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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 spectrum is only one type of light. The diversity and virtuosity of these mechanisms suggest that other planets in our universe may indeed contain very strong forms of Life.

Recently, Dr. Dianne Newman at Caltech has discovered, in the new field of molecular geomicrobiology she created, that bacteria in ocean sediments photosynthesize using iron instead of water. It is appropriate to be awed by intricacies of today’s science, which are uncovering some of the most ancient survival mechanisms on Earth, and spurring innovations in medicine by attending to how natural systems work. Furthermore, she has applied geoscience to solving a problem of chronic medical infections in humans. Dr. Newman has found that in a chronic infection such as cystic fibrosis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa (a long studied bacterium) produces pherazines which promote biofilm development in the lungs, inhibiting pathways for antibiotics to clear such infections. Logically understanding that the growth of P. aeruginosa is controlled in nature by a natural mechanism, she then searched for and found both P. aeruginosa and a coevolved bacterium, just in the soil outside her lab!  This coevolved bacterium produces an enzyme which is able to degrade pherazines produced by P. aeruginosa, thereby rendering a chronic infection by P. aeruginosa more treatable by antibiotics. Human therapies for chronic infections based on her research will be available in a decade! It is time to bring our awe back to our gardens and to think of native plants as forms of technology—which are already adapted for our current climate conditions.

This garden project required extensive research. Attending a course taught by Lili Singer at Theodore Payne convinced me to rip out the conventional grass lawn as a first step. Ruth Shellhorn’s climate appropriate landscape design in 1982 for my parents’ home had also influenced my thinking about the potential for this garden project. My mother gave me Thomas Church’s Your Private World. San Marino’s Planning Department supported my renovation ideas, for which I am grateful. Government entities play a primary role in implementing sustainability, and California has made major changes to its Building Codes, which will soon become much stricter. But tensions certainly exist because of the need for change, and certain laws soon may apply sustainability mandates to all homeowners, not just to those renovations and new construction.

Antique wrought iron gates and several cloud form cast metal panels from a disassembled Chinese pavilion in Bel Air were found on Craigslist and repurposed in the finished landscape as gates and wall pieces. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

Antique wrought iron gates and several cloud form cast metal panels from a disassembled Chinese pavilion in Bel Air were found on Craigslist and repurposed in the finished landscape as gates and wall pieces. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

My project demonstrated to San Marino how garden beauty can be created using concepts of sustainability. I did not pour cement in the front yard garden because cemented hardscape is viewed as unsustainable—and thus also avoided design review. Concrete for my house renovation was poured only where required by Building Codes. As a foundation for steps leading into the garden from the street, green-treated wood beams are skewered into the slope by steel rods, a method used for building steps on hiking trails in US National Parks. The next layers use Stabiligrid tile, clad with copper as the riser material, hardwood planks for treads, finished by quartzite pavers set in sand. A liquid acrylic polymer was used to harden the sand while also providing permeability.

In the spirit of sustainable recycling, I tried where possible to reclaim assorted left-over or salvaged materials from craigslist to use in this project. The antique terra cotta riser tiles in the backyard are from France, by way of a tile setter who had completed a project in Malibu, and advertised his extra tiles on craigslist. Luckily, I also bought a pair of antique wrought iron Chinese gates and several Chinese cloud form cast metal panels, from a contractor who had disassembled a Chinese pavilion in Bel Air and listed these materials on craigslist.

I felt a solidarity with my Chinese neighbors, who supported me from the very beginning. I decided to align my aesthetic values for this project to honor the rich heritage of Chinese gardening. Chinese landscape design’s majestic history brings together Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist influences. The spiritual depth appeals as much as the aesthetics, and the interdisciplinary wisdom thrills. This path of mastery involves concurrent mastery of poetry, calligraphy, and landscape painting—understanding the influences each of these disciplines has on the others, thus making a garden a living vignette of nature’s lyrical beauty. I fell in love with the idea of views in a Chinese garden unfurling gradually to the viewer, much like the scrolls of a Chinese landscape painting. The viewer takes a journey through such a garden in order to enjoy the different vantage points.

One of my goals in renovating the house was to make the house relate directly to the garden, and this new relationship can be enjoyed through a series of large windows, including the very large arched window in the living room, and three different sets of glass sliding doors looking out onto different garden views. As the sun travels throughout the day, the house itself becomes the garden sundial. I intuitively planned my garden design for the passage of light across the various spaces, influenced by my years of landscape painting. I sought consciously to unify the values of the green colors of plants in order to allow texture and temperature to operate to the eye—this is a strategic lesson from painting applied to gardening.

Another major influence on my thinking was the Mediterranean Garden Society/Pacific Horticulture 2010 Symposium at the Los Angeles Arboretum. This Symposium’s speakers, the local garden tours, the gorgeous Australian plants grown by Jo O’Connell, and conversations with people about gardens changed my life, within the already transformative context of researching Chinese gardens. These experiences convinced me to install drip irrigation for the entire garden. “Woolly Pockets” I saw at the Symposium helped me create vertical gardens on walls and balconies, and further online searches led me to “Smart Pots,” made of recycled plastic bottles, to use as larger containers. I decided to use Australian native plants for my garden upon seeing their poetic textures, remembering them from my childhood, recognizing their symbolic otherness, and their significance to plant evolution and the geologic history of our planet. These plants evoke ideas held in the Dreamtime: origin stories of creation, ancestral voices, relationships between humans and nature, and spiritual quests toward Oneness.

A dry stream bed, using native granite rocks rescued from the basement excavation, invokes the memory of water in this native landscape. Inspired by Jeffrey Bale’s colored pebbles, I used polished coral pebbles in the bottom of the stream bed as a color contrast to the pea gravel on the garden paths. When it rains, the dry stream becomes very colorful. I planned the stream bed to cross the front garden approach, in an informal X, as in X marks the spot on a treasure map. Here, too, is the satisfying idea that one must cross over the stream on the journey to the front door. This spring I was very pleased to take my mom on a driving tour to see eight neighboring gardens installed since I completed this one, in which the homeowners chose a similar theme of dry stream bed crossing the front path approach in an informal X. As an artist and designer, I think asymmetry plays a very important role in leading one’s eye through a composition, whether in a painting or in a garden. The front garden was made more mountainous by adding soil to match the slope of the neighbor’s garden, as allowed by the Grading and Drainage Permit. The aim was to create a relationship between mountain and water, and to honor the spiritual significance of this relationship as articulated by Confucius. Another practical goal was to raise the soil level because hedge height can be measured from the higher soil level, and furthermore, because specimen plants can be grown here without a height limit to cushion the front yard garden from the busy street.

A sound sculpture in the front garden activates with rain. Water is harvested from gutters on the house and garage and pumped into the sculpture before draining through a perforated drainage grid. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

A sound sculpture in the front garden activates with rain. Water is harvested from gutters on the house and garage and pumped into the sculpture before draining through a perforated drainage grid. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

An integrated drainage system, the first of its kind to be permitted in my city, orders this garden universe. My sister gave me Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, which I used to do the engineering to secure a Grading and Drainage Permit. This plot of land is blessed with incredibly advantageous riverine geology, once part of extensive orange groves, and a slope of 4-1/2 feet from the backyard to the front yard. She encouraged me to add a unique water feature to the drainage system, and reaching beyond exhaustion, I resolved to think carefully about this. So, I designed a “sound sculpture” in the dry stream bed. Rainwater flows passively from house and garage gutters, collects in an underground basin and is pumped up into the sound sculpture. Sufficient rain creates the sound of rushing water in the sound sculpture. Then this water drains passively underneath the entire front garden through a perforated drainage grid. A key feature of the sound sculpture is that it only works when it is raining. Another aspect of its design was to stack a series of quartzite flagstones on top of the sound sculpture basin, to create a Goldsworthy-like nest form in order to hide the brownish rain gutter water from view.

Permeable gravel surfaces finished with StabiliGrid tiles hold gravel in place and provide ADA-compliant wheelchair accessibility for the driveway and garden. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

Permeable gravel surfaces finished with StabiliGrid tiles hold gravel in place and provide ADA-compliant wheelchair accessibility for the driveway and garden. Photo © 2016, Cordelia Donnelly.

The permeable gravel driveway was finished with Stabiligrid tiles to hold the gravel in place. The Stabiligrid tiles filled with gravel also give the driveway and garden ADA-compliant wheelchair accessibility. Indeed, less concrete used in my whole garden renovation allows greater permeability: there is no runoff from the property. An outdoor soaking tub stands dry and covered, relies on zero chemicals, and is tied into the drainage system. A backyard pond is designed with an herbaceous border and contains chemically treated water. This pond drains itself separately from the drainage system, and is designed to drain passively into a deep french drain. Integrated drainage systems have been built since ancient times across diverse civilizations, and at different levels of complexity and cost. Even if we are not building drainage for an extensive palace, such as that found at Knossos on Crete, and at Machu Picchu in Peru, we need to do whatever we can to save water. These ideas are ancient, but feel new to our suburban gardening culture.

Recently, I installed an Australian-designed, gravity-fed, gray water drip system. I specified an Aqua2Use gravity filter with IrriGray drip components, which is distributed by in the USA. My system satisfies CA Building Codes and involves no modification of existing plumbing. It allows upstairs bathtubs to drain into the garden, via manual siphon into heat-proof Pex pipe going through the exterior wall. This drainage into my garden is encouraged provided that only low-sodium, pH neutral, bio-degradable soap is used (Dr. Bronner’s). To avoiding over-watering with supplementary water, this system sends water to general front garden beds, instead of to specific plants, and serves the major purpose of allowing this water to infiltrate back into the land.

Reflecting upon this garden odyssey, these journeys within journeys, I realize I have honored not only great cultural and aesthetic traditions, but also those of my ancestors. My great grandfather and grandfather developed diverse industrial uses of diatomaceous earth, an ingredient in the cactus mix I use for planting. I also have honored my parents:  my mother, a teacher, and my father, a builder-developer in Pasadena, California. This garden honors a growing global awareness about the need for sustainable water use and climate appropriate plants in every garden.

It is a miracle to witness how beauty transforms awareness, invites conversation, and inspires!

NOTE: BAGSC News previously published a plant list from Cordelia’s beautiful garden. Click on the words “plant list” in the previous sentence to view it, along with some pictures from the tour.

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