
“Green Gables is one of the last remaining turn of the century, San Francisco summer estates. This 74-acre estate located in the most coveted portion of Woodside, California has 7 homes [29 beds, 25 full baths], 3 swimming pools, a reservoir, barn and stables and world-renowned gardens and lands. … This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own what is arguably one of the finest estates in the country right in the heart of the Silicon Valley.”
This real estate listing, mind-boggling even by Silicon Valley standards, is for Green Gables the country home and garden that Charles Sumner Greene designed for the prominent San Francisco Fleishhacker family beginning in 1911. Greene worked on the house and gardens located on the eastern slope of the foothills in the town of Woodside for 25 years. Notable landscape features include a swimming pool (1916) and a formal water garden (1927) that has been described as "one of the finest Arts & Crafts-era gardens in the country."
The water garden is reached down a steep stone stairway leading to a 300-foot long reflecting pool against a backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The south end of the pool is defined by a row of arched stone columns in the style of a Roman aqueduct. Greene also designed other structures and dozens of flower pots and urns placed throughout the gardens. In 2015.
The Gamble House website published an article by CGLHS board member Ann Scheid, “An English house, an Italian garden, on the San Francisco Peninsula” that includes a detailed description of the house and garden. 
In 2004, the Fleishhacker family donated an easement to the Garden Conservancy to protect the historically significant garden and architectural landscape. Current CGLHS board member, Antonia Adezio, founding executive director/president of the Conservancy, headed up the San Francisco office at that time.
The current listing  does not quote a price, but an article in the San Jose newspaper The Mercury News of 2/25/19 says that it is “expected to fetch at least $140 million.” To describe the property with the old real estate cliché as offering a million-dollar view, would vastly understate the opportunity.
 “An English house, an Italian garden, on the San Francisco Peninsula” The Gamble House (June 3, 2015)
 “Unparalleled Silicon Valley Estate” Golden Gate Sotheby's International Realty
David Laws (October 19, 2018)
As with many tourist magnets across the globe, surging crowds are now threatening the very essence of the promise that draws them to the location in the first place. During a visit to Yosemite in early fall, I learned about how the park is addressing this problem that impacts some of its most beloved landscapes.
Communing with nature while jostled by herds of humanity seeking the most favored selfie spot is not what Fredrick Law Olmsted had in mind when, as a commissioner to Congress responsible for Yosemite, in 1865 he wrote; “It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them.”
For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government set aside scenic natural areas to be protected for the benefit of future generations. Roads were built and facilities provided to ease access to the most favored spots. With more than 4 million visitors a year, today Yosemite often resembles a forested theme park more than a sanctuary for the soul. In partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting preservation and managing access in the park, in 2015 work began on the largest protection, restoration and improvement project in park history.
I visited the recently completed $40 million project to improve habitat and visitor experience in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Roads, trails, and buildings encroaching on the roots of the ancient trees have been removed, an ADA-accessible boardwalk constructed, and natural hydrology improved. A shuttle service ferries visitors from a more distant parking area. And while the experience is still far from the pristine forest enjoyed by Olmsted, elimination of vehicles and new trails made of natural surfaces instead of pavement offer do offer 21st century visitors a glimpse of the grove’s original grandeur and serenity.
At Bridalveil Fall sign boards describe plans to upgrade the popular site with improved paths and facilities. I was intrigued by the promise to open unobstructed views of the fall “through the expansion of several vista opportunities and the restoration of historic vistas.”
I met with Yosemite National Park Public Affairs Officer, Scott Gediman, to learn more about this aspect of the restoration program. He described the Scenic Vista Management Plan (SVP) to reestablish and maintain the Park’s iconic views, vistas, and lines of sight that are obscured by vegetation growth. When the park was originally set aside, vegetation patterns were much more open, with unblocked views and open meadows. Early photographs and paintings portrayed open oak woodlands that allowed for easy viewing of granite walls and waterfalls from the valley floor. The mix of meadows and forests throughout the park was maintained by natural wildfires.
Based on criteria of vividness, uniqueness, access, and intactness, the plan established in 2011 identified 93 vista sites appropriate for management where conifer encroachment has obscured previously open vistas. A total of 21 sites had been worked on through 2017. At Scott’s recommendation, I stopped to look at work proceeding on the meadow near the base of El Capitan. Many of the conifers and dead trees had been removed to reveal a view made famous in a photograph by Carlton Watkins that was used on a postage stamp in 1934. With all such projects, the question is what historic era should be chosen for the restoration. In this case, as the current road was completed in 1928, the decision was made to leave all trees established before that date. Details of individual sites are posted on the NPS website from which the picture below is taken.
David Laws (September 14, 2018)
Hayes Perkins who single-handedly created Perkins Park, a waterfront garden in Pacific Grove, California that became internationally famous in the 1960s, worked his way around the world eight times as a manual laborer before settling in the city in 1938. On leaving home at age 15, he had hopped freight trains and worked in fields, mills, mines, plantations, and ranches across the country before setting off to explore the globe by crewing on sailing ships, mining for diamonds in the Congo, and logging the forests of New Guinea for more than 45 years.
Unusually for someone of his humble origins, he was an avid reader and kept a detailed diary of his travels. A friend, Frank Preston of Butler, Pennsylvania, arranged for them to be typed in 1961. Five carbon paper copies of over 2,000 pages each were hard-cover bound into three tomes under the title Here and There. One set is held by the Royal Geographical Society, London. Perkins gave his to the Pacific Grove Public Library in 1962
Perkins’s longest assignments were on William Randolph Hearst’s properties in California. He worked on the construction of both Hearst Castle and the family compound, Wyntoon, near Dunsmuir in the early 1930s. At both locations he came into frequent contact with Hearst, his employees, and the constant stream of visitors from the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment, particularly Hollywood.
His diary entries at this time become more autobiographical in style. They offer unique insights from the perspective of an hourly laborer into the people, politics, and setting of the extraordinary world being created on "La Cuesta Encantada" (The Enchanted Hill). Although he abhorred Hearst’s infatuation with fascist dictators, particularly Mussolini, Perkins describes him as a fair, even a benevolent, employer. However, Perkins spares no kind words for the legions of sycophants and corrupt managers who ruled the roost in Hearst’s absence. He even faults architect Miss [Julia] Morgan for favoring a loud-mouthed foreman over others who were more competent. His descriptions of the debauchery of visiting Hollywood figures and their ravishing of young women invited to party on the hill make Harvey Weinstein look like an amateur. A non-drinker, he was especially troubled by late-night beach landings to replenish the castle liquor cellars during Prohibition. The Coast Guard ignored his whistle blowing for fear of reprisal by Hearst.
I came across Mr. Perkins while trying to understand why the City of Pacific Grove had allowed it’s most unique and universally admired civic asset, Perkins Park, to fall into such disarray. On researching his life and work, I decided that it would make an interesting topic for Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society.
I discovered that Frank Preston’s copy of Here and There, together with hundreds of pages of correspondence, had been donated to the Special Collections and Archives at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Among the many letters between Preston and Perkins, I came across one dated April, 1st 1963 from Preston that asked “I wish you to go to the library and get your diary and cut out the three pages of the “Forward” which I wrote and send it to me.” Noting the date, at first, I wondered if this request was intended as a joke. But apparently not. Preston had been advised by his attorney that much of the content in the book about people could be considered libelous and he might be subject to lawsuits because of his involvement with the publication. He even asked Perkins to remove the name of the book binder so he could not be tracked down that way. Filed together with the letter were the three pages that Perkins had removed from the library and returned as requested.
On my return, I met with Pacific Grove Library director Scott Bauer. We looked at the library copy of Here and There (it is bound into three fat tomes and is kept locked in the reference section) and sure enough the location where the pages had been removed showed ragged edges of torn paper. Scott was pleased to see copies of the three pages that had been missing for 55 years returned to their original home.
Reprinted from the Cedar Street Times, September 14, 2018 page 8
David Laws (August 5, 2018)
It’s not California and I hesitate to call it historic, it’s younger than me, but if you are ever in Victoria, British Colombia and are seeking a more intimate and a little less over-the-top horticultural experience than Butchart Gardens, I recommend a couple of hours strolling the oak-shaded slopes of the Abkhazi Garden just a 15-minute bus ride from downtown.
After her release from a prisoner of war camp near Shanghai in 1945, Marjorie Pemberton-Carter purchased a rocky 1-acre hillside near Victoria and began clearing the land to build a home. A year later she married her childhood friend Nicholas, the exiled hereditary Prince of Abkhazia, Georgia. Over the next 40 years they worked together to transform the site into the garden that “became our child.” With help from the Garden Conservancy, The Land Conservancy of British Colombia purchased the property in 2000.
The following description is taken from the TLC website. “Hidden from the street by a high hornbeam hedge, the garden embraces a natural landscape that is unique to Victoria. The site is blessed with dramatic glaciated rocky slopes, magnificent native Garry oaks and gorgeous vistas and the garden is designed to make the most of these remarkable features It is the Abkhazis’ response to their landscape that qualifies it as a stunning example of West Coast design. The garden flows around the rock, taking advantage of deeper pockets of soil for conifers, Japanese maples and rhododendrons which over the last 50 years have grown to an impressive maturity. Carpets of naturalized bulbs, choice alpines and woodland companions provide interest throughout the year to the discerning plantsman, but it is the overall design that leaves the greatest impression.”
Times vary with the seasons but the garden is open year-round. For more information see the Abkhazi Garden Guide.
Upper Photo: Summer - View of the restored summerhouse, courtesy David Laws
Lower photo: Spring - Azalea garden in bloom, courtesy Linda Abbey
Susan Chamberlin (February 9, 2018)
It is still difficult to comprehend the terrible loss of lives, homes, gardens, property, businesses, wildlife, and the cultural landscape in Montecito that occurred in the early hours of January 9, 2018 as “debris flows” triggered by a 200-year storm event drenching the Thomas Fire burn area tore apart families and the community. This disaster is now known as the Montecito Mudslides.
The cultural and natural landscapes were ravaged. Creek beds were reconfigured by flash floods and denuded in places as their riparian trees and vegetation were carried downstream along with thousands of tons of mud, ash, sandstone boulders (some bigger than SUVs), entire buildings, automobiles, and telephone poles to be deposited as debris in piles up to 20 feet high and 40 feet wide. Many of the trees and hedges that are a distinguishing feature of Montecito (1) are now gone including ancient coast live oak trees (Quercus agrifolia).
The cultural landscape originated following the Chumash Native American Indians because few, if any, traces of them remain. El Montecito was primarily settled by Presidio soldiers on Mexican land grants. Most lived near Montecito Creek, which flowed year-round before Yankee ingenuity privatized its water. Still called “Spanish Town,” the area of modest houses around East Valley Road and Parra Grande Lane (named for the big grapevine that Maria Marcelina Feliz planted in the 1870s) was hit hard. The Montecito Creek watercourse overall (which combines Cold Springs and Hot Springs Creeks) was where many homes and stone bridges were destroyed or damaged and where 16 of the 21 victims lost their lives. (Two remain missing at this writing.) Other entire neighborhoods were decimated along Romero and San Ysidro Creeks.
On the banks of San Ysidro Creek, the San Ysidro Ranch dates back to about 1825. It is advertised as Forbes magazine’s “#1 Favorite Leisure Hotel Anywhere in the World.” Once known for its oranges and later known as the resort where the Kennedys honeymooned, it is not clear if the Stonehouse Restaurant and Plow & Angel (formerly the orange packing house) or how many of its cottages were damaged or destroyed. The citrus grove, the chef’s garden, and other lovely gardens on the grounds are gone.(2)
Many Montecito gardens were created before the Depression during the Golden Age of American Gardens. Casa del Herrero, a National Historic Landmark cultural landscape, “weathered the storm” wrote Jessica Tade, its Executive Director, in an email of 1-12-18. World-famous Lotusland “is fine” with only some paths “washed out” according to a letter to members from CEO Gwen Stauffer. I heard through a friend that Val Verde, Lockwood de Forest’s masterpiece of landscape architecture, lost most of the landscape elements, a cottage, and rare old trees on the level adjacent to Montecito Creek. The formal reflecting pool (also known as the koi pond) below the steps to the house is damaged and filled with mud. He is certain that across the creek at El Fureidis (Betram Goodhue, 1903) the pavilion at the terminus of the iconic water feature was swept away along with plantings. Little altered over the years, Sotto il Monte (originally called La Toscana, A.E. Hanson, 1929) was spared. I do not know the fate of other significant gardens from the Golden Age. Casa Dorinda was one of them before it became a retirement community. Much of the property is said to be okay, although the entrance was wiped out. Ironically the 100-year-old historic, stone bridge to Casa Dorinda (designed by Carleton M. Winslow) survived the debris flows but the new bridge to replace it for code compliance did not.(3) Riven Rock, the former McCormick estate (c. 1897, Warren H. Manning with Dr. F. Franceschi) was subdivided into 34 parcels around1949. Many landscape elements remained until January when much of Riven Rock and at least one stone bridge was reportedly destroyed.
It will take a long time to survey damage to all the historic houses and gardens in Montecito, not to mention numerous contemporary gardens of note. I hope they and their owners are safe.
1. David F. Myrick, Montecito and Santa Barbara, Volume I: Pentrex Media Group, 1988, page 9 is the source of the idea about Montecito’s distinguishing features; this and Myrick’s Volume II (Trans-Anglo Books, 1991) are the best references for the history of Montecito. Information on the Montecito Mudslides is from friends, news reports (many sources), and maps posted online by the Santa Barbara Independent, the County of Santa Barbara, and KEYT News.
2. Bob Hazard, “Fire and Flood, Mud and Debris,” Montecito Journal, vol. 24, no. 3 (18-25 January 2018), 33. Hazard, 28.
The old lemon box label at the head of this update shows the Crocker-Sperry Company’s Las Fuentes Rancho orchards and the mountains behind Montecito, California before the landscape was transformed into the modern landscape we knew prior to January 9, 2018. East Valley Road (Hwy 192) is marked by rows of eucalyptus trees behind the Rancho. In 1967 the Rancho became the Birnam Wood Golf Club development (Thomas D. Church, landscape architect, Robert Trent Jones, golf course designer.) Early on January 9, 2018 flash floods and mudslides called “debris flows” originating in the Thomas Fire burn area descended on Montecito and transformed its landscape in a matter of minutes. In the aftermath of the debris flows, helicopters landed on the Birnam Wood fairways to transport victims to the hospital or to shelters.
National treasures sometimes come in small packages. They’re delightful…but oh so easy to lose. So it is with a private garden of antique roses that colors and scents a gentle 2.5-acre slope in Sebastopol, California.
Some 3,500 different rose varieties are collected here on a plot with a sweeping vista of the Coast Range. They span the entire history of the rose. One finds many of the ancient wild or “species” roses here, as well as old Albas, Gallicas, Damasks and Moss roses, some of which Caesar and Shakespeare knew. The collection is especially rich in China, Tea roses and Hybrid Perpetuals, which bear romantic and mysterious names that reflect the French 19th-century mania for roses grown by Empress Josephine at her chateau at Malmaison. Finally, of course, there are Hybrid Teas bred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many of them impossible to buy or even find today.
Gregg Lowery and his partner, Phillip Robinson, painstakingly gathered this collection over 30 years. They hunted for roses in old cemeteries, farms, homesteads, and nurseries. Then they undertook the painstaking research needed to identify the foundlings. In 1984, somewhat early in their years of collecting, they established a nursery on the state highway leading to Sebastopol. Vintage Gardens, as they named it, enabled them to earn a living off their passion and sustain their prodigious assemblage of plants.
Many public gardens contain far more roses. Yet despite its small footprint, the collection at Vintage Gardens is unmatched anywhere in North America in the scope of its diversity. Only the collection at the Europa-Rosarium Sangerhausen in Germany matches it.
“It’s the most comprehensive collection of roses of all types of classes,” says Stephen Scanniello, author of 20 books about roses and former curator of roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. “Nothing has been assembled like it in any public garden or private garden in the world, with the exception of Sangerhausen.
Vintage Gardens has helped restock many old rose gardens that have been destroyed by disease or lost to changing tastes. A decade ago, curators of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon drew from Vintage Gardens to restore the garden of Hybrid Tea roses chosen by William Randolph Hearst in collaboration with his architect, Julia Morgan. Planted in the 1920s and ‘30s at the Castle, most of these roses had been out of commerce for a half-century.
“Our garden could restore every significant garden of historic roses in the country. On that level it is unique and very special,” Lowery asserts. “There isn’t anything else like it.” On an aesthetic and cultural level, roses have entwined themselves with human history more than any other flower, and the collection in Sebastopol “is a record of human endeavor and passion,” he says. “It’s a gene bank of human creation.”
It is also in danger. Vintage Gardens had to shut down its roadside location in 2006. And its mail-order business will close at the end of 2013. Competition from big box stores, the recession and, to some extent, the waning of interest in older roses have put the endeavor down for the count. And the collection has suffered accordingly. Blackberries are suffocating parts of the garden, and pocket gophers have chewed away the roots of many plants. The collection, which at one time or another has harbored 5,000 varieties of roses, is badly in need of an inventory.
In 2011 Lowery (Robinson moved on to other interests several years ago) was within 20 days of losing the property to foreclosure when some friends stepped in. They purchased the site and agreed to lease the garden for $1 a year to a group of former customers and friends who call themselves Friends of Vintage Roses. The group, formed in 2012, now owns the collection and is seeking nonprofit status to raise money to preserve the trove that Lowery and Robinson assembled. For now, donations may be sent to the Heritage Rose Foundation at heritagerosefoundation.org.
In addition to harboring genetic material that could one day prove useful, Lowery’s roses are windows into human history. On tours of the garden, Lowery often speaks of people and events that were notable when a particular rose arrived on the scene. “He’ll tell you that this rose was popular when Mozart was composing,” says Scanniello, and in his view, the roses of Sebastopol “are heirlooms and pieces of social history, museum pieces…they are van Goghs.”
Andre Stepankowsky is an award-winning writer and city editor of The Daily News of Longview, Washington. He tends two rose gardens and lectures about roses old and new.
Until 1995, I was a person happy in my spot; indeed, a person who believed her spot was just the best, no question. I viewed San Diego the way that famous New Yorker cover viewed the world—mapped in detail for several blocks, then perspective narrowed and shortened until the illustration took a quick dive off an edge.
The far southwestern corner of the Golden State held everything for me—coast, flat lands, “back country,” mountains, desert. Beach cliffs, tide pools, coastal sage, streams, lakes. I thought San Diego lacked for little.
When Bill Grant founded the California Garden and Landscape History Society, I went along for the ride. Soon I was hearing names unknown to me—McLarens, father and son; Farrand; Yoch. Who were these people? What had they done? Gardens were mentioned—Bancroft, Saratoga, Val Verde. Where were they? What did they contain?
I began learning from the first meeting I attended, in November 1996, Botanic Heritage Gems of San Diego. Lucy Warren arranged a visit to archived wonders tucked in the basement of the San Diego History Center. Then we gathered in one of Balboa Park’s “secret” meeting places not often open to the public. When we went around the room to name interests, the answers intimidated: botanist, landscape designer, garden researcher, horticultural librarian, historian. “I want to look at pretty places,” I said.
Over the following fifteen years traveling the state to CGLHS conferences. I have looked aplenty at pretty places. Come travel along.
Unlocking the Treasures Behind the Garden Gates
All about the ranchos, Los Alamitos and Los Cerritos, still here in fiercely urban/suburban Long Beach. David Streatfield gave a talk in a newly restored barn where some of us were seated on prickly hay bales. Once home, I immediately went to his book, California Gardens: Creating a New Eden, and learned more.
I remember walking through whitewashed adobes, their thick walls holding silence. From the preservationist herself, I scored a Frances Grate geranium. It still flourishes in our garden.
Ah, this was the time the historian Tom Brown threw back his head and proclaimed, “There were no mission gardens.” Since then, I never have looked at those misleading things, mission courtyards, in the same way Here we enjoyed a great dinner of locally sourced sausages and vegetables plucked fresh from a plot up the street and drank the esteemed local wines.
Those assembled enjoyed the happiness of wandering adobe-lined Rios Street at dusk, a magic hour that called forth days now vanished. The mood continued through dinner in Carol MacElwee’s original adobe—thank you, Virginia Gardner!—as we listened to songs of early Californios. Gary Lyon treated us to an impromptu tour of the historic O’Neill ranch, showing us a coastal sage vista that stretched forever and an extraordinary cactus garden he’d planted to surround the house.
At the Cantor Center for the Arts we admired Betsy Fryberger’s exhibition on the evolution of garden art that was every bit as fascinating as she had promised. On this, my first visit to Stanford, you could see the way the school grew out of the family estate. Rudolph Ulrich’s Victorian Arizona Garden was a highlight. Former Filoli Director Lucy Tolmach toured us through the Gentleman’s Fruit Orchard there, and we also visited that Craftsman triumph Green Gables. The view of the Santa Cruz hills bewitched.
We wandered over the Mission Inn’s crenellations and enjoyed taste-testing at the UC Citrus Research Station, guided by soon-to-retire Tootie. My friend Beki was so taken by citrus she discovered here that she has now propagated 500 to 600 lime varieties and is well on her way to a commercial 1,000. At Fairmont Park we learned dilapidation teaches, too.
Sandra Price sat us down in the St. Helena School auditorium and speakers related how before the grapes, a variety of crops were farmed in the valley. We toured six private gardens set among ubiquitous vineyards. A late afternoon wine reception at historic Spottswoode estate deepened the spell of this famed part of the state. As I’m claustrophobic, I held back as you all descended into Schramsberg wine caves, but I still learned enough to prefer Schramsberg Brut Rose with buttered popcorn.
Tucked away in hill country, Saratoga revealed itself as a fine retreat for those seeking restoration in the spring waters of a resort town. In the picturesque historic village we met in Old Fireman’s Social Hall, then toured estate gardens, including the impressive Villa Montalvo, and Japanese-style gardens. At Hakone Garden’s moon-viewing pavilion, we participated in the ritual of Japanese tea—an exceptional treat.
Because of this conference, I now drive modest postwar suburban streets hoping to spot remnants of Japanese-style pruning. The lectures were intense forays into American manifestations of Japanese garden styles: estate, teahouse, bungalow, and friendship. We learned about the gardeners who created and maintained them. My friend Nancy Carol Carter used her lunchtime wisely: She darted into an old hardware store and came out with a Japanese grass sickle she uses to slice through thick succulent leaves. As we ate dinner on the garden terrace of the New Otani Hotel, we listened as mystery writer Naomi Hinahara read from her latest novel.
The conference celebrated the beauty and diversity of California’s Eastern Sierra landscape, and few of us there will forget this dramatic mountain, desert, and river valley region, and especially the gardens created by Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar during World War II. Each time we turn on a spigot in these drought-conscious times we’ll remember the changes wrought on the land by the diversion of water from the Owens River into Los Angeles aqueducts.
For me, this conference was dominated by our honoree and founder Bill Grant who orchestrated activities in boom-voice fashion. UC Santa Cruz is renowned for its native plant collection. From those around at the creation, we heard how its wonders came to be and over the years evolved. The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum has a plant store, where I picked up the ‘William Grant’ rose, which is named for Bill.
Garden historian Judith Tankard discussed Farrand with an emphasis on her little-known work in SoCal, including the director’s house at the Huntington (where her husband was library director), and at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. Then our own Ann Scheid showed us around the Farrand-designed portions of Caltech and Occidental College. The lagniappe for me was a stop at Hale Solar Observatory, a Spanish Colonial Revival gem of reinforced concrete with chimney, mission tiles, rough plastered walls, and deeply set windows. Given National Historic Register status, it is now owned and maintained by the architect couple who saved and beautifully restored it.
We traveled by bus down the coast past beach towns and up through a valley of farms and vineyards. Dining in the dramatic setting of a hilltop vineyard, we were entertained by historian Victoria Kastner’s illustrated talk about Hearst Ranch. For me the defining moment was realizing at the Dana Adobe that to preserve the original viewscape is as important as saving the house and garden and that an historic vista can be equally worthy of national registration and preservation.
For me, the high point came on a sweltering day as we sat in the Quarry Hills greenhouse enthralled by tales told by a plant hunter who travels to discover seeds and brings them back to the lab for propagation. Again, our backseat filled with plants, this time from the impressive native plant nursery, California Floral.
Third-generation inhabitant Bob Boro’s passion shone as he showed us around the Fig Garden area and entertained us in his own Tower District home. I especially remember strolling in Kearney Park under a tunnel of century-old olive trees, imagining how it would feel to ride through the allée in a horse-drawn carriage. The Clark Center of Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, now closed forever, impressed with its Torii gates, stroll garden, and fabled art collection.
The draw for me was the Ruth Bancroft Garden. What an avid gardener and record-keeper! What she created was exceptional in her time, and with its many water-conserving plants is especially relevant today. At 105 years of age and from her wheelchair, Bancroft was still planting up pots to be sold to help maintain the property. Richard Turner showed us around as he recounted the story of his discovering the garden and how the non-profit Garden Conservancy sprang from a need to preserve this horticultural treasure.
As we hurried to the opening lecture on our first evening, moist night air carried the scent of coastal sage scrub characteristic of this landscape. With hills hugging close to the sea, Santa Barbara is plein air in real time. All the de Forests knew the magic intimately and showed its gentle beauty and strength on canvas and on the land. Sidney Baumgarten inherited the de Forest “Buffalo” roadster and had it on special display in her driveway. The walk through her house to get to the back garden jolted me. I remember reading 1980s’ design magazines showcasing her work, and now I realize how much my décor is stamped with her influence.
As I read through this list of conferences and tours-and-talks, memories tumble, ideas emerge. Was it at Sonoma that the Luther Burbank house garden grew or was that Jack London’s house I remember? The evening reception in a WPA-built clubhouse: Was that in Monterey or somewhere outside San Luis Obispo? Enlightenment came on journeys to and from sites—vivid orange poppy fields on the way to Lompoc, golden September hills around Walnut Creek, surfers wave-riding Mussel Shoals’ white water.
And then there are all those CGLHS folks who took me in hand and taught me—Marlea Graham, Laurie Hannah, Margaret Mori, Susan Chamberlin, Glenda Jones, Judy Horton: thank you! The backseat plants expand our garden in diversity, a match for my expanding knowledge of the state’s diversity. When a news item names a city or section of California, that name resonates because I can recall where that place is, what it looks like now, and a little bit of times past.
What does my California now feel like? Enlarged. Enriched. My part of California is still the nest, but now other parts—your part—look pretty fine, too. Through these conferences, as a group, we’ve stitched together patches of my, your, our California into one big state garden and landscape quilt.
We still answer David C. Streatfield’s call to arms at our first conference. California’s gardens and landscapes are worth our passion and celebration. This year in San Diego!
Thea Gurns maintains she is a charter member of CGLHS, as it’s not her fault the application was lost in the mail and she missed the 1995 organizational meeting!
CGLHS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization
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