Any plant or nature lover who has come across Scott and Jenny Fleming’s garden in the Berkeley hills will remember the feeling: it is as if, somehow, you had made a wrong turn and found yourself on a road on the coastal side of Mount Tamalpais, or in a canyon near Mendocino. There, underneath a canopy of redwoods, are magnificent, fragrant western azaleas (Rhododendron occidentale), twenty-foot-tall vine maples (Acer circinatum), large patches of huckleberry and salal (Vaccinium ovatum and Gaultheria shallon), Philadelphus, even Labrador tea (Ledum glandulosum). Amidst the shrubs are hundreds of ferns—Polystichum, Adiantum, Woodwardia, Polypodium, Blechnum—and a lush ground cover of wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), both native species of Vancouveria, and redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana).
I was introduced to the garden about ten years ago when my gardening mentor, Terry Kelly, brought me by the shady front yard. “This is where I come when I’m looking for inspiration for planting a shady native garden,” he told me. Later, while volunteering at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park, which is just up the hill from the Fleming home (and also dedicated to California natives), I learned that the Flemings’ garden was widely considered one of the finest privately owned California native plant gardens. Last year, Scott and Jenny, both now in their eighties, realized they could no longer handle all of the maintenance of their garden, and I had the great fortune to be hired to tend it. They had begun planting the garden twenty years before I was born.
The Flemings’ garden is remarkable because it is an extensive collection of native plants that have been arranged exceptionally well. It elicits the “oohs and aahs” of a collector’s garden—trilliums, fritillarias, erythroniums—and expresses the flow and composition of a designer’s garden. The garden is actually much larger than the front yard that most people see from the street. The sky opens up behind the redwoods to a steep, sunny backyard criss-crossed with stone paths and terraces that frame a rock outcropping and waterfall. All of it was built and planted by Scott and Jenny, who began with a weedy lot in the early 1950s.
Leaders in a Native Plant Movement
By walking with them through their house and garden, and by listening to their stories, one sees that the garden is not just their life’s work but the product of their years exploring and enjoying California’s natural wonders. Looking at a patch of stream orchids (Epipactus giganteum), Jenny tells the story of nearly tipping over in a kayak, reaching for something on the bank to stabilize her, and coming away with a handful of the orchids, which she promptly planted when she got home.
Such stories illustrate one of the most impressive aspects of the garden. At the time the Flemings began their project, a native plant lover could not simply go to the local nursery and pick up some pots of Epipactus or choose from among several species of Lewisia. There was certainly a fledging native plant movement that a few good nurseries were supporting, but there was not much demand. As a result, many of the plants in the Flemings’ garden made it there in a way similar to the orchid—seeds collected on a hike, cuttings taken here and there—or they came from the Regional Parks Botanic Garden.
The Regional Parks Botanic Garden has been a continuing source of inspiration for the Flemings’ garden. Listening to Scott and Jenny’s stories, one constantly hears the names James Roof (botanic garden creator), Wayne Roderick (director, 1974-1983), and Steve Edwards (current director). Scott and Jenny first began visiting the garden and learning from the rather eccentric James Roof in the late 1950s. “He’d chase you out of there in a hurry if he didn’t like you,” Scott recalls, “but he took a liking to us because we listened to all his stories. We’d sit there for hours listening and learning about native plants.”
The friendship that developed there led to the creation of the California Native Plant Society. In 1962, the managers of the East Bay Regional Parks attempted to close and move the botanic garden. The Flemings got together with a group of about twenty friends, who realized what a treasure Roof had created in the East Bay hills and founded the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden as a means of preserving it. Their efforts in persuading the park directors to save the garden were successful. The momentum of their success led the group to found the California Native Plant Society in 19XX, which now has thousands of members throughout the state. The Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden is still active as well. Its courses, publications, and annual plant sale are important sources of funding for the garden, and continue to educate thousands of visitors to the delights of California’s native flora.
For close to fifty years, plants have been traded between the botanic garden and the Flemings. Jenny joined other volunteers in propagating plants from the botanic garden for its annual native plant sale; her own garden became a significant source of cuttings and seedlings for the sale. When a prized specimen at the Botanic Garden died, Steve Edwards was thrilled to find it thriving at the Flemings’ garden. It was Juniperus communis var. prostratus ‘Point St George’, a particularly lovely, prostrate, gray green juniper from a coastal location that has since fallen into the ocean! This selection had become a key plant in the Flemings’ garden; the gray green of the juniper, cascading over the red lava rock walls, provides a soft textural fabric that helps unify an otherwise diverse collection of natives.
James Roof may have sparked the Flemings’ love for natives, but it was Wayne Roderick’s incredibly infectious love and knowledge of California’s plants that made it a life-long affair. Wayne passed away in August 2003, but his legacy lives on in the countless plant lovers, botanists, and gardeners he inspired over many decades. Jenny and Scott are among those of his generation; my colleagues and I are among those in a younger generation. For us, the gardens planted by the Flemings and their peers are living examples that it is possible to create an established native environment in our lifetime. By “established native environment,” I do not mean “a recreated wilderness in the garden.” Because the native plant movement, itself, is relatively young, compared to the life of an oak tree, for instance, there are few established gardens that showcase California native plants. When I was in my mid-twenties and getting excited about gardening, it was difficult for me to imagine waiting for twenty to twenty-five years for a garden to mature, but the Fleming garden and the Regional Parks Botanic Garden were there to demonstrate the possibilities.
Lessons From the Garden
One of the invaluable lessons that I have learned from the Flemings and their garden is not to be daunted by slow-growing plants. I did not realize the extent of my own impatience with such plants until I saw the incredible enthusiasm that Jenny, over eighty years old at the time, had for planting a manzanita that would take another fifteen years to mature. Many of the key feature plants in their garden (western azalea, pacific dogwood, vine maple, manzanitas) that are now lovely, mature specimens take decades before their true glory shines. Jenny showed that successional planting, or interplanting with faster growing or more immediately rewarding plants, is a good way to offset the long wait for the slower growers to mature.
Another lesson that I learned from the Flemings is the importance of discipline in plant selection. They resisted the temptation to try one of every exciting new plant they came upon, and such restraint is evident throughout the garden. They created a collector’s garden that does not look like a collector’s garden; it is much more than an incoherent jumble of interesting plants. Their garden’s distinguishing characteristic is the combination of this discipline with a free-handed gardening style. They have allowed many of the plants to naturalize freely. Over the decades coast irises, ferns, coral bells (Heuchera), even large shrubs like currants (Ribes) and Ceanothus have sprung up on their own all over the garden; there is hardly a space between two rocks without an iris popping out of it.
Fortunately their plot of land is large enough to have allowed them to experiment with different plant combinations over the years. They developed certain themes, such as blue gray foliage, and focused on certain genera, such as Ceanothus and Arctostaphylos, displaying many different species within each genus. Through their experimentation, they found some simple, but stunning combinations.
More Than a Collection
The centerpiece of the garden is a magnificent manzanita, believed to be Arctostaphylos stanfordiana, that was a seedling found on the site when they began construction. It now stretches fifteen feet in all directions over an outcropping of large, red lava boulders that Scott built around the young tree. Beneath the manzanita is a small, understated swimming pool edged with red lava rock. Positioned above the rock wall, the manzanita’s airy form beautifully reveals its smooth, dark reddish brown bark. Clinging to the rocky slope beneath the manzanita is a simple, tasteful accent: half a dozen, chalk white rosettes of the succulent Baja native, Dudleya brittonii. Over the thirty-year period during which the manzanita was slowly maturing, they could have tried something else to “spice up” the area—something with “color,” or even another kind of Dudleya. But they chose to stay with the simple combination that captures the attention of visitors, even after they have walked through other parts of the garden filled with flowers.
A walkway framed by Santa Cruz Island buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) and Clematis ligusticifolia is another dynamic composition with just two plants. The slow-growing, mounding buckwheat on either side of the path has been carefully shaped to encourage it to grow up and not out over the path. The result is that the long, red strands of the buckwheat’s peeling bark, usually hidden by the foliage, is revealed. The clematis grows over the path on an arbor, directly over the buckwheat but not shading it. Both plants flower at the same time of year, putting on an eye-catching show in summer. In the fall, the show continues as the drying seed heads create an exquisite mix of colors and textures; fuzzy, puffball seed heads of the clematis hang above the buckwheats, their flowers now rusty shades of buff and brown against soft gray foliage.
A small triangular bed combines only three different species, but their varied textures provide interest through most of the year. Around the perimeter of the bed is a gorgeous blue gray grass, Calamagrostis foliosus. In the center is the low, creeping Ceanothus hearstiorum and around it, the superb bulb, Brodiaea californica. As early as January, the delicate new shoots of the Brodiaea appear and, with them, the expectation of another season’s bounty of flowers. By mid-spring these have grown into large grass-like clumps, and the Ceanothus has become a carpet of blue flowers. The flowers of B. californica are a rich, more purplish blue than other species in the genus; they also appear later, which works well in this situation, as they follow the Ceanothus. In the fall, the grasses are topped by feathery seed heads that contrast with the blue gray foliage and the rugged feel of the Ceanothus.
A feature of the main terrace in the garden is a small wildflower meadow planted almost exclusively with the often-overlooked red fescue grass (Festuca rubra). Red fescue is not very red at all, but is so named because of a small bit of dark red coloring at the base of each blade. Its fine, glossy, foliage is lush and green year-round, particularly with regular water. It grows in clumps and spreads by runners, forming a wispy, delicate meadow. Mixed in with it are various bulbs such as Brodiaea and Tritelia, poppies, blue flax (Linum lewisii), coast iris (Iris douglasiana), Potentilla gracilis, buttercups (Ranunculus californica) and Clarkia. After much experimentation, the Flemings decided to remove the several other grasses they had tried, and to let Festuca rubra “take over.” The simplicity of a single kind of grass makes the small meadow work. When the meadow is in full bloom, the red fescue is an uncomplicated background, and when many other parts of the garden are “browning out” in summer, the meadow is lush and green. Jenny often says that watching the fine blades of the fescue shimmer in the wind is one of the greatest joys she finds in her garden.
A recent visitor to the garden wondered, as many people do, if perhaps the Flemings were professional botanists or landscape architects. When I told her that their professional work had nothing to do with plants or gardening, she replied, “Of course, they are amateurs in the true sense of the word.” The derivation of the French word amateur, she informed me (and the dictionary later confirmed), is from the Latin amator, or lover. Indeed, their garden demonstrates the kind of beauty that can only be created through a lifetime of loving dedication.