Pseudonatural Freakshow

Last Saturday was the Garden Conservancy's first Open Day of 2017 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Four gardens were open for touring in the East Bay (Berkeley and Oakland). I had visited two of them last year, including ceramic artist Marcia Donahue's personal oasis, so I skipped them because my time was limited (and I already had planned a stopover at Annie's Annuals for the drive home to Davis).

Of the two gardens I did visit on Saturday was one in Berkeley listed in the Open Days Directory under the intriguing moniker Pseudonatural FreakshowHere is how it was described:
My garden began as an effort to develop my yard as habitat for birds and other winged life, shaped by the natural spaces I love to visit. Though originally stocked with many plants that provide food and nesting material for birds, it is being filled in more and more with the strange and fantastic plants that catch my eye. I’ve tried to make a garden that feels like Nature is—if not actually winning—at least making a good showing. The 5,000-square-foot back garden is the oldest part and is mostly multi-storied verge areas to appeal to birds. A creek on our northern border is part of a natural flyway for birds. Aesthetically, I pay attention to site lines and plant combinations, especially those with interesting foliage. I like to start with wide pathways and then allow the plants to encroach. My aesthetic is definitely naturalistic, but I make no effort to be geographically correct nor do I favor California natives for any reason other than their individual, inherent excellence. Our house is in an old frumpy warehouse where my wife does her artwork. So there is little relation between it and the garden and very little by way of views out to the garden from inside. Most everything in the garden was made by me from repurposed materials including an urbanite courtyard off our backdoor made from the concrete demo’d from a school basement where I taught during an earthquake retrofit. The redwood staves from an old water tower were used to make decking, fencing, and a smaller storage shed. More reclaimed materials went into building a forty-foot pergola over the front garden, more raised beds, and many sitting areas. Plants include succulents, bromeliads, begonias, roses, echiums, solanums, phormiums, fruit trees, passion vines (including an older Passiflora membranacea), a wide range of herbaceous and woody plants including many from the cloud forest like Telanthophora grandifolia, Salvia wagneriana, Abutilon tridens, Iochromas, agapetes, fuchsias, brugmansia, and Deppea splendens.
I was hooked, but I had no idea what to expect. The sliding gate at the entrance to the garden definitely had a light-industrial vibe. And the building itself did look like a generic commercial space.

The area inside the gate was much different from what the outside suggested: open, bright, and sunny (well, whatever passed for sunny last Saturday). A clump of Echium 'Mr Happy' were indeed happy in the middle of the courtyard.

Echium 'Mr Happy', a hybrid between Echium wildprettii and Echium pininana

'Mr Happy' is a cross between two Echium species, Echium wildprettii (the ubiquitous tower of jewels) and the rarer Echium pininana. I will forever associate 'Mr Happy' with Annie's Annuals; I don't know if they created this hybrid but they have popularized it in Northern California. 

As it turned out, I would see quite a few other Annie's Annuals plants in this garden--further proof of how influential Annie Hayes' nursery continues to be in Bay Area gardening circles. The white-flowering form of Geranium maderense in the photo below is an Annie's Annuals introduction.

White-flowering form of giant geranium (Geranium maderense)
I was pleased to find this beautiful clump of Mexican weeping bamboo;

Geranium maderense in the back, Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata 'Aztecorum') in the front

My own specimen is in a wooden half barrel, and while it has survived for 8 years, it's never really happy. It wants to be in the ground where it can spread at will. Unfortunately, I don't have a good spot for it.

I was also happy to see a couple of newly planted pin cushions (Leucospermum cultivars) near the Mexican weeping bamboo. Here's one of them:

Leucospermum 'Tango'
Walking from the front to the back garden, I passed through a corridor in a small standalone structure. I don't really know how to describe it. There was a day bed with mosquito netting in a small alcove to the right. On the left, a window with an ornamental metal insert but no glass offered a good view of Strawberry Creek, remarkably wild-looking although we're in the middle of an urban area. This was my favorite vignette in the garden because it had such an air of mystery about it.

Clearly, a gardener lives here!
Now we're in the back garden. While the front was open and airy (and is clearly still a work in progress), the back is lush, shady and mature. I can only imagine how nice it must be to hang out here on a hot summer day--provided they have those in Berkeley.

In the photos below I give an ID where I have one. Fortunately,  a helpful plant list created by the owner was available upon request. I wish more gardens would do that.

Phormium 'Guardsman'

Orange-flowering Abutilon 'Victor Reiter' (another Annie's Annuals plant)

Beschorneria albiflora, a succulent endemic to southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras

Sanchus palmensis, a giant dandelion relative from the Canary Islands, next to a European white birch

Another Beschorneria albiflora next to a Geranium maderense

Wider view

Echium candicans 'Star of Madeira'

Echium candicans 'Star of Madeira'

Canary Island tree euphorbia (Euphorbia lambii)

Another Euphorbia lambii

Euphorbia lambii leaves against smoke bush (Cotinus coggyria)

Lobelia aguana, one of the plants I just purchased at Annie's Annuals

View of the central area of the back garden

Massive Aeonium 

Shortcut to the path along the fence in back

Brugmansia 'Charles Grimaldi', contrasting perfectly with the blue Adirondack chairs

Tropical corner

I don't know if officially there's such a thing as the Bay Area style of gardening, but this garden definitely fits the esthetic. I'm always envious of how effortlessly zone 10 gardeners can grow plants that are challenging for me, like those leucospermums, aeoniums, tree euphorbias, etc.


All posts about Garden Conservany Open Days


  1. I am just in awe of the diversity and creativity I see in your west coast gardens. They must be so much fun to tour. I rarely see collector's gardens on the Open Day tours around here.

    1. I think the fact that gardeners in the Bay Area (and even where I live) can garden year round really helps.

  2. So much to see here...definitely not a garden you can speed through. The Opuntia pad in the Phormium 'Guardsman' made me smile. I'd love to see them both in a couple of years. And the Abutilon 'Victor Reiter' image. Does the tree trunk really belong to the Abutilon? OMG.

  3. What an awesome space. I'm only a teeny tiny bit jealous of Bay area gardeners!

  4. Fun garden, and very Bay Area. They have a wonderful climate there.

  5. I think I would have enjoyed this one Gerhard, maybe it will be open again next year. I have always wanted one of the white G maderense but a spot for it eludes me.

    1. I tried the regular Geranium maderense a few years ago but it succumbed to the drought. I think it needs fairly regular watering in its first summer. There are some huge specimens on the UC Davis campus. Too bad they only live 2-3 years.

  6. What a fun and interesting garden -- so glad owners of such fine gardens open them to tour. Lots of lobelias are trickling in through Annie's. I've got a L. fistulosa from Annie's that looks promising if I can get it through summer.

    1. Denise, be forewarned not to let that Lobelia fistula go too dry, and in Long Beach it would probably prefer dapple shade or only morning sun. I can't wait to see the half dozen I planted out come into full bloom! I fell in love with it when I first saw it blooming massively at Annie's, plus the Brazilian connection...

    2. I plan on giving my newly planted Lobelia aguana regular water this summer. Hopefully it'll get by with less water next year.

  7. I'd have been intrigued by that garden description too and I'm not at all disappointed to see how it materialized. It's delightful and I can definitely see Annie's influence.

  8. Sorry I missed bumping into you Gerhard at Mark's open garden, or maybe I was inside getting a tour of his wife Lia's fabulous artwork in her studio. Mark and Lia are opening up the garden again to California Hort Society and Hortisexuals members on Sunday, April 30th, so if one wanted to visit, one could. Mark has gotten a lot of his plants from me over the years, and I was most impressed with what he's done with the garden in the year he's been retired. Too bad I didn't know you were in Berkeley, I only live a block away from Mark and Lia's place and would have invited you over.

    Annie has influenced all of us locally, she's such an enabler! Plus I love that I can get her to so readily prop things from my garden, or follow up on suggestions!

    We do have a good deal climate wise here in Berkeley, and we know it... I can't believe I took no pictures, but it was relaxing to just "be" in the garden. That little day bed vignette looked inspired, and I also quite liked the raised deck at fence height in the back corner with views of the creek and park. I can't believe you didn't include photos of the Wigandia in bloom, while I was there, everyone was fascinated by it!

    1. David, I was at Mark's garden around noon. I'm really sorry to miss you. I'd to love see your garden and would definitely drive to Berkeley just for that. Let's set something up :-).

      The wigandia didn't register. I was probably too busy gawking at other plants. There was a LOT to see.

  9. That Echium 'Mr. Happy' is so comical, I like it just for that. Someday I'll have to come back out and see gardens again like in 2013's blogger fling, including to buy some plants at Annie's.

    1. Even though it's biennial and dies after flowering, it does reseed so you'll never be without it. Just as with the regular tower of jewels (Echium wildprettii).

  10. So sorry I didn't get to talk with you that day, Gerhard. The day went by in a flash and it was only afterwards that I realized I hadn't eaten anything. Something about sharing your gardens with people who are into is so energizing. If you're ever in town and would like to see the garden in a different season it would be my pleasure. I've really enjoyed seeing the garden through your eyes. You are an excellent photographer. I share photos of my garden a lot on Facebook and I was surprised by many of the angles you found which had eluded me. Well done.

    By the way, I'm coordinating a trip for Calhort to Davis to see gardens selected by Ernesto Sandoval this month on the 21st. Small world.

    1. Mark, so good to hear from you! Thank you for commenting. I really wanted to talk to you but you were surrounded by so many people when I was there--kind of like the bees buzzing around the Echium 'Mr Happy' in your front yard :-).

      I'd love to visit your garden again under less busy circumstances. Maybe I can combine it with a visit to David Feix's garden?

      Would love to join your group in Davis on the 21st. I just joined CalHort. Ernesto rocks.

    2. Let me contact Ernesto to see if he'd mind bumping the number up by one for a home boy. We're also honoring Ernesto at the awards dinner on May 15 at which he'll also be our featured speaker. I'm on the dinner committee or I'd offer to meet you earlier that day so I'll need to arrive early. Nice to cyber meet you, Gerhard. Bracey linked me to your blog. Happy to find it.

  11. Oh and I'd love to have you over when you come to see David's garden - and I wouldn't at all mind going with you to see his garden again either. If I was a wealthy man I'd try to commission David to do my hell strip. I wouldn't tell him what I wanted done. I'd just ask him to do what he thinks fit with the garden with the whole and pleased him.


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