Urban Gardener

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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Roots-webEven as a young child, I was drawn to two extremes: the excitement of the big city and the wonder of nature. Back in the early 1950s, Detroit was a big city, and I thrilled to the crowds of people, the cacophony of automobiles and streetcars, grand movie palaces, J. L. Hudson’s giant department store, Sanders chocolate shops, and those wonderfully tall buildings spearing the sky.

Yet I was equally fascinated by the trees, flowers, birds, and bugs that could be found throughout the residential neighborhoods. My parents maintained a small vegetable garden and charged me (at age five) with monitoring the climbing beans. I watched them every day, making sure that their rapidly elongating shoots always found a string to grab, and was thrilled to harvest edible beans as the season progressed. The two nurses who lived next door introduced me to their much more elaborate garden. Maxine, in particular, spent hours with me after school and on weekends, teaching me about plants and gardens.

On my eighth birthday, we moved to the far eastside suburbs, to a tract home with a larger yard than we had had in the city. By the age of nine, I was given charge of the entire garden—but with the most minimal of budgets. I solicited divisions of plants from the few neighbors who gardened and spent my meager allowance on a pot of primroses that I immediately divided. Spring bulbs held a particular appeal. I loved planting them as the leaves were dropping in autumn, knowing that in spring the garden would be full of flowers as soon as the snow melted. At least that was my vision. In fact, since I bought only a few bulbs at a time, the effect was more in my mind than in reality. I’ve always wondered if the folks at Mitsch Novelty Daffodils in Oregon knew that a preteen was ordering those three bulbs each fall.

I spent most of my time outdoors, both in the garden and in the remnant woods, swamps, and creeks of our rapidly expanding community—capturing as many small life forms as possible to study at close range; keeping track of the birds that passed through the garden during the fall and spring migrations; and recording the first sprout or blossom of spring and the last leaf-drop of fall. I tried to recreate a wild landscape in a corner of the yard, by “rescuing” wildflowers and shrubs from the neighborhood woodlot (which soon fell to more housing). The birds were especially drawn to that section of the garden.

When it came time to go to college, however, I chose to study architecture, so I could learn more about those big buildings downtown. At school in Ann Arbor, I discovered landscape design and urban planning, fields where trees and other living things were as important as the people-centric elements. After a couple years working for architects, I returned for a masters in landscape architecture and was fortunate to secure a job in the campus landscape architect’s office while in school and for several years after. I loved creating landscapes on the campus and encouraging the natural vegetation to reestablish on the university’s north campus. But I did not have a garden of my own, and craved an opportunity to garden year-round.

I escaped Michigan and moved to San Francisco, drawn by its big-city architecture, its proximity to the country, and its year-round gardening climate. Lacking a real garden at first, I volunteered in the nursery at Strybing Arboretum, where I met gardeners with a wealth of knowledge about plants and gardens of the Bay Area. The arboretum was also a setting for bird and animal life of all types, proving that wildlife can exist in the city.

I dreamed of a place where I could have both a view of the city skyline and a private garden. I began doodling an apartment on the top floor of a building of three or four stories, built into a hill so that there would be a city view on one side and a garden on the opposite side, stretching even further up the hill. On a brilliantly sunny October morning in 1981, I found it, and I have been there ever since.

From the living room, the view includes the bay and two bridges, the distant East Bay Hills and Mount Diablo (thirty miles east), and the full expanse of the city skyline. To the rear, a private garden begins at the flat’s fourth-floor level and rises another two stories; from the top of the garden the view opens to the city skyline again. The garden is modest. A steep pitch limits access to a few goat trails, but the soils are well drained and moderately rich. I’ve filled it with plants that will attract wildlife, especially hummingbirds, and I’ve tested the limits of gardening without water in the neighborhood’s almost fog-free (and frost-free) climate. The garden has provided me with a classroom and a playground for experimenting with plants. It is full of wild critters, the vast majority of which benefit the plantings by keeping pests at bay. And it provides an antidote to the intensity of the big city, as well as an escape from the pressures of work.

I wouldn’t want to live without the dynamic nature of the big city, but I couldn’t survive without the calming effect of nature in my own piece of paradise.

A garden designer, educator, writer, photographer, and tour leader, Richard G. Turner, Jr., studied architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Michigan before moving to California’s Bay Area in order to garden year-round. From 1997 to 2012, Turner was editor of Pacific Horticulture.