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Marin IJ Articles

Turning a Private Garden into a Public One

  • Jeanne Price
  • by Jeanne Price
    If someone left you an ancient cottage in an acre of neglected garden on a prime piece of real estate what would you do?
    When the Tiburon Peninsula’s historical society, the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmark Society, found itself in this position in 1995 there was no question about it. The bequest was specific. The cottage and garden at 841 Tiburon Boulevard were to be preserved as an art and garden center. A portion of the cottage dates back to 1870 and is believed to be the oldest extant building on the peninsula. The garden though long neglected was once the pride and joy of its former owners.
    A team of four UCCE Marin Master Gardeners stepped forward to help the Society turn this overgrown thicket, which hid a number of animal carcasses, into a vibrant public garden overlooking Richardson Bay. Unfortunately, the Master Gardeners had no say in what plants would be retained, but many old and rare plants were saved. These included a mature 60 foot California Black Walnut (Juglans california bindsii). A native, resistant to oak root fungus, it requires no irrigation. Clinging to the tree’s trunk and reaching into the lower branches is a Lady Banks’ rose (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’), a climber that produces a cascade of double yellow blossoms. A gardener’s dream, it is aphid resistant, almost immune to disease and has few thorns.
    Another survivor from the old garden is a shrub rose (‘Susan Louise’). Described as “blousey,” it blooms in flushes of large pink flowers year round. Another interesting shrub is Brunfelsia pauciflora ‘Floribunda,’ commonly known as “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The blooms are fragrant and change color from purple to lilac to white in a few days, hence its name. Two large, rare elm trees (Ulmus carpinifolia ‘Variegata’) dominate the main entrance to the cottage. Behind the cottage is a circle of Redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens). A fun plant for kids is the Kool Aid plant, Psoralea pinnata, whose purple and white blossoms have the fragrance of Kool Aid.
    The site is rented out for events which help to fund the garden and its cottage. With this in mind, existing terraces were expanded and railings were installed beside steps. A lawn was planted and forms the lowest terrace. Altogether there are four terraces rising one above the next. One paved with old brick and defined by native rock walls and two smaller ones still higher, paved with crushed granite and walled with serpentine rock. These afford splendid vistas of Richardson Bay and Mt. Tamalpais.
    The Master Gardeners designed the beds, chose the plants and were required to submit their plans to Marin Municipal Water District noting the plant names and sizes and how much water each bed would require. They wanted to choose plants that would make the garden look attractive year-round. They used daffodils around the fence line to discourage gophers and built fences to keep out deer. These defenses have not been entirely successful as the deer have boldly jumped the main gate.
    Other plants were chosen for their tolerance to drought, their color, variety and if possible native to California. Old lilacs were extended with new varieties. Lavender was tried and later replaced because it proved too labor intensive. Grevillea lanigera or Woolly Grevillea, was planted instead.
    Nena Hart of Belvedere and Susan Lukens of Tiburon, two of the Master Gardeners who have designed the plant palette, confess they are still working on keeping the deer out, reducing the amount of irrigation, getting more color for fall (the high season for garden weddings), and lowering maintenance. The other two Master Gardeners who have worked on this project from its inception are Anne Kasanin of Belvedere and Joanna Kemper of Tiburon. As I live nearby, this is the public garden in which I most often work.
    Hart and Lukens admit their one disappointment has been the children’s garden. “It doesn’t fit into the local school system.” Lukens said. The little garden tucked behind a high hedge has irrigated raised beds, a little tool shed and a compost area. It may become a labor-easy flower garden they agreed.
    Lukens and Hart are lifetime Master Gardeners earning more than 2000 hours each planning and planting in this garden. They no longer need hours for certification, but their reward now is the joy of seeing the garden used for beautiful weddings and other celebrations. “It is fantastic to see the garden lit and decorated for special events,” Hart enthused.
    Gardening classes for the public on pruning roses and re-potting Cymbidiums have already been conducted by Master Gardeners. The gardeners are now propagating plants in the greenhouse to provide a continuing plant palette for the garden.

    The Center is open to the public from April through October on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons from 1-4 p.m. There is usually an art exhibit in the cottage and the garden is handicapped accessible.