San Marino was my first serious relationship with a neighborhood of gardens. I fell in love just as soon as I stumbled upon it, soon after I started college. Across California Blvd. from my Caltech undergrad dorm the flat street grids of Pasadena (already a very nice city) quickly give way to curving, hilly, quiet, tree-shaded streets bordered by large lots and beautiful gardens. I walked these streets sometimes during the day, but sometimes also biked them at night, enjoying the intoxicating fragrance of evening blooms.

It may have been the sleep deprivation associated with doing math and physics problem sets late into the night, or maybe the fog/smog that frequently enveloped the gardens, but being there felt like a dream. One huge old oak tree, whose gnarled branches were illuminated by ground lights in the fog, looked equally unreal in reality and in my dreams.

People must have lived on those streets. But either they were not there, or I did not perceive them. I could contemplate the(ir) gardens at my leisure. Just once, I spoke to one of the residents. My friend and I had been biking around, and encountered a small black kitten for the second consecutive night. She had a rubber band around her neck. Concerned, I went up a sloped driveway and rang the doorbell. A woman opened the door and explained that some kids had been playing with a stray kitten. We thanked her, and bagged the kitten, whom I named Nikita, to the protest of my Russian-born friend, who thought it was not an appropriate name for a lady cat. I was afraid that Nikita would try to escape back to San Marino, to return to the beautiful gardens, but she stayed.

After concluding our studies at Caltech, Nikita and I had moved to Stanford just at the height of the dot-com boom. Stanford didn’t allow cats on campus. Unable to find a place to live, we ended up initially living in unincorporated Menlo Park, in a warehouse. Atherton, a city exceeding even the affluence of San Marino, was just blocks away. But at its boundary the gardens were hidden behind towering walls and hedges, and the sidewalks were non-existent. Once I thought I glimpsed a tennis court behind one of the fences. I just now tried to figure out which garden that might have been by looking at satellite images on Google Maps. However, having a tennis court hardly narrowed down the candidate gardens. Every second property seemed to have one! If you zoom into San Marino, you can find a similar density of tennis courts. Who knew? I hope someone sometime writes some image recognition software to count up all the tennis courts in the world.

Atherton tennis courts.

Satellite image showing tennis courts in San Marino, CA

San Marino tennis courts.

A year into gradschool Nikita moved to Colorado to live with my parents, allowing me to move to Stanford campus, where I promptly lost the housing lottery and ended up in a shared rental in Los Altos. Los Altos had no sidewalks, which curtailed my explorations then, but I’ve been back since to make up on the gardens I was missing. In 2001 my husband and I moved into a cottage in Old Palo Alto together. The Eichler-style linoleum-lined 1 bedroom cottage was behind a modest 1920s house. But the neighborhood! It had miles of sidewalks and beautiful gardens. Steve Jobs lived a few blocks over, though I never quite figured out or cared which house it was. After we moved to Michigan, whenever I was back in the area, I’d walk around the (O)ld Palo Alto neighborhood. The cottage is no longer there. It and the front house were promptly replaced by a new mansion. But the gardens are still fantastic. And now that I’m back in the area, I visit there just to walk around.

A white wisteria in Palo Alto

There are other neighborhoods I’ve enjoyed. In Ann Arbor, a neighborhood of winding streets by the Huron river was irresistible when the dogwood or cherry trees were in bloom. When (thanks to Hotwire’s hotel roulette) I stayed in Hotel Angellino during a conference, I walked the streets of Bel Air and Westwood to reach the UCLA campus. I wandered around Piedmont after spotting it from a conference at the Claremont Hotel. Last Christmas, I was in Los Altos Hills picking up a last-minute order of wine bottles intended as Christmas presents. Finding myself on unfamiliar winding streets with intriguing gardens, I resolved to return. It was so worth it. You know how sometimes there will be a vista point along a winding route? Every garden there had a view of the bay. After seeing many “neighborhood watch” signs with threats of any suspicious activity being reported, I wondered how suspicious-looking our garden-gazing activity was. But I forgot about that when a man walking a horse came up behind us. We crossed the road to make way, and the man said “Don’t worry, he has already eaten.”

In light of the fine gardens that are open to the public, ogling people’s private gardens may seem strange. In fact, some of the nicest public gardens are nestled right smack in the middle of the the most beautiful neighborhoods; Gamble Garden in Old Palo Alto, for example. And it is hard not to mention the 120 acre Huntington Gardens in San Marino, my favorite botanical garden. I used to wander in there regularly, down a long, winding driveway. Since I assume no one expected a pedestrian, you could just stroll in. Shortly after I left Caltech, they’d installed a little booth in the driveway. When I tried walking past, a uniformed guard got all huffy, demanding that I make a “donation” to the foundation. These days, a weekend visit will set you back $29. I gladly pay it. There is hardly a botanical garden within range that I won’t visit given a chance. Once, having an unplanned 5-hour layover in Paris, I beelined for the Jardin des Plantes.

But botanical gardens suffer from a certain problem. If I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say “collections.” Huntington Gardens boast 1,400 different rose cultivars, and 1,200 different camellias. And if there is one thing to take away from The Little Prince, it is that the worst thing you can do to a rose is to put it next to 1,399 other roses. It is impossible to appreciate the individual beauty of a rose bush when it is placed in tidy, boring, rectangular rows next to roses that may be bigger, curlier, a slightly more exotic shade, whatever. The perfectly rectangular grid of 516 peony cultivars in Ann Arbor’s Nichols’ arboretum looks like nothing for most of the year, and then like a bunch of people snapping selfies for the few weeks that the peonies are in bloom. Same with the 140 dahlia cultivars in Mendocino’s botanical gardens.

I had felt guilty for not (yet) having taken my mom to San Jose’s municipal rose garden (only 159 varieties?). But when I finally did, we admired its tidy rows and pergolas, and other people taking selfies, but I found myself wanting to wander a few of the nearby streets which seemed to have nice gardens.

Each private garden is a whole. Composing each one is an art. The plants need to complement each other, and sustain year-round interest. California’s climate allows for a wide-range of garden styles, from succulent & cactus gardens reminiscent of the arid southwest, to english cottage, to Japanese gardens, or OK, fine, native California gardens. You never know what you’ll encounter next on your walk.

Atherton’s boundaries are the boundaries between green and gray in this satellite image.

While small gardens are lovely, some garden artistry requires… a larger canvas. But how to reconcile large gardens with the need to build more and denser housing?  San Marino’s wikipedia page points to rather strict regulations intended to maintain lot sizes and property values (see footnote for examples of things bolstering the appearance of gardens). In the same article there is also a reference to Forbes’ and Bloomberg’s lists of most affluent cities. San Marino was #48/#78 (depending on whether you look by zip code or city), but there was also Palo Alto (#97), Los Altos (#37), Los Altos Hills (#7), and a few other neighborhoods I’ve walked just to explore. At #1 was Atherton which had successfully rebuffed me with its walls and hedges.

Coincidentally, a few weeks back my friends and I drove down Atherton Avenue, dodging rush hour traffic by cruising down the heart of Atherton. There were no tall fences or hedges in sight! The gardens stood naked, exposed. Atherton, I’m checking out your gardens next.


Footnote:

Some regulations from the San Marino city ordinances:
“Ever since 1913, the year this city was founded, the City has built a reputation for well kept properties and strict enforcement of zoning restrictions and building regulations. The values and general welfare of this community are founded upon the appearance and maintenance of properties and property values.”
[In addition to not being able to park your car in your own driveway (cars must be in garages!), let alone on the street, there were several other prohibited behaviors relevant to garden aesthetics:]
7. Allow overgrown vegetation – likely to harbor rats, vermin and other nuisances; causing a detriment to neighboring properties and property values.
8. Allow dead, decayed, diseased or hazardous trees, weeds and other vegetation constituting unsightly appearance, or a detriment to nearby property.
14. To neglect premises to spite neighbors, or to influence zone changes, or to cause detrimental effect upon nearby property values.

[Also, interestingly, if this was in effect at the time, I did not have a license to “operate” my bike on San Marino city streets.:]
BICYCLE LICENSES Bicycle licenses are obtained at City Hall for a nominal fee and must be procured before a bicycle can be operated on City streets. []

  One Response to “Other people’s gardens”

  1. Really enjoyed your blog on gardens. Another reason to preserve our lovely planet. Go Bikers.

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