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 i