Barbara Worl, eminent practitioner of gardening—that most ephemeral of arts—died on September 12, 2017, at age 90. Born in Indiana, she made her home in California after graduating in 1950 with a degree in English history from Stanford. With a small inheritance, she bought a house on a 100-foot by 100-foot lot in Menlo Park and began making her first garden. Over a 55-year career as a bookseller at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto, she built up a superb gardening book section and befriended gardeners and old rose lovers around the world.
Barbara made three gardens in her life. All were informed by an inquiring mind, extensive reading, and visits to gardens here and abroad. Two of her three favorite gardens were in France. Odile Masquelier’s La Bonne Maison, high above the city of Lyon, was one, with its spectacular collection of heritage and species roses. The other was the garden of rose breeder and nurseryman André Eve in Pithiviers. Eve’s “…was lovely beyond words, a fantastic, very small-town garden, which in 35 by 150 feet manages to recreate fairyland,” Barbara wrote. “Roses of all types bloom with abandon, clambering through trees and hanging over perennials.” The third was the Sonoma garden of Michael Bates with its “dreamy view of the barn through cascading roses.”
One has the whole year to look forward to the next flowering, and the wait builds character.
Barbara could have been describing her own gardens, two of which she made at different times at her home on Mills Avenue. The other, begun in the mid-1960s, was a two-acre plot of fallow land on Cowper Street in Palo Alto, which the owners allowed her to transform into a garden. Barbara originally planned a huge cutting garden, but that idea eventually gave way to “curving paths where old roses served as shrubs in island beds with other plants at their feet.”
For 20 years, Barbara gardened at Cowper Street after working all day at Bell’s Books. I visited just once, on one of Barbara’s open garden days, and was bewitched. I remember a wild exuberance of plants, enormous mounds of tea and Bourbon roses, and the single white banksia flinging itself high up into an ancient live oak. The place was enchanting. Barbara’s way of planting—her tremendous freedom and sense of play, her unfettered delight in exuberance and abundance—radically changed my ideas of what a garden could be.
The Cowper Street garden was also my introduction to the old-fashioned roses that Barbara collected from gardens and cemeteries in the early 1950s. Over the years, she shared her passion for these charming scented roses through slide talks at Palo Alto’s Gamble Garden, Western Horticultural Society meetings, and rose symposiums at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Under the imprint of Sweetbrier Press, she published cards and calendars that featured her own romantic and evocative photographs. Never mind that some of these old roses bloom just once. According to Barbara, “One has the whole year to look forward to the next flowering, and the wait builds character.”
But it was the final garden around her home that I knew best. She made it with the help of Janet Eldridge and Ron DeBord when the Cowper property was sold. I saw it in its infancy and watched it mature. I witnessed the progression of bloom through the seasons. In spring, the crabapple and tulips, the dogwood and weeping Japanese cherry, began the enchantment. By April, the roses ‘François Juranville’, ‘Buff Beauty’, ‘Pink Mermaid’, ‘Rêve d’Or’, ‘Graham Thomas’, and ‘Reine des Violettes’ were romping up the 70-foot pergola facing the street.
In summer, the back meadow garden came alive. Asters, salvias, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, verbascums, dahlias, and roses danced and swayed in a riot of color. Fall brought fruit. The old guava and ‘Hachiya’ persimmon gave of their bounty and Barbara filled buckets for all her neighbors. In October, we counted the pomegranates suspended from branches over the fountain in front of the house. The scent of wintersweet heralded winter.
In every season, the 63-year-old garden exuded joie de vivre and somehow managed to look fresh and vibrant. Barbara regularly dosed its inhabitants with organic fertilizers and they thrived. With weekly help from Adan Reyes Pino and Bernadine Pareno, she kept on gardening. The views were always changing because she delighted in adding perennials, annuals, and bulbs from nurseries around the Bay Area and the country. The phone would ring: “Virginia, I’ve been to Annie’s Annuals and I’ve got a new Primula auricula for you. And the crabapple is blooming! Hurry!”
And so I began stopping by the garden at least once a week. How many times over the years we just wandered round it, scarcely speaking but stopping often to admire some bloom or combination of plants. And as we circled the house, Barbara would be gently snapping off dead flowers, clipping roses for a bouquet, or tying up ‘Soleil d’Or’, the Pernet-Ducher rose from before 1898, which she adored.
Time stood still for us in the garden.
As I write this in November, little parcels of Barbara’s last plant orders are arriving at Bell’s Books just as they have for more than 60 years. The packages are filled with daffodil and tulip bulbs—new varieties, no doubt, which Barbara just had to try. How strange it is that she will not be giving them homes on the path that long ago replaced her driveway.
The day before she died, Barbara whispered to me, “My time in the garden is over.” Her life was one long, joyous love affair—with gardens and garden makers, with plants and roses, with her dear neighbors, with her Indiana family and the Bell family, with the cats who sunned themselves on the paths, and with the songbirds who swooped and chirped all through the garden.
Barbara loved and was much loved. She opened her Quaker heart to all manner of living creatures, including people. Her friendships were lifelong. She once said that not a day went by that she didn’t miss Israel Harris, her beloved husband of 38 years, and Herbert Bell, who hired her to work at Bell’s Books. She may have corresponded with the likes of England’s Graham Stuart Thomas and the Marchioness of Salisbury, but she welcomed all and sundry to her garden. Nothing pleased her more than sharing it.
Barbara once heard organic pioneer Alan Chadwick say that the ultimate art of the gardener was to lead the eye onward and upward, culminating in a vision—the gardener’s Eden. “It is not always possible to achieve the vision,” she wrote, “but we can strive for it.” Even in the last month of her life she could be found watering the garden or sitting under the crabapple, chopping up birch twigs to strew on the paths. Barbara enriched my world and I was blessed to know her.
Author Virginia Kean wishes to thank Faith Bell for all her help and for access to Barbara’s papers and photo archives.