Before the internet made it easy to find answers to questions, home gardeners had to search far and wide for reliable information on gardening practices. In the late 1960s, advice on gardening with native plants was scattered, and relatively few public gardens featured California species. Even if the gardens grew natives, the plants were often lined up like soldiers or displayed as they might appear in nature; rarely were they integrated into a landscaped setting. Marion Gallagher decided it was time to share her knowledge about water-saving, disease-resistant native plants that could enhance a landscaped garden.
Mrs Gallagher, better known as Timmy, along with Sally MacBride and other members of the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club, set their sights on a one-acre plot of unused land behind the Woodside Public Library, in a quiet little enclave about forty-five minutes south of San Francisco. They navigated through months and miles of town council red tape and finally opened the Woodside Library California Native Plant Garden in May, 1970.
Right from the beginning, the horticultural cognoscenti recognized a treasure. Landscape design instructors from regional colleges scheduled classes in the shady redwood grove in the far corner of the garden. Plant societies and garden clubs from around the Bay Area visited to see the spring flourish of blue ceanothus against yellow fremontia (Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’). In response to demand, the library staff and the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club members developed a brochure that included a list of the California native plants in the garden. Another brochure soon followed with details about how the local Native Americans would have used the plants in their daily lives, an important topic for elementary school children on field trips to the garden. Articles appeared in horticultural publications, and the project was declared a success.
Of course, every gardener realizes that it’s not that easy. The challenge of maintaining perfection in a living, growing, changing environment is a story known all too well to plant lovers. The uncertainty of how native plants would perform in a controlled garden situation over a span of decades, plus the challenges of gophers and other destructive critters, added to the gardeners’ concerns. No one really knew the precise water demands of natives mixed in unusual combinations, nor how the trees and shrubs would respond to heavy pruning.
In theory, the native plants would be watered for a few years of early development, and, once established, they would flourish on their own. But watering a one-acre public garden by hand “for a few years” was not as easy as it sounded. Timmy and her team of garden club members scheduled volunteers to each water for one week throughout the long summers, yet the water sometimes was applied in inconsistent quantities. Difficulties increased with an unusually lengthy freeze one winter and two summers of heat and extreme drought. Some plants died, while others outgrew their allotted space in the design. A few specimens spread underground, showing up in paths and beds where they were not intended.
Nothing slowed the enthusiasm of this group of gardeners dedicated to creating a showpiece for California’s native plants. The ups and downs of the library garden proved an excellent education for those determined to continue Timmy’s vision. What the volunteer gardeners have gleaned over the past three decades provides a practical lesson on how to grow California natives in your garden.
Early Plants: Successes and Failures
Landscape architect Jack Stafford donated the design of the 1970 garden. The town’s residents donated funds for plants and hardscape, along with trees and benches in memory of prominent Woodside citizens. The garden was divided into three main sections: the redwood grove with understory plants typical of a redwood forest, a shady area for plants like rhododendrons that needed some moisture, and an area in full sun. Saratoga Horticultural Foundation donated dozens of native trees, shrubs, and groundcovers.
Colorful successes included five or six different ceanothus, eriogonums, and salvias. Isomeris, California poppies, penstemons, mimulus, Arabis, Calycanthus, sisyrinchiums, zauschne-rias, and lupines extended the floral excitement from spring through fall. At the same time, many summer-blooming native bulbs that went into the ground were just as quickly dug up by squirrels or consumed by gophers. The next fall, more bulbs were planted in wire cages with almost the same results! Gophers also destroyed two beautiful specimens of Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) and several California coffeeberries (Rhamnus californica).
Middle Age Growing Pains
Persistent gardeners prevailed; ten years later, the Native Plant Garden contained 167 species, representing one hundred genera from forty-seven plant families.
Timmy Gallagher’s devotion to the garden knew no bounds. She wrote a regular garden column for the local paper, The Country Almanac, in which she featured a native plant currently blooming in the garden. She drove to Saratoga Horticultural Foundation every spring to collect male flowers of coast silktassel (Garrya elliptica) with which to pollinate the Woodside garden’s female plant; each year, that plant responded with glorious clusters of red purple fruit. Eventually, she planted two male forms (G. elliptica ‘James Roof’) to facilitate pollination.
An attractive shrub in the rose family, Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) almost disappeared behind some rapidly growing manzanitas (Arctostaphylos). The garden volunteers heavily pruned the manzanitas to give the Apache plume more space. This allowed the Apache plume to show off its single white flowers and showy clusters of feathery seed plumes, which turn a rosy red on the upper half, resembling a miniature Apache headdress.
Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge in the garden swirled around watering systems. The volunteers tried hand watering with inconsistent success; then the faucets and hoses were vandalized. They tried drip and sprinkler irrigation, but the low-bid companies proved unreliable. As the years passed, there was little need for additional water, but the plant palette had dwindled. Many of the veteran shrubs and trees became leggy and overgrown. The bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) and Tecate cypress (Cupressus forbesii) developed with such speed that they added more shade than the garden needed. Ceanothus grew woody and flowered less and less each year. Time had taken its toll.
The garden volunteers continued to nurture the long-time residents growing within the garden beds, including valley oak (Quercus lobata), tanbark oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) and many mature shrubby and ground-covering selections of manzanita (Arctostaphylos). But, even native plants have a finite life span. After thirty years, it was time to rethink, replan, and replant.
Design was important in the renovation; it wasn’t just about collecting natives and lining them up in beds. The garden club enlisted landscape architect Ron Lutsko because of his immense knowledge of native plants and their performance in the garden. Following his recommendations, Tina and Walt Dreyer, Sarah Swinerton, and other enthusiastic garden club members removed overgrown trees and shrubs and carefully selected natives to create pleasing compositions in all seasons, full of movement and color, butterflies and birds. Radiating from the center, plant groups in the new design extend into adjacent beds, creating a gradual transition that mimics nature.
Water and poor drainage remained a problem because of the garden’s clay soil, which was now amended with rough-edged gravel (one inch and larger) from a local quarry. Before the improvements, even salvias would not grow. The gravel does not decompose and facilitates water penetration and drainage. This concept has been used at Hyde Hall, England, and in Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Essex, the driest part of England with heavy clay soil and less than twenty inches of rain annually. Chatto’s success with drought-tolerant plants is well known; the successful results at the library garden also speak volumes.
The updated plan switched the underground drip irrigation system to micro-sprinklers; in the past, the buried emitters had become clogged, and it was impossible to spot a malfunction until plants began to die. Micro-sprinklers, on the other hand, have the benefit of even water coverage and can be easily monitored.
Tina had admired the California meadow at the Menzies Native Garden (also designed by Ron Lutsko) in the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. When it came to choosing plants, she suggested that they emulate the feathery blue, green, and gray grasses seen there. She envisioned a native grass feature as an attractive alternative for thirsty lawns. A round bed in the center of the library garden is now a breathtaking mound of swaying grasses chosen for their color, texture, varied heights, and toughness. The planting is a mix of native grasses and sedges, along with a few cultivars. In between the grasses, flowering grassland bulbs of blue camassia and perennials, such as blue-eyed grass and checker-bloom, add seasonal highlights. Even on a frosty winter morning, this central feature sparkles.
Moving out from the center, the beds are planted with a large variety of natives grouped by their cultural requirements. Several mature coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) border the west side of the garden; in this oak woodland are shrubs and perennials that thrive with the filtered, part-day sunlight. On the north side, shade loving plants flourish amidst the cool environment of coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). These shady beds are covered with a mulch of oak leaves or redwood compost to simulate their native habitat.
The beds in full sun, filled with salvias, manzanitas, monkey flowers, buckwheats, and dudleyas, are mulched with half-inch gravel, as in the dry gardens in England. The gravel helps retain moisture in the soil and curtail the growth of weeds. Near the library building, ferns and colorful spring-flowering perennials thrive in a naturally damp, semi-shaded situation.
In addition to their success with redesigning the Library Garden, Tina and Sarah started the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club Library Garden Plant Sale. This popular annual event, held on the last Saturday in April, features native plants, deer- and drought-resistant selections, specialty plants propagated by garden club members, and much more. Now in its fifth year, the sale raises funds to help maintain the Native Plant Garden.
After thirty-five years of experimenting and learning, the Woodside Library Native Plant Garden stands proudly as the second oldest landscaped native plant display in Northern California. The garden is open during library hours, Monday through Saturday, or by special appointment. Inside the library, a new plant list and garden map help visitors identify the array of native plants that beckon so invitingly just outside the glass doors.
Key Plants in the Woodside Library Native Plant Garden
leafy reed grass
Festuca idahoensis ‘Siskiyou Blue’
‘Siskiyou Blue’ fescue
foothill needle grass
Oak Woodland Understory
Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’
Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’
‘James Roof’ silktassel
island alum root
Western sword fern
Sequoia sempervirens ‘Prostrata’
prostrate redwood cultivar
giant chain fern
Arctostaphylos ‘St Helena’
‘St Helena’ manzanita
island bush poppy
Erigeron ‘Wayne Roderick’
‘Wayne Roderick’ seaside daisy
Fremontodendron californicum subsp. decumbens
Pine Hill flannelbush
Grindelia stricta var. augustifolia
Malacothamnus clementinus and M. fremontii
Denizens of the Cool and Damp
Cornus sericea and C. sessilis
redtwig and blackfruit dogwoods
If You Should Like to Visit
The Woodside Library Garden is open free to visitors at any time that the library is open (Monday- Thursday 11 am to 7 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am to 5 pm, Sunday closed). It is located at 3140 Woodside Road, Woodside, CA 94062. The phone is 650/851-0147.