A Garden of Small Miracles

By: Terrel Brand Gillian Garro

Terrel Brand is a plant ecologist, native plant garden designer, and partner in Oaktown Native Plant Nursery. He has been…

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Gillian Garro is a principal in the Oakland landscape design/build firm of Larman/ Garro. Additionally, she is chair of the…

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A mahagony-trunked manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) dominates the front garden; a New Zealand flax (Phormium) echoes its colors, while monkey flowers (Mimulus) and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) brighten the scene in spring. Photographs by Terrel Brand

A mahagony-trunked manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) dominates the front garden; a New Zealand flax (Phormium) echoes its colors, while monkey flowers (Mimulus) and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) brighten the scene in spring. Photographs by Terrel Brand

There may be alligator lizards living in our Oakland garden. We have seen two. The first we found injured a few years ago; thinking him a lonely survivor, we relocated him to the hills to protect him from cats. Less than a year later, we found another, this time ushering him into the front garden, which is densely planted and impenetrable enough that he would have a fighting chance. The billows of monkeyflower, Cleveland sage, California fuchsia, and tarweed, the thick native grasses, and the rocks have a small reptilian mystery at their core. We haven’t seen our lizard since we released him, but we hope he’s still there, and others as well.

Vegetables thrive in their sunny raised beds, backed by the open, goodneighbor fence

Vegetables thrive in their sunny raised beds, backed by the open, goodneighbor fence

We have spent the last nineteen years creating a garden that supports such small miracles. When house-hunting in 1986, a primary criterion was plenty of gardening space. We found a comfy 1910 Craftsman in Gertrude Stein’s old neighborhood east of Lake Merritt; the 6,800-square-foot lot faced northeast, with a deep back yard and decent frontage, sloping gently upward from the street. It was probably once mixed oak woodland and grassland. A fine coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the front yard is likely a remnant of this original community. The back yard, however, had long since surrendered to a colony of blackwood acacias (Acacia melanoxylon), our first challenge.

While clearing the acacias, we began planning. Terrel envisioned a native California habitat; Gillian wanted vegetable beds, fruit trees, and roses. To organize the garden space, we gravitated to art critic Lucy Leppard’s idea of centric design. We also love the strong axes that divide the frames in Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings, so we established a pair of paths, one running off-center the length of the yard, and one at right angles toward the back. Nestled in the resulting angle we created a flat circular plateau with a berm around most of the perimeter—our future wild garden.

California fuchsia (Zauschneria) sparkles in the front garden in late summer

California fuchsia (Zauschneria) sparkles in the front garden in late summer

Building a Garden

Several construction projects over the next few years set the stage for the back garden’s growth. We rebuilt the garage as a storage shed. The patio area was completed with adobe pavers encircled by a low boulder wall and outcropping. New french doors opened the dining room to the patio beneath a massive grape arbor running across the rear of the house (the Concords are superb). We built an openwork fence/rose arbor at the back yard’s southern property line, connecting the visual space with our neighbors’ yard. We all enjoy the views and often visit through a low gate.

Our garden is now densely planted. In the back, fruit trees and a vegetable garden dominate the east side; the west side is mostly a “wild garden.” Our original straight longitudinal path evolved into a zigzag that roughly divides the tame from the wild, and wends diagonally from the patio to the back of the property, where compost and utility areas hide behind a screening fence. The wild part of the garden sends pollinators, aphid-eaters, and compost to the food garden. Terrel starts his morning rounds by taking the kitchen

View from the vegetable garden back to the terrace

View from the vegetable garden back to the terrace

Terrel starts his morning rounds by taking the kitchen scraps out to the compost pile, covering them with dry leaves and clippings. Then he uncovers the pond (screened for protection from raccoons) and spends a few minutes taking in the garden’s news, often walking the paths that encircle and cross the garden, to visit its little places and see it from different angles.

A diverse meadow occupies our circular glade, enclosed by a screen of mostly native shrubs and trees, with our small pond in the center. Star performers in early spring are Ceanothus ‘Sierra Beauty’ and birch-leafed mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), both studded with blooms and humming with bumblebees. Forward of the meadow’s edge, the terrain slopes away to a large cabbage tree (Cordyline australis), a venerable specimen original to the property, and a great nesting tree for finches and wrens. The meadow is composed of a mix of several native grasses and a slowly changing assortment of perennials and forbs. Yampah (Perideridia kelloggii) is the wise elder of the meadow, tough and prolific, and larval host for anise swallowtail butterflies. We’re always adding annual flower seed. For a few years, various clarkias dominated the summer scene. Last year was the year of the tarweeds (Madia elegans). A forest! Sticky, aromatic, incredibly floriferous.

In the early morning the tarweeds unfurl their rays and face the east. As the temperature warms, the digger bees arise from their night-torpor and get busy—very busy—filling their pollen baskets until they look like golden teddy bears zooming from little sun to little sun. But, then, the real sun rises, the ray flowers curl their ligules tight over the pollen-bearing disc flowers and the harvest moves on to the sunflowers and rudbeckias.

The old garden had an ancient Camellia japonica, now vigorously resprouting after rot took down the main trunks. It bloomed from November to May, its hundreds of waxy pink-red flowers dripping with nectar. Squirrels sometimes joined the ants and bees and hummers at the feast. The brush of stamens covered their noses with golden dust. Streetside In the front garden, we removed the straight-shot entry walk and replaced it with a sinuous diagonal in mortared quartz flagstone, bordered with moss- and lichen-covered boulders. We planted a backdrop of pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), with grasses and poppies for groundcover. Then our centerpiece arrived unexpectedly. Gillian’s landscape firm did an installation at the San Francisco Landscape Garden Show for the California Native Plant Society that explored the use of manzanitas in gardens. Featured was a mature manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) salvaged from development in the Redding area by specimen plantsman extraordinaire Joe Arnez. There were no takers for this unusual item in the after-show plant sale (“it won’t last a year,” said the CNPS skeptics), so we adopted it and planted it in our front yard on a built-up terrace behind a massive extension of the entry rockery, cradled in a cubic yard of scoria to protect it from our East Bay clay. If it lasted, it would make the garden. We crossed all our fingers and began to fill in the rest of the plantings.

The manzanita has been with us for fifteen years. It grew and flourished, but is now declining, still exquisite in its senescence. Along with the flowering shrubs massed around this grand dame, we have recently been developing the front of the space into another little meadow of native grasses, forbs, and perennials similar to the glade in back. Particularly beautiful is a stand of tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) that waves a cloud of airy flowering stems above deep green clumps.

In the late summer, the garden ripens. Where monkey-flower and clarkia and wild hyacinth in the front garden made a gaudy bouquet in spring, now the grasses turn to silver and gold, harvesting the afternoon light. The dark mass of New Zealand flax in the background intensifies their glow.

The northwest side of the house had an old but substantial screen of Cotoneaster pannosus, with a bold pattern of heavy trunks along most of the length of the house. We left that in place, adding, over the years, a number of other tall shrubs, including a now huge and craggy  butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), several flowering maples (Abutilon), three species of fuchsias (Fuchsia arborescens, F. boliviana, F. splendens), and a Western hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), that mingled into the cotoneaster scaffolding, creating a wildly mixed mass of foliage that is beloved by hummers, gleaning birds, berry-eating birds, butterflies, and, of course, squirrels. We’ve reduced the cotoneaster in favor of the other shrubs and a massive sport of tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) with leaves the size of saucers, planted from seed in 1993 and now over twenty feet tall.

A simple gravel path leads into the meadowy glade in the rear garden

A simple gravel path leads into the meadowy glade in the rear garden

The structural spine of much of the garden is California natives (forty percent by species, of which about half occur locally), but there are other motifs in the weave. Relics of Terrel’s houseplant days, several bromeliads that had trundled along through multiple moves went into the ground near the patio where they thrive with wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), Japanese anemone (Anemone x japonica), wild huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Western hazelnut, Rhododen-dron austrinum, and other understory plants in the shade of a burgeoning valley oak (Quercus lobata). A likewise peripatetic Meyer lemon, at death’s door in a decrepit wooden box, sprang to life when we put it in the ground. Gillian’s landscape work has also generated a continual stream of interesting additions to the garden.

On warm, late-spring evenings, the willow pittosporum invites you with a honeyed scent, its trailing branches glowing faintly as the burden of yellow flowers slips into the early darkness. Noctuid moths with sand-colored wings take nectar in the crown, showing ruby eyes in the flashlight’s beam.

Though both the general planting concept and much of the content were established fairly early on, planting the garden has been a long process. We move pretty slowly and watch how things turn out before adjusting course. The result has been that plantings have had time to settle in (for themselves and for us), providing a strong context for the many changes we’ve made along the way. There has been a sense of organic evolution extending beyond our reasoned decisions to the garden’s own logic. Several species, grasses in particular, have moved around the garden on their own (well, sometimes with a  little experimental nudge), and it has been nice to see them find their niche. Whether mostly natives or not, each bed has developed a settled “nativeness” of its own.

Tarweeds (Madia elegans) in early morning, with a buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) at their feet

Tarweeds (Madia elegans) in early morning, with a buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) at their feet

Alive With Life

Our garden has become both rich in species and diverse in structure, with many nooks, crannies, thickets, leaf-drifts, perches, and pathways through the grasses and through the treetops. And, of course, it offers a lot in flower and fruit and seed. One of our great pleasures is learning how different plants are used by other creatures, and we try to be conscious of this when choosing new ones to add to the mix.  We certainly do not lack for visitors. The  garden is extremely rich in insects: native bees, wasps, hover flies, crane flies, soldier flies bumbling about the compost pile, flies that mine the columbines, flies that mine the chard, moths and butterflies, beetles, and bugs, including two new ones this year attracted to our tarweeds. It is also rich in spiders that eat the insects, and birds that eat the spiders and the insects (and everything else).  One day, a brilliant black and yellow oriole was seen furiously chasing a brilliant black and yellow anise  swallowtail. The bushtits sometimes feed on the spittlebugs, their beaks flecked with froth. Once, while cleaning out the pond, Terrel rescued a damselfly larva that had miraculously survived the mosquito fish. It got its own bucket for protection, but what would happen when the pond was refilled? A little while later, it climbed up onto a floating grass-stalk, unfurled new wings and flew away.

View from the vegetable garden back to the terrace

View from the vegetable garden back to the terrace

Stewardship

Often the boundary between stewardship and intrusion blurs and we are forced to  re-evaluate our role here. While raking up November leaves, Gillian revealed a profusion of tiny melic grasses sprouting along the path edges and was reminded that a simple garden cleanup is in fact a series of profound choices. Each damp leaf cluster incubates new life; every dry autumn stalk is strikingly beautiful. When is the right time to cut back?

One day, a brilliant black and yellow oriole was seen furiously chasing a brilliant black and yellow anise  swallowtail. The bushtits sometimes feed on the spittlebugs, their beaks flecked with froth.

So we juggle both reverence and practicality. We spend a lot of time in the garden: weeding, planting, harvesting leaf-fall from the paths, mulching, pruning, and seeding. Because the garden is on a gentle north slope and gets shade from neighboring trees, light is at a premium, and we help keep the peace by regularly pruning burgeoning canopies. There are many plants that would probably be shaded out or otherwise bumped by their more vigorous  garden-mates if we didn’t do this.

We water sparingly: our three “wet” beds—a bit less than half the garden—get a biweekly watering in summer from a simple soaker hose system; roses and fruit trees get their deep soaks; and, of course, the veggie garden gets a lot of (hand) watering. The rest of the garden depends on natural rainfall. As summer drying progresses, we have to resist the temptation to pour water on the shriveling monkeyflowers. This has become easier as we’ve learned to love the colors of late summer: brown, grey, gold, and silver. Look out the back door in summer. The patio is basking in sun, adobe pavers are surrounded by grey boulders, the glaucous blue-white of white sage, the violet spires of Teucrium hircanicum and the scarlet stars of Silene  laciniata. Beyond, the orchard is a wall of shade. A  window in this screen opens to the sunlit glade around the pond. The deep recesses are again in shade.

Look out the back door in summer. The patio is basking in sun, adobe pavers are surrounded by grey boulders, the glaucous blue-white of white sage, the violet spires of Teucrium hircanicum and the scarlet stars of Silene  laciniata. Beyond, the orchard is a wall of shade. A  window in this screen opens to the sunlit glade around the pond. The deep recesses are again in shade.

We insinuate ourselves into the garden’s rhythms because we want to belong here. At the same time we try to behave like good guests. We practice patience. Last year, we acquired two comfortable chairs to help us be still. We sit and listen and watch the garden being itself.