Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - November 18, 2011

A garden that delights

No theme limits Marilyn Waterman's imagination

by Elizabeth Lorenz

It started out as a cabbage patch. One neighbor even wrote a poem about it.

Nowadays, Willows resident Marilyn Waterman's front yard is far from a cabbage patch. There aren't even any cabbages planted alongside the grapevines, apple tree, artichokes, strawberries, blueberries and rhubarb that are planted there.

The yard defies description. As a writer, one looks for themes, commonalities, something to tie a story together. But Waterman's front yard plants, while deliberately chosen, are whimsical, unusual and certainly not uniform. And there is no theme.

For example, her so-called "Dr. Seuss" tree, a deep maroon-leafed creature with leggy branches, reaches over toward a bamboo plant, placed inside what appears to be a horse trough. Actually, it is a horse trough.

If she had to be pinned down, Waterman would say the garden is "Briggsdale, Colo., meets Napa Valley."

In other words, she has a low fence outlining the corner lot made to resemble a rancher's fence — similar to her father's homestead ranch in Colorado, where there were horses, cattle and an array of food-growing plants.

If there is a theme to her front garden, Waterman sums it up this way: "I like a plant that when I look at it, it delights me."

Hence her smoke tree, aka Dr. Seuss, is allowed to grow leggy, to resemble a nonsensical tree from "The Lorax" or some other of the children's author's books.

Interspersed among the fruit-bearing plants and waving grasses are bright orange dots of nasturtiums, and a ground cover that is related to a Japanese maple.

"Size, form and color" is Waterman's mantra. Always look for variations in these things when picking plants, she says, and of course place them based on how much water and sun they need. She often tells clients she consults with to place plants in threes or fives for visual interest.

Waterman wasn't always a garden consultant, although she says she's always been a gardener. She remembers gardening even in Fremont where she grew up and her mother staking out a sweetpea area against her back fence.

In the 1980s, Waterman was a documentary filmmaker. By the '90s, she'd taken a job at Hewlett-Packard producing marketing videos. In that job, her skills as a visual artist came to the fore, recognizing how color and design would create the most impact.

But gardening was never far from her heart. "I'd go into someone's cubicle with a plant screaming, 'rescue me!' I was always taking orchids home."

By 2000, it was time for a change, so Waterman volunteered to be laid off during a downsizing of the company.

She and her partner then spent a year in Oaxaca, in southwestern Mexico, where they gardened in the courtyard of their rental home.

When she returned home, her father was dying, so she spent lots of time by his bedside where they talked about the things they had in common, like gardening. Before her father died, Waterman knew that she wanted to do something that involved a deeper connection with life. So she signed up for a horticulture class at a community college.

Eventually she got a job at Roger Reynolds Nursery in Menlo Park where she worked for more than five years. Her nursery mentors helped her build confidence, interact with customers and solve problems. "I intentionally treated it like grad school," she said.

"One thing you do learn when you work at a nursery is you don't have answers," she said. Customers would come in with clippings from sick plants and expect the experts to have answers. She learned to say "I don't know, let's look it up" often, as she and the customer would head for the Sunset Western Garden Book.

She took and passed the state's nurseryman's license test, began writing a column for the San Jose Mercury News, and eventually started her garden consulting business.

She sees herself as a gardening guide, asking clients questions about what they like but letting them make the final decisions.

"I used this yard to practice," she said. One of the perks of working at a nursery, she said, was being able to take home sick or damaged plants. "I would just watch them. I was collecting a palette."

Colors abound in the front garden, where grasses grow in waves throughout the yard, their colors changing depending on the breeze, pink on one side, golden or green on the other.

Her low-growing strawberry plants complement things like blue-green succulents tucked underneath bushes. She also uses plants to offset each other's size, shape or color.

The maroons, reds, oranges and light and dark greens eventually lead the eye around to the side gate, where you enter the backyard.

As you go through the gate, your feet crunch on granite fines (finely ground granite stone), leaving Colorado behind, and entering: tropical Oaxaca.

The hardscape is now a mix of steppingstones and fines, as well as a low rectangular ledgestone wall outlining a lush garden of tropical flowers, rose bushes and an abutilon tree, heavy with salmon oblong globe-shaped flowers. The tree needs pruning, she said, but she'll wait awhile because the hummingbirds are still enjoying the flowers.

The attractive, sunny yard is cozy with several sitting nooks and always something to look at. Waterman points proudly to a volunteer tomato vine in the center, planted next to, of all things, an exotic aloe plant that will eventually rise 15 feet tall.

The yard is filled with pots of succulents and cacti in various shapes and colors.

Hidden along the side of the house is a vegetable garden as well as a crowded mini nursery of collected "rescue" plants.

Although hugely a labor of love, Waterman's garden makeover didn't come cheap. She estimates the front hardscaping (including labor and special irrigation to suit different plants' needs) at about $10,000, and the back, which included a stone patio, at $20,000. She used mostly her own cuttings and cast-off nursery plants.

Ultimately, all Waterman really wants back from her garden is for it "to continually engage me, to continually surprise me."

One surprise she's received from her garden is the interaction her front yard gives her with the neighborhood. One neighbor couldn't resist giving her a poem about her cabbage patch. Other passersby point out real artichokes to their toddlers, or nibble on the fresh grapes.

On one recent summer day, the garden caught the delighted attention of a group of door-to-door solicitors, who slowly wandered along the sidewalk in front of her house commenting, pointing and smiling at the plants.

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PULL QUOTE:

'I like a plant that when I look at it, it delights me.'

— Marilyn Waterman, garden consultant

Freelance writer Elizabeth Lorenz can be emailed at elizabeth_lorenz@yahoo.com.

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