The Historic WPA Rock Garden – William Land Park, Sacramento: an Interview with Daisy Mah, Gardener

The sign at the entrance to the ornamental garden in Sacramento’s William Land Park reads: WPA Rock Garden, Established 1940. The sign is not original to the garden’s 1940s-era design and construction, it was erected less than 20 years ago by gardener Daisy Mah. In charge of this distinct one-acre garden since 1988, Daisy – a City of Sacramento Parks Department employee – wanted the garden on which she spends hours each day to have an entrance sign with its own name. “When I first began work here more than 20 years ago, people called the garden ‘The Jungle’ or ‘The Maze’ or the ‘Ivy Garden.'” Because many of the surrounding Land Park neighborhood residents regularly visit the garden’s meandering paths and magical plantings, Daisy polled the neighborhood for what the official name of the garden should be. The majority of responses were that the garden should be called “Daisy’s Garden” – but Daisy ultimately settled on the simply stated name and rustic metal and wood sign you see today. Photo: The entrance sign for the WPA Rock Garden at William Land Park in Sacramento. The garden is on 15th Avenue across the street from Fairytale town and beside to the park’s amphitheater.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a Depression-Era work-relief program instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his New Deal. The WPA employed out-of-work professionals, artisans, craftspeople, fine artists, and writers to work on projects that to improve towns and cities all over the country. Sacramento’s WPA Rock Garden, a one-acre naturalistic garden set on a sloping hillside between Fairytale Town and the Duck Pond in William Land Park was one such WPA project. Like many WPA projects after the New Deal funding ended, the WPA Rock Garden was left in large part untended for many years. When Daisy took on the job of the garden’s restoration in 1988, the site was overgrown with invasive vinca and ivy. One mature, now-well-tended, tree-like specimen of the original ivy still grows in the garden. Photo: A sketched overview of the WPA Rock Garden’s layout.

Having graduated with a degree in Art from San Jose, Daisy returned to the Sacramento area to be close to her parents – both of whom immigrated to the US from China, her father as a young boy. Daisy became really interested in gardening and horticulture when she and her husband bought their first house in the early 1980s. She subsequently studied Horticulture at the American River College and got her first job with Sacramento’s Parks Department working in the Rose Garden in McKinley Park. When the then-Superintendent of Parks showed her the overgrown WPA Rock Garden, its intriguing space in which you could lose yourself and potentially find secret delights along each pathway and around each corner, was far more interesting to her than the monoculture of the Rose Garden. Photos: A curve in pathway of the WPA Rock Garden, with a close-up of Iochroma cyaneum violacea, attracting multiple pollinators, below.

When Daisy won a $400 scholarship for her horticultural work in 1988, she wanted to use some of the money to give back to the community. She took half of the money and placed an order for flowering perennials from local grower Cornflower Farms with which to begin replacing ivy and restoring the plantings of the WPA Rock Garden. Daisy has been at it ever since: researching plants, propagating those she wants, ordering others, receiving still others from plant people all over the world, and then planting, weeding, pruning, reworking plantings, dragging enormous hoses to water, and generally tending thoughtfully to this lively garden. The result of Daisy’s labors is now a garden where the the public can lose themselves in the magic of a place where they can “satisfy that inner-need to connect with nature and beauty”, even in the heart of the city, remarks Daisy. Photo: A view to a mature crepe myrtle seen through one of the openings in the stone and metal semi-circular seating area in the center of the WPA Rock Garden. This seating area is not original to the WPA-era garden, but was designed by Daisy based on a photo she saw of a Jens Jensen-designed circular seating area. Built by volunteer masons using discarded stone used as ballast on ships and left at the city dump, the seating area is dedicated to a long-time volunteer in the garden: Norma Clevenger. The dedication plaque describes her as “A gardener’s gardener and a fierce liberal!”

Construction of William Land Park began in 1922, when noted Landscape Architect Frederick Noble Evans was Superintendent of Parks for Sacramento. An early graduate of the Landscape Architecture school at Harvard University in Boston, Evans served as Superintendent of the Parks Department for 26 years. It was under his design-eye and leadership that William Land Park was designed and built – including the many WPA- constructed wood and masonry elements, such as a rustic pergola with built-in benches, roadway curbing throughout the park, an amphitheater, the park’s many ponds and lakes, and the WPA Rock Garden. Photo: Another turn in a pathway of the WPA Garden and a late-summer illuminated rose. Two pollinators examine the rose before exploring further.

The Rock Garden’s wandering walkways were laid out by the WPA crew and flanked by local-granite masonry raised beds. The park as a whole was part of a nationwide movement known as the Reform Park Movement and is an example of Naturalistic Park Design. The call for such naturalistic green spaces to be incorporated into densely populated, unrelentingly-grid-patterned cities began in the late 1800s on the east coast in cities such as Washington DC, New York and Boston. These carefully-designed informal and naturalistic green spaces were intended to offer both physical and psychological respite as well as the health benefits of nature to urban dwellers, many of whom could not afford take time off from their industrial jobs, or to get out of the city if they could get time off. New York’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, is perhaps the most famous example of the Naturalistic Park Design era. Photo: Along one of the central pathways in the WPA Garden, an industrial-sized hose hugs the side of a stone wall. Most of the plantings that Daisy has put into the garden are hand-watered by Daisy and her volunteers while they are getting established. An automated irrigation system was added to the garden only less than 10 years ago.

Walking through Sacramento’s WPA Rock Garden with Daisy Mah in late October, the garden is full of life around each corner. Through many years of work on her part, and on the part of Conservation Corps workers, other park workers, and various local garden club members – the ivy, vinca and other weeds are long gone. They have been replaced over the years by a succession of plantings. Daisy first began restoring the garden with traditional rock garden and alpine plants, but these proved too fragile and tender for a public garden. “The pressure of the public can be pretty hard,” admits Daisy – some plants – especially when they are little and getting established, get stepped on, trash gets left, I’ve even had large plant specimens dug up and carted off!” Photo: Deep blue salvia and bright orange-red California fuchsia contrast and play off one another in late October at the WPA Rock Garden.

The sometimes damaging effects of an admiring public does not seem to deter Daisy’s enthusiasm for providing a space that welcomes the public. One anecdote she shared was that when she had the semicircular seating area in the center of the garden built a few years back to mimic the look and feel of the WPA stone and metal work, she considered having thin wire anchored up the stone pillars so that she could train some vines up the pillars; “But the first day one wire was up, a boy came by and yanked them down. That’s clearly what he thought they were for,” she explained understandingly, “So I rethought the idea of the vines!” Photos: The rustic stone and metal semi-circular seating area in the heart of the WPA Rock Garden. Designed by Daisy, the seating area frames views into other sections of the garden and a place for visitors to meet and gather.

Currently, Daisy focuses on California native plants – including re-seeding annuals and bulbs – as well as sweeping variety of non-native, drought tolerant, climate appropriate Mediterranean plants. Deep blue salvias and red California fuchsias are blooming brightly here, roses and society garlic are blooming there. Although nothing bears labels or tags, which might distract from the sheer experience and enjoyment of the space, the Parks Department does have a pamphlet noting much of the garden’s plantings. Photo: A long view of the succulent bed which Daisy began to experiment with in 2001.

Daisy of course knows them all, and each plant or insect, even visitor holds a story for her. She points out a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), butterfly and notes that the host plant for its larva is the passion vine. She says hello to a man and his dog walking through and the man responds, “Hi, Daisy!” As we wander around corners, sunlight hits foliage and blooms up ahead, drawing you along. Specific plants unfold a variety of stories, and altogether these cumulatively tell not only the story of this garden and this gardener in the past quarter-century, but they likewise illuminate much of the story of horticulture in Northern California over the same time period: “I began gardening – like many new gardeners – with a feeling that I wanted it all right NOW!” remembers Daisy wryly, “But now each plant needs to tell some story or add to the story of the larger garden…This large-leaved Petasites came from Ed Carmen,” she says off-hand, pointing to striking, generously rounded leaves and referring to a well-known Pacific Coast nurseryman and award-winning horticulturalist of the region. “This rose I am not sure of the name – but it’s an old variety that I got from a garden in Oak Park – an older city neighborhood.” Photo: A WPA Rock Garden view and a Gulf Fritillary butterfly on an agave.

In the garden blooms a red flowering maple (Abutilon) that Daisy calls A. ‘Louise Blakey’, but a horticultural friend calls the same plant A. ‘Daisy’s Red’, because it grows in his garden since having received it from Daisy Mah. Photo: Abutilon ‘Daisy’s Red’

Tall trees – Cupressus cashmeriana, Magnolia ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Galaxy’, redbuds, and Arbutus ‘ Marina’, Gingko biloba, deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara)- provide shade and dimension to the space. Some are beginning to color-up with fall’s cooling temperatures and waning daylight. Over such a span of time, Daisy has seen large trees come and go – some have fallen over with age, others she has grown from seed to near-maturity. Hundreds of perennials have been planted, seeded, reseeded, lost and re-found in the 34 individual raised planting areas. Daisy has experimented with an all white-blooming border, she has experimented with fragrance and tough, good-looking succulents. “It’s not hard, it just takes time.” Daisy Mah – 95-pounds of dedication – has given a lot of time and makes the hard-won results look easy. Her efforts are profoundly evident in thriving, interesting plant choices, striking plant combinations and visitors who are positively affected by the garden at all times of year. Photo: Daisy Mah beneath a bunya-bunya tree (Araucaria bidwillii) that she grew from seed in the WPA Rock Garden.

In early 2010 a Cultural Landscape Survey and Evaluation of William Land Park was conducted for the City of Sacramento – evaluation and inventorying the park in order to determine the park’s eligibility for being nominated to be listed in the Sacramento Register of Historic and Cultural Resources, the California Register of Historical Resources, and the National Register of Historic Places. In October of 2011, the draft of the final report was published and the park – including its unique WPA Rock Garden easily meets criteria for listing in all three registers. According to the report, William Land Park, the largest park in the city of Sacramento, “meets evaluation criteria due to its association with important local trends in the following areas of significance: Community Planning and Development, Government, Entertainment/Recreation, and Landscape Architecture.” Included in these are its elements built from 1922-1969 embodying the Reform Park Movement, Naturalistic Park Design and WPA-construction features. Photo: Shining seed heads along a pathway leading into Daisy and her husband’s home garden in Sacramento.

Walking through the historic ornamental WPA Rock Garden in Sacramento’s William Land Park with the quiet- strength of gardener Daisy Mah leading the way, it is clear to me that the reasons for the garden’s construction originally are just as true today as they were 80 years ago: everyone benefits physically and psychologically from fresh air, green plants, and even momentary transport and escape from the lock-step, grid-patterned-daily-life-tensions that many of us face. “I grew up as the youngest of six siblings,” shares Daisy. “My father left China and its abject poverty for a better life in the US, and as a result, our garden growing up was an important resource for the edibles it could provide. Ornamental gardening was not seen as valuable. As an older man, my father visited my ornamental garden, exploring and enjoying the beauty and the life. He said to me after: ‘Your garden makes me feel like a rich man.'” Photo: Daisy’s light-hearted laughter filling a corner of the WPA Rock Garden, a garden she has grown and tended for more almost a quarter of a century.

Daisy Mah’s contributions to gardening in Northern California through her 23 plus years of work at the WPA Rock Garden adds richness to the lives of all of us who walk the garden’s pathways – be it a quick morning walk or a leisurely afternoon wedding. Photo: A sweep of purple society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea )catch the mid-day sun at the WPA Rock Garden.

A fixture of Sacramento’s plant community, Daisy is an active garden designer, horticultural speaker, and member of the Perennial Plant Club of Sacramento. She has designed a traditional Chinese Garden in Locke, California in the Delta region near where she grew up, as well as a Healing Garden at Sacramento’s Sutter Hospital. Additionally, she has been instrumental in the implementation and design of round-a-bout gardens in several of Sacramento’s urban neighborhoods. Besides the WPA Rock Garden, Daisy oversees long stretches of roadside gardens throughout William Land Park and several island gardens in the park’s various ponds and lakes. Photo: A working pot standing guard at the entrance to Daisy’s home garden. Known as Chinese egg pots, these ceramic vessels “were once used for shipping thousand-year old eggs, which my uncle in San Francisco incorporated in Chinese pastries. My uncle has died and eggs are now shipped in styrofoam,” she related.

More of my environmental writing can be found in the Chico News & Review, and Pacific Horticulture. Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook. Photo: One of the William Land Park’s island gardens that Daisy tends in addition to the one-acre WPA Rock Garden. Lower picture shows the colorful, heat-loving bloom in one of Daisy’s roadway plantings in the park: blue salvia, salvia clevelandii, yellow single-flowering marigold and red cosmos.

To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events in the North State region? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. 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 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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