Marcia’s Garden: a Conversation

Pair of contented heads in serpentine with blood grass, Imperata cylindrica. Photographs by George Waters

Pair of contented heads in serpentine with blood grass, Imperata cylindrica. Photographs by George Waters

One of the greatest pleasures of life is conversation.

Rev. Sydney Smith, Essays

From the sidewalk nothing suggests that 3017 Wheeler Street, Berkeley, is the address of a remarkable gardener. There are, it is true, unusual plants to be seen. Rose ‘Mermaid’ climbs an old cordyline in the sidewalk, glossy leaves and elegant, single, golden flowers concealing vicious curved thorns. Another rose, the lively pink ‘Erfurt,’ throws flower-laden stems over a garden bank crammed with the gray and silver foliage of drought-tolerant plants. But it is a facade.

The medley of plants on Wheeler Street is the setting for a Berkeley Victorian house that Chris and Marcia Donahue are renovating with great care and attention to detail. Despite the work to be done in the house, Marcia could not ignore the garden, and a most extraordinary garden she has made of it.

Adam and Eve at the hand-shaped gate

Adam and Eve at the hand-shaped gate

I had to adjust my perception of garden-making as I approached the side gate: carved figures of Adam and Eve greeted me with arms upraised, Eve sprouting from a bed of acanthus and supporting a tangle of metal turnings. The gate itself, a huge wooden hand, is frivolous, practical, and, despite the gesture, welcoming.

Within, the plants quickly closed in upon me, and I was enticed along narrow paths lined with meadowsweet, lilies, roses, kiwis, hardy geraniums, passion flowers, and sages, all mingling with bowling balls, cups, dishes, silverware, discards from a machine shop, columns from old buildings, pottery shards, artifacts from flea markets, and more carvings. The objects, in odd ways, belonged with the plants, seeming to imply some classical allusion or hint of dark myth. At first shocked, I found myself hurrying ahead elated, and curious to see what else Marcia had in store for me. Not since childhood had I felt such delight in a garden.

Questions constantly beset me: who is the sundered female on the column? Why so many images of human hands? What made her do it? For answers I cornered the gardener over a cup of coffee.

Flora’s court, with found ceramic head and sculpture in steel by Mark Bulwinkle

Flora’s court, with found ceramic head and sculpture in steel by Mark Bulwinkle

GW: This garden suggests a background in literature, art, and horticulture. Are the influences formal, or the accretion of years?

MD: My formal education is in art. Gardening I acquired through just doing it. My garden is a very personal thing, as you see, and so ideas absorbed from reading, school, and the world at large appear here with my mark on them. The statue of Flora, for example, I carved because for centuries her image has been a convention in western gardens; she is the flower goddess. She looks down from her ten-foot column across the pond and is reflected in the water. She is painted dark brown and is splitting and sprouting like a seed to set an example and offer instruction to the plants below. On her column I have written: “Flora, thank you, thank you, Love, Marcia.” On the ground gazing up at Flora there is another figure in redwood, tall, and potentially a garden stake to support any nearby flopping plant. She is a devotee of Flora, and so am I.

The broad path

The broad path

GW: You began the garden with a hill of soil. What was the inspiration for that? Had you the idea of recreating the mount of Medieval European gardens?

MD: I built the hill before I read about mounts in medieval gardens. When I did read about them I was tickled to be carrying on that tradition unconsciously. Later, I began stacking cairns. The first cairn marks the path in my garden near the front sidewalk and the top stone is inscribed “Here.” So at least there is no question of where. The next one, a precarious looking pile of rocks by the front steps, is followed by an even more tilting one inside the hand-shaped gate. Its top stone is a bowling ball inscribed “Rose.” Finally, by the hand-shaped pond in the middle of the garden, there is the nine-foot-tall one inscribed “Cairn: right path.” Absurd as it is to mark paths in a small city garden as though they were trails through wilderness, yet my garden is so winding and dense with variety and detail that it is, at its best, overwhelming, and even disorient­ing. This is what I want. I am making a place where an escapist like myself can escape.

GW: Most modem writers on garden making, such as Hobhouse, Thomas, Brookes, and Verey, propose more conventional designs. Perhaps their books are most useful to those who have few ideas of their own, and, clearly, you are not one of them, but have you read any of these authors?

MD: Yes, I’ve read some of each of their books, and admire them, but here in my garden the present is so vivid in, say, a back-lit red leaf, a spider’s web veiling the face of a sculpture, that time stands still. Simultaneously, a scent on the air recalls childhood, a carved figure recalls an old legend. Every project suggests another and every bud implies a future that promises there will be pleasure then, too.

Because such a place needs to do, and be, many things at once, and space here is limited, my garden has taken its present form. A sense of enclosure is important to a place apart. I’ve found that this feeling is enhanced by plants overhead as well as by screening at the sides. To walk through and under plants and structures, then to have the scene open out again into sky, and, perhaps, a different color combination, even if it only takes a few steps for the whole journey, is satisfying. I’ve used archways, tall plants, sculptures, and vines, to provide this. Surrounded by my own territory I may comment physically — by gardening, arranging, carving — on garden tradition, my love of plants, my urge to collect, and on being human. I can dare here to try new things; to be sentimental, or rash, or in bad taste with colors, textures, and symbols. Then I can sit in it and watch.

Pottery shard mulch, abutilon, and encrusted ornamental vase

Pottery shard mulch, abutilon, and encrusted ornamental vase

GW: Your garden is a private adventure of the mind, but imagination must yield to the practical when it comes to structure and layout.

MD: All these kinds of activity shape the garden. The trick is to keep too many ideas from colliding disastrously (instead of combining in harmony as I’d prefer) or shapelessness ensues. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain that fine line between a rich cross-fertilization of images and mad chaos. It is equally hard to plant closely enough for plants to interweave beautifully without one killing the other or overcrowding it. There is such a wealth of horticultural possibility in our benign climate, so much to respond to and work with in the garden tradition. Little wonder that my garden is so crammed.

A complex garden such as this demands involvement and patience from visitors and from me. It can’t be taken in at a glance, and it is no way low-maintenance. The garden poem — metal words hanging overhead from Chromatella’s rose arbor — reads: “Also also and plus &.” It warns of what to expect. But by the time visitors read it foliage has already closed over their heads and the big hand gate has latched behind them. Is the garden a trap? It has attracted interesting visitors to keep me company and bring me bowling balls. It has also committed me to hours of weeding, constant pruning, hand watering, and compulsive plant hunting. Gardening friends and I have traveled happily in a big van to nurseries and gardens as far from home as San Diego and Portland in our horticultural quests.

The path layout is a simple maze; a figure eight with appended curlicues. If you follow it, sooner or later it brings you to the gate again, where, carved into the back of the hand is the message, “Sublunary cyclic ephemerae.”

Path to the Mars garden

Path to the Mars garden

GW: Despite the fun you find in the garden, there are many refinements that conventional gardeners can particularly admire. The combination of red-leaf New Zealand flax and variegated hebe, for example, is a subtly harmonious combination. What is more, the daylily opening behind them has a dusky red-purple flower — a color similar to that in the leaves of the other two. And again, the dark, almost black, rosettes of Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ you have placed, not with plants with yellow leaves, as is commonly done, but with a euphorbia whose flowers match that dark color.

MD: Combining colors and arranging flattering company for favorite plants is some of the best fun in gardening. There are both rude and pleasant surprises involved in the sport. The ugly colors of Spiraea bumalda — yellow leaves and mauve flowers — look strangely pleasing against the terra cotta lava-rock sand reddening the soil of the Mars garden, my red planet. I was appalled, and quick to prune, when a long-awaited single rose, ‘Hanseat’, bloomed a toxic overdose of hot pink, deadening all colors within eyeshot. It would be fun to find flowers and foliage to enhance ‘Hanseat’ — the combination could be intense, even glorious, without being painful. I use a lot of inanimate color in my combinations. That pale variegated hebe you admired assorts well, I think, with the white, pink, and gray bowling ball and soft green serpentine carved heads at its base.

GW: Does defiance of tradition in garden design indicate unruliness in your character, or simply playfulness?

MD: Does it seem to you that I defy tradition here? I don’t see it that way.

GW: The strongest traditions in garden design in the western world are the geometric, originating in ancient Persia and coming to us through Italy and France, and the naturalistic, originating in the Far East, and coming to us from eighteenth-century England. Neither influence is immediately obvious here, although, perhaps, something of Uvedale Price’s sublimity can be discerned, Should I have said disregard of tradition, rather than defiance of it?

MD: Many gardens have included shrines, grottoes, and temples — links with other worlds. I have made a sort of personal shrine here, too. But this is in the tradition of English gardening. The great garden at Stowe, in England, has many temples (some just remind us that Temple was the family name) and odd structures erected in the early eighteenth century by the owner, Viscount Cobham. With them he commented on the government and on the nation’s moral condition; others simply reflect his philosophy. His structures were more expensive than mine, but our motives were similar. I am happy to be continuing the tradition of garden follies and of absurd, reverent, humorous gardening.

What makes my garden seem unconventional, though it has many traditional elements, is that it is more shamelessly personal than most. It has a lot of homemade items that recall the “folk art” garden tradition, but they are not of the concrete and abalone shell school. The garden reflects a more than average lavishing of attention. My neighbor once told me I should see a psychiatrist because I garden too much. It is not green architecture so it is not rectilinear, as are so many western gardens. It is not intended to be a tasteful setting for the house; rather it is a setting for personal expression and experience.

Trumpet lilies obscure a panel of sculpted fence illustrating the Daphne legend as interpreted by the gardener; one branching hand is seen

Trumpet lilies obscure a panel of sculpted fence illustrating the Daphne legend as interpreted by the gardener; one branching hand is seen

GW: Everywhere I find carvings of the human hand. They invite me into the garden, beckon me into the rose arbor, form a screen on one boundary, support vining plants, and even define the shape of the pool. Hands must have a special significance for you.

MD: I have many hand-shaped things in the garden, perhaps because it is the part of the human body most like a plant; a palmate leaf, a branching tree. It is also a most available and willing model. Gardening is, among many things, a craft and handwork. When I dug the pond I chose a handprint (Godzilla stumbled here) for its shape instead of the classic circle of water I had first wished for at the center of the garden. I like how it works. It is a complex shape, funny and cartoonish because it is so big, with peninsulas to plant in between the fingers of water.

Daphne transforming into a coral bark maple

Daphne transforming into a coral bark maple

GW: I’ve seen few gardens where the plants are packed so tightly, but things grow well.

MD: I plant closely because I want more plants than there is room for and because I enjoy the rich combinations of color and pattern made by plants interweaving one in another. To do this and still have healthy plants I dug the heavy black adobe soil deeply and amend it regularly with compost, so roots have vertical space at least. I have to be vigilant with the pruners to keep less vigorous plants from being overwhelmed.

GW: The garden seems to evolve from a constant reaction between you and your plants. Do you sometimes lose patience with favorite plants?

MD: Part of learning to garden has been learning to part with favorite plants that do not perform well, or perform too well, here. Several roses now departed come to mind. And as I learn about new plants I want to grow, I have to take space from existing, less glamorous plants. The apricot tree, whose flowers always were knocked off by the one hail storm of the year, was replaced recently by graceful gray-blue Cupressus cashmeriana.

Solanum pyracanthum

Solanum pyracanthum

GW: Glamorous plants at the moment seem to be those of unlikely shape. I see that you have recently planted a spiny nightshade by the pool there. As a sculptor you must appreciate the forms of plants like that.

MD: It seems that one stage of the happy addiction to horticulture is being in thrall to novelty. I am always looking for plants that astonish me. That spiny nightshade (Solanum pyracanthum) certainly does; it has a range of handsome spines in the midribs of its beige felted leaves. Recently I planted Clematis afoliata, which is a tangle of leafless stems and tendrils that may have chartreuse flowers one day, but is probably never pretty.

Ajuga ‘Tricolor’ between tombstones on path to the compost heap

Ajuga ‘Tricolor’ between tombstones on path to the compost heap

GW: Yours is the first garden I’ve seen paved with gravestones. Have you a morbid streak?

MD: The gravestone path to the compost heap isn’t intended to be morbid, although, undeniably, it has a memento mori aspect to it. You could take it as encouragement to live well. Although I am not particularly occupied with death and disease, you must admit that both are easily available for contemplation in gardens. We gardeners expend a lot of energy cultivating the illusion that neither exists. We try to get rid of evidence. Happily, the garden also supplies ample reminders of regeneration and health.

I built my paths, walls, and rock garden mounds with local stone, as garden books advise. Since there are no rocks in this neighborhood, I designated building rubble from the dump, gravestone rejects from the mason’s yard, and bricks from the old foundations of this house to be the local stone. Then I broke the rule and gathered pale green carvable serpentine from a friend’s Mendocino County land, lavender volcanic rock from Napa, speckled granite from the Sierra Nevada, and hierographically marked beach rocks to mix in with water-rounded hunks of brick wall from San Francisco Bay. It’s an eclectic geology, for sure.

GW: Have you made other gardens, or is this your first?

MD: This garden is my first. Already it has been through a few incarnations and is still changing. And I work on gardens for other people with Jana Olson Landscaping Company. As a child I had a few square feet of the back yard where I rescued plants from a local nursery’s dump. I will never forget a horseradish I grew there.

The silver garden

The silver garden

GW: As a young gardener I was ambitious and wanted several acres of my own to convert to a paradise of lawns, trees, and perfumed flowers. Would you like more land? Have you a dream garden in mind? Or perhaps you already see the wisdom in Reginald Arkell’s couplet, “A garden should be rather small/ Or you will have no fun at all.”

MD: I’ll keep Arkell in mind next time I whine that I have no space for a grove of dawn redwood (or even a patch of rhubarb) or that I am tired of planting in “generous drifts of one,” as Michael Barclay (a neighbor, garden designer, and fellow plantsman) says. A garden six times the size of this one would still be rather small and I would love to have the means, time, water, and a little help to garden it.