What greater pleasure could there be for garden enthusiasts than to spend a day visiting the gardens of others?
RGT, Open Days Directory, West Coast Edition
When we first considered opening our garden, it was merely to share it with the neighbors and the many people who walk the long hill on which we live. Every day, heads bobbed over the five-foot tall hedge separating our garden from the street. Many would stop at the gate and peer in, and many asked questions.
When we bought the property five years ago, it was an abandoned horse pasture covered in weeds growing in clay soil. We had little time to spend on the garden, but we needed to get into the ground the many potted plants that I had moved along with our household belongings. We started planting them on the slope near the house, since that was the only place we could reach with a hose.
We asked tree companies to dump their truckloads of shredded tree trimmings all over the acre in front of the house. The steaming piles of mulch decomposed into rich soil while we were ignoring them. Eventually, my husband dug trenches and ran water lines out to hose bibs at several locations in the garden. We always water by hand with hoses, so that we choose what to water when. Our nutrient‑rich clay soil holds water well; we have frequently been surprised at how little water many plants actually need.
Since then, we have planted about sixty roses, over 800 hybrid bearded iris (along with many other iris species), many uncommon shrubs and perennials, and over thirty fruit trees, some quite unusual; we grow many of our own vegetables as well.
Opening the Gate
We first put a sign in front of the gate, inviting people in to view the garden during the main flowering season for the iris, roses, some of the spring bulbs, and the last of the fruit trees. On the first few days, people who regularly walk the hill and several neighbors came in. They humbled us with their thanks and gratitude. They talked about watching the garden develop and how curious they had been to see it from inside. Some commented that they had loved seeing the horses here. Then, after years as a vacant, weedy field, the strange piles of mulch appeared, and a garden developed.
An article on iris appeared in the local newspaper, along with photos of our garden. The response was beyond our expectations. People came from all over northern California, from other states and other countries. They brought their house guests; they brought their mothers on Mothers Day. Some were in town on business, had read the article, and wanted to spend part of their weekend in our garden. Most wanted to talk about the garden and the plants. And they all had questions.
I am a University of California master gardener, which means I can usually tell someone how to find answers to most questions, most of the time. I do know the plants in my garden, however, and many visitors wanted to know the names of plants that were also in their gardens. One gentleman walked around the garden with me, asking the names of several plants, some planted in his garden by the birds. Pleased with my answers, he returned an hour later with a grocery bag full of plants for me to identify. He has since become an avid gardener, and we have had many wonderful garden visits with him.
A young woman arrived one afternoon with a piece of flannel bush (Fremontodendron). She and her husband had purchased land and were rebuilding. She had seen this plant on a trip, had taken a cutting, and now wanted it identified so she could plant one in her new garden. She was sad at having to loose a willow and some roses due to construction. We talked about saving the roses and about taking cuttings of the willow that could be rooted in large containers for replanting when the house was finished. She stayed three hours.
Visitors From Afar
Many have brought their parents, some visiting this country for the first time. A man from India wanted me to know that he had arrived the day the original story appeared in the paper; because of the photographs, he asked his children to translate it for him. He then told them that this was the one place he wanted to visit while he was in the United States. The whole family came.
Two young men, thirtyish I suspected, came into the garden, each holding the arm of an older man (who was quite capable of walking on his own). They were smiling grandly and soon came over to chat. One rushed ahead, telling me, “This is our father; he just arrived from Iran this week. He saw the news story and asked us to read it to him. He is so excited! He loves gardening; he said he wanted to come here. Look! Can you see how excited he is?” I talked to them a bit and explained the layout of the garden. They took off, arm in arm, to stroll the meandering paths through the flowering iris. From time to time, one would run back, almost giggling, saying “Look at him; he’s so excited. He’s really enjoying this.” What I saw was that they were so excited; their tremendous love for their father, and their obvious pleasure at being able to show him something he enjoyed, was touching.
A family of three generations—grandmother to teenage girl—visited once. While talking with other guests, I heard her father say, “well go ask her.” I asked if she had a question. She was carrying a clipboard and explained that she had a big school project involving plants. She was not sure where or how to begin and was afraid she was going to get an “F” on it. It was the final project, counting for most of her grade for the year. We began talking about her project, roaming all over the garden examining plants, talking about how they reproduce, their structure, and their cultural requirements. We talked about where she should look to find information on her own, and discussed ideas for presenting the project. She was excited to think that she might get a good grade. As she was about to leave, she mentioned that her teacher had urged her to include bougainvillea in the study. I showed her that the colorful parts of the bloom were actually bracts, and that the tiny white center was the flower. At this point, she said she knew her teacher did not know that, and now she was sure she was going to get an “A.” Asked if her teacher would be pleased to learn something new from a student, she assured me that “he really likes that.” About three months later, her father dropped by to let me know that she had gotten an “A” on her project.
Many photographers have come to the garden. One photographer took the bus from San Francisco and spent the entire day taking photos in the garden. A few were so kind as to bring me a sample of their work or mail a card with one of the photographs on it. Several e-mailed me their digital photos. Several people have said that I should not allow others to take photographs for their own profit. The reason we opened the gates to our private garden was to share it with others; the photographers just share it more.
An Outdoor Classroom
As a master gardener, I work with schools, and teachers I’ve met often come to the garden. At one point, I had a classroom project to share with one of them, so I brought out the supplies and handouts for a quick, in-garden lesson. Two other women asked what we were doing. She explained that I was her master gardener school advisor and was training her. As it turned out, they were teachers as well, so we all began dissecting and mounting flowers.
Among the most frequently asked questions are “Where is your sprinkler system? How could you possibly water all of this by hand?” I explain that we try to plant things that fit reasonably well into our climate and don’t need much water. This results in a lot of conversations about water conservation, a familiar theme from our work as master gardeners. We use the most water in our garden on the vegetables we grow.
Many ask why there are so many bees, birds, and butterflies in our garden and not in theirs. Invariably, they had been using chemical sprays in their gardens, but were unaware that such practices kill butterflies and bees just as easily as they kill the “undesirable insects.” We also talk about mixing eggplants, peppers, herbs, and other edibles in among the flowers. This encourages birds, bees, and other natural pollinators, as well as beneficial insects that eat unwanted insects pests. Many of the vegetables in our garden are Mediterranean in origin and require less water. I really enjoy seeing big purple eggplants and long green peppers mixed among the blooms. Our chickens spark more conversations about care for the earth. We feed them garden scraps, weeds, and vegetable and fruit peelings, and the chickens produce compost for the garden, along with fresh eggs.
On occasion, we have had young couples visit; the girls wanted to come, but the boys were clearly less enthused. I always suggest that they amuse themselves by making up sentences or stories using only the hybrid names of the iris in our collection. They giggle and start doing just that, each trying to outdo the other, and end up staying for hours and asking lots of interesting questions—in spite of their original discomfort.
Sharing With Friends
Nancy Garrison, master gardener program coordinator for Santa Clara County, arrived one evening at closing time, and we strode off on a tour of the garden. She asked who all the people were who were sitting around talking to us; “are they your friends?” I told her that they were just people who came to see the garden; most we had not met before today. An hour later, as we came back to the gate, she said, “Guess what. They think they’re your friends now.” And so it goes.
We have, indeed, become friends with many of our visitors, considering ourselves lucky to have met so many wonderful people. After all, gardeners do tend to be good people. Have there been problems? Yes, but only a few.
I always ask photographers to stay on the paths and not step on plants—even the ones that they’re not photographing behind them. A few pick flowers to ask me for their names, not thinking that, if everyone here picked the flowers they wanted identified, there would be none left in the garden. One small group of visitors thought they were entitled to eat the cherries from a young tree that had never produced before. Yet, for every individual who does something we don’t like, there are several hundred who are truly wonderful guests and whose visit is a pleasure for us.
We are usually exhausted when an open day is over, having talked with people non-stop all day. In our own small way, we share a lot of information about gardening, and we learn a lot also—which is what being a master gardener is really all about.
We know we have had visitors from all over California, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Indiana, and from lndia, Iran, Russia, Australia, England, and Spain. Sharing our garden allows us to connect with people from different places and cultures, and it makes us aware of how alike we all really are. When we speak the language of flowers, we all understand.
If you, too, are passionate about gardening, or just wish more people were conscious about taking care of the earth and the creatures in their own yards, consider opening your garden as an opportunity for sharing your experiences and your passion with others.