The Resourceful Gardeners: Alice Wilkinson and Tom O’Mara of Happy Valley


Say you invite Alice Wilkinson to a fancy dinner party in Beverly Hills, and say she admires the flavorful heirloom tomatoes that you serve on the salad. Be forewarned: Alice is the kind of gardener who will walk herself to the kitchen and ask if the tomatoes happen to be organic (which will increase the likelihood that they will come true -– or produce much the same fruit -– from seed). If you answer in the affirmative, she will squash the seeds of that salad tomato into her paper napkin, wrap it up neatly and tuck it in her handbag. Next summer – voila- – the tomatoes – now known as ‘Tracy’s Heirloom’ – will be thriving in her Happy Valley Garden. Photo: A gorgeous pink cutting-grown rose clothes the side of Alice Wilkinson and Tom O’Mara’s Sonnenhaus.

Similarly, when Tom O’Mara and Alice Wilkinson realized the bats that lived in the eaves and attic of their house were the source of the ever more unpleasant odor in the house, they did not (as some of us might have) exterminate or otherwise evict the colony. No, they knew that the creatures were incredibly beneficial allies in the garden, despite their odor. So after some thought, Tom built an apartment-building-sized bat house – “You see how it’s two sided?” Alice points out. “That’s because the nursing mothers need their own space,” she explains. While the pest control people suggested they put their bat house on a tree in the garden, Tom and Alice ultimately decided to put it on the house right next to where the bats currently entered the eaves. Tom then sealed the eaves and the bats relocated with relative ease. Photo: Alice Wilkinson and Tom O’Mara.

But why waste all that great bat guano (for which you pay dearly as organic fertilizer) and have a messy deck, when you could design and build a garden box to plant up right beneath the bat house? Tom and Alice did just that and – voila – no wasted guano, a tidy deck and a well-fed container garden. Photo: The custom bat house, built by Tom.

If you by any chance read the Doni Greenberg piece at anewscaft.com discussing worm bins and vermiculture with Alice Wilkinson, you won’t be surprised by my point here: Alice Wilkinson and Tom O’Mara are some highly resourceful gardeners, and my visit to their two-acre Happy Valley garden reminded me again of how much we as gardeners have to share with and teach one another. Photo: Looking down one of the long perennial borders at Sonnenhaus Garden.

I do believe that all gardeners are resourceful at some baseline level – resourcefulness is inherent to gardening. But Alice and Tom go to the next level -– and their home garden in Happy Valley is multifaceted, lush, colorful and productive. While resourcefulness is important at any time, it grows more important our communities, our environment and our local and personal economies all the time. Photo: A leftover spork doubles as a plant label.

Happy Valley is due west of Anderson, and due southeast of Igo, California on an oak, grassland and manzanita plateau. Tom O’Mara first bought their 20-acre parcel in 1983. After meeting in 1985 and discovering their mutual interest in solar energy, they began to build their house -– Sonnenhaus -– in 1990. Sonnenhaus means ‘sunhouse’ in German and, as the name implies, the house (and gardens) are primarily solar powered (solar panels provide electricity, heat and hot water) through both active and passive solar design elements. Sonnenhaus Gardens are — appropriately — irrigated from a well the pump for which runs on solar power. Photo: ‘Pace’ or ‘Peace’ at the entrance to Sonnenhaus.

The two of them designed the house together, from its positioning in relation to the sun’s seasonal trajectory, to the full-sized bathroom pocket mirror that pulls out of the wall in front of the master bathroom’s vanity sink. If you need the large mirror, it is there, and if you don’t need a mirror, push it back into the wall and you have a window looking out over the garden. Clever. Resourceful. Photo: An inviting screened sleeping porch overlooks the garden.

The design of the garden went hand-in-hand with the design and building of the house. Both Alice and Tom enjoy and work in the garden. She is perhaps the more plant-oriented and he the more hardscape-oriented: “I design systems, spread manure, dig holes and put in fences,” he tells me wryly, but not unhappily. “It is a rural and wild landscape and I love that, so the higher maintenance areas of the garden are close to the house and the plantings become increasingly wild the further you get from the house. We are at 860 feet and the temperatures get pretty cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. We have to watch our water use carefully and so basically, I only baby a plant for a short time while it is getting established –- if it can’t make it on its own after that, well, then, it doesn’t make it,” is Alice’s mostly survival-of-the-fittest attitude to the garden.

From the start, intentional, creative, resourceful and frugal were watchwords for Sonnenhaus and its gardens. However, certain realities of their area dictate certain things, for instance the issue of deer meant that if Tom and Alice wanted a tended garden, they needed a fence, and because the entire North State lives with the fact of a regular summer fire season, rigorous clearing and cleaning with fire in mind takes place annually. “Specimen manzanita are maintained and any large trunks or branches cleared each year are used for fenceposts and supports throughout the garden,” they say.

Which brings me to the list of practices that are at the core of Alice and Tom’s resourcefulness. While not exhaustive, these general categories describing how Alice and Tom approach economy and resourcefulness are what have contributed to Sonnenhaus Gardens being low-impact in its wastefulness, high impact in its aesthetics and high yield in the happiness it provides.

RE-USE/RECYCLE: We all have ways in which we recycle, and it is a great habit with very good returns in the garden. When exterior siding came down from one project, Tom and Alice used this siding to create the raised beds, including two deep potato bins, in the vegetable gardens. Have a leftover variety of extra plastic spoons, forks or sporks? Perhaps you have little bits of dried or driftwood? They make great plant labels in Alice’s garden. When a redwood deck needed to be replaced, Tom and Alice used the old redwood decking to create raised beds in the vegetable garden.

COLLECT AND SAVE SEEDS: Besides the tomato-seeds-from-Beverly-Hills story, Alice regularly collects seeds from gardens and plants she admires. She has thick clumps of cheery foxgloves throughout her cottage-garden-style front beds grown from seeds collected from her brother’s garden in Nyack, New York. The bright red, self-seeding poppies coursing throughout the same front beds were grown from seed taken from the same brother’s other garden in Tuscany.

“When someone tells me I cannot do something, I try all the harder,” admits Alice. After someone told her that tree peonies do not do well being transplanted, she went ahead and moved one from her old house in town to her Sonnenhaus Garden. The peony blooms heartily every spring. When someone told her she could not grow fruiting stock of grapefruit from seed, she went ahead and tended a little plant self-sown from a chance seed -– “just in case” –- and she and Tom now have sweet, pale-fleshed grapefruit throughout the year. Same story for a tangerine that now produces nicely in the back yard and an apple that produces nicely in the front yard. Seeds are worth trying -– they are cheap, easy and deeply satisfying if they work.

COMPOST: Alice and Tom rarely if ever buy commercial compost or fertilizer. They have both a regular yard waste compost and worm bins in which they put a good deal of their kitchen waste. Composting is one of the easiest and most resourceful habits to incorporate into your gardening and life.

SHARE: While Alice and Tom will sometimes buy a garden plant they are interested in, a large majority of the plants in their garden came to this garden as transplants from their old garden, as divisions from other people’s gardens, started from cuttings from other people’s gardens as well as from seeds collected from other people’s gardens. In turn, Alice and Tom are exceedingly generous with their bounty, pointing out divisions or volunteers they have already potted up to see if you might like one to take home. At one time, Alice considered going into the wholesale nursery business with the perennials she grew along from seeds or cuttings, but when she decided against it, she threw a huge summer party and everyone who attended got a plant to take home as a party favor.

BE PATIENT/BE FLEXIBLE: Techniques such as growing a grapefruit and finished compost take time. As with the whole act of gardening, remembering that time is a valuable resource working in your favor helps you enjoy the process rather than just the end result. To eat a grapefruit grown from seed by your hands and fed with compost turned and watered by your labor — is nourishing in a way that transcends any other grapefruit. A good many of Alice and Tom’s garden flowers are also “volunteers” from self-sown annuals, perennials and biennials. While plants like these can go places you had not intended, or be thugs and take over a garden, requiring diligent care and oversight, sometimes they are fortuitous happenings. The apple tree near the front door of Sonnenhaus was not planted there by Alice. When she saw the leaves shooting up each spring and summer she would hack the plant back. Eventually she got tired of this cycle and just let the tree go. While Alice did not know the tree would produce fruit, she now has apple blossoms each spring and small, flavorful apples each fall — right out the front door.

BE CREATIVE: Being creative means learning to think resourcefully, often in order to solve a problem. And sharing our creative ideas with each other (see SHARE, above) really stretches our own resourcefulness. Alice and Tom seem especially good about being creative with their resourcefulness, which could be attributed to their backgrounds in art, education and youth programming. Creative, resourceful habits at Sonnenhaus Garden include, for instance, attractive glass bottles filled with water lining their front windows and potting shed windows to create thermal mass and help regulate the interior temperature.

A wonderful and creative technique I learned from Alice and Tom’s garden was the painted walnut trick for deterring bird damage to the strawberry crop. Here’s how, from Tom and Alice to you: once your strawberry crop has set fruit, but not started to ripen, paint as many walnuts as you have strawberry plants a bright, strawberry-red color using a glossy, water-proof paint. Once dry, sprinkle the walnuts throughout the strawberry patch –- pushing them in a little and tucking them under strawberry leaves to increase their naturalistic feel. Then wait. According to Alice who says this method is very effective, the birds come, peck the hard walnut shell and realize that strawberries aren’t that great.

Voila. An intact strawberry harvest. Done well, inexpensively, and resourcefully.

Have a resourceful tip or trick from your North State Garden? Share it here as a comment or send me an email and I will be happy to share it next month: Jennifer @jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden is a radio- and web-based outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden celebrates the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region, and is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell — all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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