HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT. Stunning gardens brimming with flora and fauna right in the heart of Marin -- that's the Marin Art & Garden Center (MAGC).
You may routinely speed by the signature wavy brick walls as you travel east or west on Sir Francis Drake Blvd in Ross, and miss the opportunity to savor the horticultural bounty of the space that was home to the Marin County Fair for nearly 30 years. The center, which is free and open to all from dawn to dusk, contains a unique and eclectic collection of mature trees and diverse plantings that offer something for everyone. Half of the center's dual personality presents a lush environment reminiscent of the formal gardens of bygone days while the other is current and topical -- focused on sustainable gardening practices, growing native and low-water-use plants and educating the public about the importance of environmental stewardship.
As you stroll through the nearly 11 acres of grounds, you may have the sense of peaceful spaciousness intermingled with an abundance of seemingly secret spaces. You may happen upon the bustle of activity from resident art, history and horticultural groups involved in a plethora of ever-changing events that take place in a variety of settings -- a theater in a renovated barn, an outdoor amphitheater a grove of redwood trees, an art and horticulture library in an octagonal tank house, or simple meeting rooms with enchanting garden views.
Celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, MAGC had its origin in the 1940s as a vision of Caroline Livermore and Gladys Smith, two members of the Marin Conservation League who rallied to preserve the beautiful and historic property replete with its lovely, though languishing, gardens and irreplaceable trees. The center was incorporated in 1945 as a living memorial, with its primary mission to promote appreciation and education of the arts, horticulture and environmental conservation.
Mature trees form the framework for the garden spaces with dozens of varieties, native and ornamental, evergreen and deciduous. A few are glorious heritage specimens -- a towering dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), planted in 1947 from seed collected during an archeological expedition to China, forms a canopy over a Victorian gazebo. A giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was brought from Yosemite Valley as a small tree in the 1880s. In the heart of the property, where a 60-foot regal magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) reigned for 130 years, a vast circle of 20 to 25 small trees retain the majestic atmosphere. In addition to these stately trees, there are elms and oaks, maples and cedars, ginkos and crepe myrtles, so densely planted in portions of the garden they produce a cathedral-like ceiling.
Exploring the site, you'll find myriad plant settings. The Rose Garden, encircled by decorative wrought iron fencing (to keep out the roaming deer), is overflowing with more than 150 varieties of healthy, floriferous plants, maintained without the use of pesticides.
A few steps beyond the Rose Garden is the Memory Garden, a serene circular glen adorned by an assortment of plantings surrounding a supine stone maiden. It was created early in the history of the center as "a place of quiet beauty for remembering."
Adjacent is a soothing pool fronted by a new addition, the Bay-Friendly Demonstration Garden. This previously neglected space now sports a vivid tapestry of low water-use, colorful and fragrant, deer-resistant plantings, installed over the past year as a joint venture with Marin Municipal Water District, UC Marin Master Gardeners and MAGC.
The eastern portion of the gardens feature California native plants, a succulent garden filled with colorful, uniquely shaped plants -- aeoniums, aloes, agaves, sedums, echeverias, dudleyas and more. The compost demonstration area provides visitors with options for producing compost in their own backyard and the newly developed rain garden, a collaborative project with SPAWN (Salmon Protection and Watershed Network), displays rain catchment, distribution and colorful, low-water-use plantings.
The Habitat Garden contains a bounteous collection of larval host plants that attract many species of butterflies, while the mixture of California native and Mediterranean climate perennials, annuals and grasses create a kaleidoscope of colors during the peak of bloom summer to fall. The low outstretched limbs of an immense English oak (Quercus robur) provide an anchor location for the Master Gardener's "Exploring Habitats" field trips -- educational opportunities for first and second graders to engage in a variety of learning activities related to habitats and the environment.
The horticultural bounty of the center is made possible in part by a multitude of microclimates and growing conditions, and water supplied by existing wells. A seasonal stream, Kittle Creek, bisects the property providing a riparian habitat and wild lands intersected by a nature trail surround the eastern border.
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 provides fruits and seeds for more than 30 species of birds and a host of beneficial insects. It is also home to a number of owl boxes used for rodent control in conjunction with the Hungry Owl Project (HOP). One box is connected to a continuously running video camera during the breeding season for viewers to observe the development process of the barn owl from egg stage to fledgling.
"I am keenly aware of a sense of history whenever I walk through the Marin Art & Garden Center," reflects Gary Scales, former mayor of Ross and avid horticulturalist. "The towering heritage trees create a setting that almost speaks to you. The diversity of plants and shrubs invite me to explore."
Next time you're traveling by those wavy brick walls, take some time to come in, park the car or bike and stroll through this public jewel. You'll find magic in the beauty and tranquility -- all hidden in plain sight.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.