Serendipity in the jungle: Marcia Donahue’s art garden
The description was no less tantalizing:
My small urban garden has, over the past thirty-eight years, become mature—that is to say, way over my head—an oasis, and a California world of its, and our own. Unusual subtropical plants still intermingle with sculptures in steel, stone, and ceramic which Mark Bulwinkle, Sara Floor, Ted Fullwood, and I have made. Cevan Forristt helped me do a raccoon-proof koi pond. A collection of bantam chickens have the run of the garden by day and sleep in The Poultry Pagoda (Chicken Kremlin?) by night. I have added a “beach,” a faux eroded landfill of pebbles and shards. The ex-driveway is now The Big Beauty Garden, where strong colors and bold foliage embrace a ten-foot-tall ceramic, beatific female figure. The "National Collection of Bambusa Ceramica" continues to increase in size and varieties. The garden never holds still.
Oasis! Subtropical plants! Sculptures! Chickens! Beach! Ten-foot ceramic figure! And, last but not least, Bambusa Ceramica!
I was bursting with anticipation, but Kathy was way ahead of me. She knew that Our Own Stuff Gallery Garden belonged to Marcia Donahue. In Northern California garden design circles, Marcia is a giant. Even though I had seen Marcia’s pieces in quite a few gardens, including this one and this one, I had no idea how well-known—and beloved—she is.
Like Keeyla Meadows, Marcia is a prolific artist. And like Keeyla, she has been working on her own personal garden for decades—in Marcia’s case 38 years. A simple Google search will reveal a wealth of information (and photos) of Marcia’s garden. I won’t repeat what many others have already said. Instead, I’ll let Marcia’s garden speak for itself through my photos.
The front of the house is about as densely planted as it can be, considering there isn’t much room.
My eyes immediately went to the Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum)…
…and this aloe (probably Aloe marlothii) framed by lacy ornamental grasses.
To the left of the house, the driveway has been converted to a lush glen filled with bamboos, grasses and statues, such as this massive sculpture made by Marcia’s daughter Sara. She, her husband and son live with Marcia in her large two-story house.
The most perfect variegated Acanthus mollis I’ve ever seen
The real magic is in Marcia’s backyard, which you enter from the right side of the house. But before I even rounded the corner I was stopped in my tracks by a series of vertical pieces that seemed to be growing straight out of the ground. Mimicking organic shapes, they looked perfectly at home here.
The chains of oversized balls in this tree are inspired by malas, prayer beads used by Hindus and Buddhists in their spiritual practices.
Around the side of the house are more objects reminiscent of Buddhist culture. The figure on the right in the next photo is a nat, a spirit worshipped by Buddhists in Burma.
More nats and flower shapes line the side of the house, together with an impressive collection of bowling balls.
Here’s a wider view of the walkway to the backyard, looking towards the street…
…and towards the backyard:
Bamboo plays a prominent role in Marcia’s garden. What you see in the next couple of photos is Fargesia robusta, known for its distinctive culm sheaths. Some of Marcia’s own creations mimic the bamboo (she calls them “Bambusa Ceramica”) while others add a playful carnivorous note.
One of the most striking plants on this side of the garden is a variegated Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) that has mostly white leaves. Marcia added all-white ceramic pieces that look like they grew here.
I wasn’t able to proceed more than a few feet at a time before something else begged to be photographed:
Marcia’s backyard is an outdoor gallery for her art. And she manages the challenging feat of staging her creations in such a way that they complement—not overwhelm—the plants, which are often spectacular.
Electric pink cordylines
A weeping conifer from New Zealand whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten
But invariably my focus shifted back to Marcia’s art pieces. While many of them are vertical…
…there’s a great variety:
I feel in love with these ceramic bulbs displayed inside an old tire rim
These pieces looked like dried succulent rosettes
Art made of repurposed objects: dozens of spoons inside an old tire. The “beach” is made of broken ceramic pieces.
One of the narrow paths bisecting the backyard
Spectacular restios (Cannomois grandis)
Tree ferns, dwarfing Kathy Stoner on the right
I asked Marcia Donahue which kind of rhododendron this was but I’ve forgotten the cultivar name. It was something like Dr. Evans. Does the ring any bell?
Another personal favorite of mine: large metal springs with tillandsias
Marcia talking with two other garden visitors on the other side of the koi pond
View of the house from the backyard. This gives you an idea of how dense the plantings are.
I will leave you with a quote from a conversation between Marcia Donahue and Richard Whittaker from November 17, 2005. I found Marcia’s words very motivational—and something to aspire to as I continue to develop my own garden:
Question: You're a permission giver. A lot of people come to your garden and come away with a feeling that well, "Marcia can do this, maybe I can follow my dream or my own little idea." Can you comment on how you found your own freedom to express yourself in alternative ways.
MD: I think I'm just really out to lunch. I don't know where the box is, to tell you the truth. So thinking outside of it sometimes is just no big deal. I really don't know what some of the conventions are, or I'm so bored by them that I have ignored them. But also, I've been doing this for a long time and it kind of builds. I've gotten away with this, I've gotten away with that. I can wear my glitter suit tonight. Nothing bad has happened.
Good things have happened to me when I do what I want to do. So I've gotten reinforced for it. And you know, what I do isn't that outrageous. Some people are scared of opening your private home to "the public" That's a scary thing for some people, but nobody has plundered my treasures. Somebody did fall in the pond once.
Marcia Donahue’s garden (3017 Wheeler St. in Berkeley) is open to visitors most Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5 pm. Call ahead before visiting just to confirm (510-540-8544).