. . . one of my true heroes—a wizard in the garden.
Warren Roberts, superintendent
The Arboretum, UC Davis
Pull into the parking lot across from the Sacramento Zoo, and you’ll likely see young parents pushing strollers or leading noisy toddlers to nearby Fairytale Town.
But glance ever so slightly down the road, and the landscape changes dramatically. The swards of lawn abruptly give way to a riot of foliage and flower: spiky phormiums in bronze and green; silvery artemisias sweeping through borders like foamy waves; strappy agapanthus carpeting the ground; salvias spreading their lax branches across barberries, manzanita, and yucca; rock roses with crepe-papery flowers dancing above crinkly foliage; clumps of nicotiana looming over the paths; and poppies in cream and pink and yellow basking in the sun. There are no sidewalks, no grass to mow, and no geometrically arranged beds of mop-headed annuals. Instead, a network of dirt paths entices you in with promises of beautiful flowers and exciting foliage. Delicious scents lure you around the next corner. Plants spill out of the beds and come up along the edges of the paths. Seedlings insinuate themselves into crevices.
A simple wood-framed sign announces your arrival at the WPA Rock Garden. Located in Sacramento’s William Land Park, it is the creation of a Sacramento gardener and park employee, Daisy Mah. Nothing in Mah’s job title—she is a lead park person for the city of Sacramento—even hints at gardening, but Mah has turned a rough and tumble patchwork of overgrown ivy, juniper and weeds into a peaceful paradise where visitors amble slowly down the paths. Squabbling hummingbirds dart in and out; birds and butterflies feel welcome. It is a cottage-style garden with a decidedly California/Mediterranean twist. Filled with thousands of shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, and trees that revel in Sacramento’s intense summer heat, the garden offers visitors sights and aromas galore in all seasons.
So significant has been her accomplishment that no one talks about the WPA Rock Garden without reverently mentioning Daisy Mah in the same sentence. The garden and Mah have become interchangeable, as though they were one and the same. And, although Mah named the garden in honor of the men and women of the Works Progress Administration who constructed the paths and walls in 1940, most people call it the Daisy Mah garden.
Mah’s supervisor first showed her the garden, which had been neglected for years, in 1988. Ivy (Hedera), hypericum, and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) ran rampant through the beds and had gobbled up the few remaining scraggly shrubs. Only the junipers were tough enough to compete with the land-grabbing vines. Much of the ivy had reached the adult stage where it ceases to vine, grows like a shrub, and puts out flowers and fat, blue black berries.
An artist by training, Mah was impressed with the one-acre site’s infrastructure of curving paths flanked by low granite walls. Slim, snaky streams slipped under many of the paths. The garden had possibilities, Mah thought, if she took out the ivy, planted some flowers, and did some serious weeding. “It was pretty charming, and I’m a pushover for anything WPA,” she recalls. “I had little experience with ornamental plants, but I had a few plants from my garden I could contribute. My supervisor didn’t think it was worth putting a lot of time and effort into. But I decided to try it anyway.”
Mah’s success—despite her inexperience—really began with her fierce determination and a tendency, as she puts it, “to bite off more than I should.” Just as she started to rehabilitate the garden, the city announced wide-ranging budget cuts; money for gardening was not high on the priority list. Also, Northern California was in the throes of a long drought. Mah realized that she would have to fend for herself, if she wanted to turn the site into a showplace.
She signed up for a propagation class at a local junior college and learned to take cuttings and start plants from seed. “I grew a lot of common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) from seed, and even collected seed for lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina). There was a gray santolina in the garden, so I took cuttings.” The santolina was the only plant worth retaining in the garden when she began working on it.
She scooped up plants tossed into the street for garbage pickup and scavenged plants from the gutters. She scoured catalogs and magazines for ideas. She wrote grants to get money to buy plants. And, when the Park was unable to lend Mah the manpower to cut trees or prune or weed, she found volunteers.
She joined the local Perennial Plant Club and met the horticulturists at the University of California’s Davis Arboretum, including Arboretum superintendent Warren Roberts. Mah and Roberts traded cuttings, seeds, and advice.
At first, Mah planted anything that caught her eye. “There was no theme; I planted whatever I wanted,” she said. “I worked so hard that first summer, but, in the following winter, the garden looked terrible. It was so bleak. I hadn’t been there long enough to anticipate what was going to happen in winter. I thought I’d have to hide, because it was so ugly.”
Mah quickly learned to choose plants that were adapted to Sacramento’s climate (Sunset zone 14, USDA hardiness zone 9). Sacramento Valley winters are relatively mild, with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing for long periods. Summers, on the other hand, are harsh, hot, bright, and long, with no rain from April until November. Mah learned to look for plants with many seasons of interest, colorful fall foliage, or interesting winter bark. A lot of perennials are striking in their dormant stages, so she leaves the seed heads or dying foliage as long as they look good. She learned to choose plants that do not require special soil or that are adaptable to a variety of conditions. She learned to appreciate common plants.
When I started, I was going to remove things like New Zealand flax (Phormium) because it was so common. I thought I’d specialize in things that were rare or weird, and even thought of doing an alpine garden; I had no idea that alpine plants would either die in the heat or get trampled to death. I’ve learned to appreciate and love common plants that are tough enough to survive here.
For cohesiveness, Mah plants in generous clumps, and repeats a number of the plants throughout the garden. “I like to plant fifty of one kind of plant and mass them throughout the garden. It creates a natural look and adds continuity.” She also lets plants reseed, being careful not to let anything become an aggressive thug. For example, the nicotiana (Nicotiana sylvestris) that fills the corner of one bed has seeded a few plants into the next bed and several along the paths, as though Mother Nature dropped the seeds while strolling by.
Mah concentrates most of her efforts on the border along the street, where she created a green and white composition that relies mainly on foliage. The plants are packed tightly together, completely covering the ground (thereby reducing time spent on weeding). In contrast, Mah likes to leave a bit of openness in the interior beds so visitors can enjoy broader views within the garden.
In many of the beds, California native shrubs and trees form the backbone. Mah avoids gaudy, overly hybridized flowers, using instead smallish flowers that fit the naturalistic look of the garden, and insists on plants that grow gracefully. She wants the garden to look as if nature had designed and planted it. Color combinations are generally limited, although she has been adding hotter colors lately. “I use orange now. For years I wouldn’t touch anything orange—too gaudy, I thought. Now I have yellows and reds and purple to offset the other colors.”
As in most gardens, plants in the WPA Rock Garden outgrow their boundaries or die and have to be replaced. Mah is constantly phasing out certain plants and introducing new ones. She has been experimenting with California native annuals grown from seed and planted in great sweeps through the beds. She’s introduced tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), clarkia, five-spot (Nemophila maculata), and baby blue eyes (N. menziesii).
Like most gardeners, Mah keeps extending the boundaries of the garden. She recently adopted a nearby bed dominated by a huge valley oak. The bed had been planted with rows and rows of brightly colored annuals until budget cuts forced the city to abandon such labor-intensive practices. Nevertheless, park officials wanted something planted there, so they asked Mah to fill it with groundcovers. “I just don’t like groundcovers in general, but I was driving past the American River one day and saw sweeps of grasses and fennel and elderberries and thought I’d do something like that under the valley oak.” She did, and it worked.
She also reclaimed an arundo-infested, five thousand square foot island in the middle of the duck pond. Unfortunately, the ducks destroyed her initial plantings of dogwoods (Cornus) and fescue (Festuca). Today, the island is tightly planted with callas (Zantedeschia), cannas, willow (Salix) and sago palms (Cycas revoluta). The ducks and Mah have reached a truce: Mah plants some things for them, some for the garden. Eventually, Mah devised “duck-proof” planters in another pond to grow water lilies and lotus.
Budget cuts and ducks are the least of Mah’s problems. With no gates or fences around the park or the garden, roving bands of teens often cut through the garden at night, trampling plants and leaving litter scattered about. Kids play hide and seek in the beds, unaware or unmindful of the plants they destroy. Fishermen dismantle the rock walls in search of worms in the soft soil. Others steal plants from the garden. Mah claims that the vandals have helped her design the garden: she plants tall, sturdy plants to discourage people from cutting across beds, and spiny, prickly things in the corners of beds to discourage them from taking shortcuts.
While money is still tight, Mah managed to convince the city to pay for a limited irrigation system so she would not have to drag hoses through the whole garden three times a week. She is now collecting funds to build an arbor and a bench at the site of a small, unused pond.
Mah shakes her head in wonder as she remembers her early years in the garden and realizes how casually she decided to take on a project that has taken her on a sixteen-year horticultural journey. The WPA Rock Garden is a jewel in the crown for Sacramento, and Mah is now one of the community’s respected, experienced, and beloved gardeners.
Mah worries what will happen to the garden when “the crazed gardener retires.” Certainly, it will be a huge order to fill Mah’s diminutive shoes.