Traveling along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through the middle of Marin County, motorists pass a serpentine brick wall in the middle of the town of Ross. What appears to be a private residence or club is actually a public jewel, a magical place: the Marin Art and Garden Center. MAGC (pronounced magic) is a property with an intriguing history and a dichotomous personality. Known to many as a beautiful site for weddings, gatherings, or simply strolling, it is not as well recognized as the diverse horticultural gem that it is—resplendent with heritage trees, an abundance of plants and growing environments punctuated with interesting historic buildings, and host to varied programs and activities related to the arts, history, horticulture, and environmental conservation.
The horticultural bounty of the center is made possible, in part, by coastal California’s mild mediterranean climate, by a site with a multitude of microclimates and growing conditions, and by water supplied from reliable wells. The treasure trove of mature trees, both native and ornamental, buffer afternoon winds and provide cool, dappled to shady planting sites adjacent to open sunny ones. A seasonal stream, Kittle Creek, bisects the property, providing riparian habitat and wild lands intersected by a nature trail along the eastern boundary. The serpentine walls that border the center were modeled after English-styled “crinkle-crankle walls,” said to provide greater strength, efficiency of materials, and beauty without the need for buttressing, while enabling plants to grow nestled in the alcoves.
One half of the Center’s dual personality presents a lush environment reminiscent of the formal gardens of bygone days. The other is current and topical—focused on sustainable gardening practices, native and low-water-use plants, and on educating the public about the importance of environmental stewardship.
Entering the Center along the main pathway, visitors are immediately enveloped in beauty, tranquility, and a pervading sense of timeless graciousness. Your eye is drawn upwards to a towering dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) that canopies a Victorian gazebo and beds brimming with vividly colored perennials, annuals, and bulbs. As you stroll through the nearly eleven acres of grounds, you are aware of a peaceful spaciousness intermingled with an abundance of seemingly secret spaces. You happen upon the bustle of activity from resident art, history, and horticultural groups involved in a plethora of events that take place in a variety of settings: a theater in a renovated barn, an outdoor amphitheater in a grove of redwood trees, an art gallery, an art and horticulture library in an octagonal tank house, a number of garden demonstration areas, and meeting rooms with enchanting garden views.
Starting with a Vision
The Marin Art and Garden Center had its origin in the 1940s as a dream of Caroline Livermore and Gladys Smith, two active and enthusiastic members of the Marin Conservation League. Using the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park as a model, they envisioned a self-supporting colony of artists and craftsmen creating and selling their wares within a park-like setting. As America was embroiled in a world war at the time, they also saw it as a “living memorial” to those who had sacrificed their lives in service to their country.
Once owned by James Ross, in 1863 the land went to his daughter Annie and her husband George Worn, Ross’s business partner. While their house, “Sunnyside,” was being constructed, the Worns lived in an octagonal structure built over a well, and began planning and planting extensive gardens. By 1882, faced with financial difficulties, they sold their beloved home and land to the Kittle family. After a devastating fire in 1931, the Kittles tore down what remained of the main house, leaving only a barn and the “Octagon House.” None of the Kittle family wanted to rebuild, and the property remained idle for the next fifteen years. In 1941, Caroline Livermore rallied to preserve the beautiful and historic property, replete with its lovely, though languishing, gardens and irreplaceable trees. Within two years, she had brought together eight autonomous groups and purchased the property. The Marin Art and Garden Center was incorporated in 1945 as a living memorial, its primary mission to promote appreciation for and education in the arts, horticulture, and environmental conservation. MAGC became a reality
Historic Trees, Diverse Gardens
Two of the center’s signature heritage trees were planted during the Worns’ stewardship. A Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), located in the center of the property, prospered for 130 years, developing into a regal specimen over sixty feet tall and known in the community as the “Grand Dame.” Once ranked on the California Register of Big Trees as the largest magnolia in the state, the mother tree was, sadly, removed in 2006 due to age and disease. More than twenty small trees remained, creating a vast circle around the original tree’s central trunk. A giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was brought from Yosemite Valley as a small tree in the 1880s. It is unusual for its rounded top and domed appearance, typically associated with thousand year old sequoias. A third venerable tree, the majestic dawn redwood, was planted in 1947 from seed collected during an expedition to China following the discovery of the presumed extinct species.
Within the boundary of MAGC, Pixie Park was founded in 1952 by Elizabeth Terwilliger, naturalist and educator, and the American Association of University Women as a safe play area for the children of MAGC volunteers while their parents work at the center. The pro bono design project, completed by renowned landscape architect Robert Royston, features signature organic forms for planting and play areas, long linear trellises, screen fencing, and innovative play structures. The eastern portion of the property focuses on California native plants and includes a young “basketry” garden. Inspired by an existing natural patch of native sedge (Carex barbarae), it is filled with willows (Salix spp.), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), redbud (Cercis occidentalis), leatherwood (Dirca occidentalis), and other native plants historically used in making baskets. The area is embellished with old-fashioned bee skeps housing several bee colonies. MAGC also has a garden filled with native medicinal herbs, a Pacific Coast iris garden, and a succulent garden brimming with colorful, uniquely shaped plants, such as aeoniums, aloes, agaves, sedums, dudleyas, and echeverias.
In the heart of the center sits the Rose Garden encircled by decorative wrought iron fencing laced with the fragrant blossoms of climbing roses. Planted in 2004 with over 150 cultivars—climbers, hybrid teas and floribundas, English roses, miniatures, shrub, and old garden roses— the space brims with healthy plants, all maintained without the use of pesticides. Beyond the roses is a soothing pool with an arbor atop a curving bench. A few steps to the north is the Memory Garden, a serene circular glen enshrouded by a quilted canopy of leaves and adorned by a variety of plantings around a supine stone maiden. Created by the Marin Garden Club early in the history of the center, it is “a place of quiet beauty for remembering.”
A special place in the garden was created through the efforts of Charlotte Torgovitsky, MAGC’s sustainable garden resources and outreach manager. She and a host of volunteers transformed a neglected, overgrown area into a Butterfly Garden, a bounteous collection of larval host plants that attract over fifteen species of butterflies. An established stand of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) puts on a spectacular, fragrant show in June; a mixture of California native and mediterranean-climate perennials, annuals, and grasses creates a kaleidoscope of color from summer to fall.
An immense English oak (Quercus robur) with outstretched limbs shelters MAGC’s environmental education program for school groups. The “Exploring Habitats” field trips for first and second graders are produced in conjunction with Marin Master Gardeners and engage children in a variety of learning activities related to habitats and the environment. “Beneficial Predators,” aimed at first through fifth graders, is presented by the Hungry Owl Project (HOP); it focuses on alternative methods of pest control.
The vibrant landscape at MAGC is maintained as a pesticide-free zone and is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a habitat sanctuary. The diversity of plants, particularly the California natives, provides fruits and seeds for more than thirty species of birds and a host of beneficial insects. A number of owl boxes, sponsored by HOP, welcome rodent-controlling barn owls. Started in 2002, HOP operates under the non-profit WildCare: Terwilliger Nature Education & Wildlife Rehabilitation. Their mission is to “reduce the need for harmful pesticides and rodenticides by encouraging natural predators, through conservation of habitat, erecting nest boxes when appropriate, through research and education, and by providing a resource of help and information on alternative methods of sustainable pest management.” One of the owl boxes at MAGC is connected to a continuously running video camera during the breeding season. Anyone interested in barn owls can observe their development from egg to fledgling on HOP’s website (www.hungryowl.org) or on the monitor at the Butterfly Cottage at MAGC.
Many of the established plants now growing at MAGC were started as seeds or cuttings and nurtured in the center’s small nursery with support from the Marin Master Gardeners. “The place I love the most at the center is the nursery,” says Torgovitsky; “I consider all the plants growing in the gardens as potential ‘mother plants,’ and have collected seeds and cuttings from most of them.”
The center has experienced ups and downs since its inception. Home to the popular and well-attended Marin County Fair for nearly thirty years, MAGC hit some hard times when the fair moved to a larger venue in 1975. Half of the founding groups no longer exist or have moved on to other locations; gardening styles and attitudes change, and with it comes the challenge to maintain what many love about the center while moving forward with a focus on environmental conservation—one of the founders’ ideals. Horticultural programs for both children and adults aim to expand public knowledge of the importance of environmental stewardship, and MAGC provides the setting to visualize and experience this up close. Today, MAGC’s focus is “Honoring the past, celebrating the present, and cultivating the future,” with a goal to create a true botanical garden.
Reminiscing about the property’s early days before the center was formed, current MAGC board trustee Liz Dakin recalls romping through the grounds and climbing trees on the empty, forlorn site. “It has come a long way,” she says; “now a wonderful community gathering place, a restful place to meander, stop and read a book, a beautiful, casual, California garden.” There is, indeed, a lot of magic behind those serpentine brick walls.
If You Should Like to Visit
The Marin Art and Garden Center is located at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, about 2.5 miles west of US 101, in the town of Ross, California. Call 415/455-5260 or visit www.magc.org for information about events, volunteer opportunities, and membership.