top of page

A Garden Voyage in San Marino, California

by Cordelia Donnelly, posted by Deb Shaw

On June 4, 2016, BAGSC members had the wonderful opportunity to tour Cordelia’s garden, home and view her artwork. It was an enlightening meeting, and one that has generated a lot of discussion about our connections to place and garden, water conservation, design and aesthetics. Pacific Horticulture magazine published an article by Cordelia in their fall, 2016 issue, entitled, “My Horticultural Odyssey: An interdisciplinary approach to designing my garden“. This link goes to the full article, with images of the garden (a few of which are reproduced below).

Cordelia wrote the following for BAGSC News publication. Thank you for your work and inspiration! —Deb Shaw

Standing stones in the completed front garden are reclaimed Kansas fence posts, pieces of ancient ocean limestone bed, used to mark farm boundaries in a prairie ecosystem lacking trees.Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

Standing stones in the completed front garden are reclaimed Kansas fence posts, pieces of ancient ocean limestone bed, used to mark farm boundaries in a prairie ecosystem lacking trees. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

Water scarcity is shifting the paradigm of how to live and garden in Southern California. I completed my first garden renovation in San Marino in 2011 in order to close the building permit for a 1926 Spanish house renovation on a plot of land measuring 57 by 119 feet. A childhood of extensive blue water sailing across the South Pacific with my family prepared me well for these land-based adventures in engineering, science, law, code compliance, community design review, culture, horticulture, garden aesthetics, craftsmanship, and storytelling. Water was finite onboard our boat, and this set the stage for my interest in water conservation, reclamation and recycling. My garden teaches continuously and its story is still unfolding to my wonderment, to 1,200 visitors and counting.

I was educated in liberal arts in the true sense: fine art, applied design, education, ecology, land and water management, and writing. Work in these fields helped me recognize the potential significance of this interdisciplinary garden voyage. It is said that writing is thinking. Now I have learned very well that gardening is thinking. My garden design involved ideas about craftsmanship, where form follows function. I prioritized this garden design around water use, including capturing and redirecting water, and gradually practicing deep and infrequent watering as plants’ root systems get established. A site condition, such as the pronounced slope in the front yard, lends itself very well to growing Proteas and Banksias.

The chemistry of water enables life. Life in its diversity has adapted on Earth to different states and forms of water. Yet, we live in a remarkable age of science when it is theorized with high probability that the most common form of precipitation in our universe does not exist as water, but as diamonds, raining down on planets such as Saturn and Jupiter. While concepts of valence, polarity, surface tension, and cohesion describe atomic and molecular attributes of water, they also describe the human condition. We are One—with Water!

Plants, cyanobacteria, and algae, too, have special relationships with not only water, but also with light and darkness, in oxygenic processes to manufacture chemical energy. Science has discerned how these organisms have customized their methods of photosynthesis, for example, to explain why Agaves using CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism) reactions are so well adapted to desert climates. To give an idea of the atmospheric scale significance of oxygenic processes, it is estimated that if such oxygen-giving processes by these life forms were to halt, the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere might run out in a few thousand years. Discoveries are unfolding about significant anoxygenic processes found in various bacteria, which rely on chemical conversions in water, without sunlight but with other kinds of radiation, since the visible spec