SWEEPING THE LANDSCAPE with color, spring awakens our long-dormant enthusiasm for nature. Like bees to a field thick with lolling wildflowers, we flock to nurseries and garden centers to join spring in renewing our patches of land.
To some, though, this lust for life is not dependent on the seasons. Unlike other species of gardeners, theirs is an ardor that lasts throughout the year.
Their heedless passion for beauty spills over into neighbors’ lots. Their obsession leads them to graft new, better hybrids or preserve blooms as they existed thousands of years ago.
What distinguishes their gardens of Eden is a faithfulness to a single flower or plant. In each bloom, they see not a selfsame monotony, but infinite variety. The reward is to be surrounded by the ones they love every day.
Warm summers and cold winters make the suburban East Bay a wonderful climate for growing camellias, says Walnut Creek’s Robert Ehrhart.
His garden is ample proof. Actually, make that his garden, his ex-wife’s adjacent half-acre and another neighbor’s garden as well, where some 3,000 of the delicate specimens flower under his stewardship.
“I don’t know how I fell in love with camellias,” says the New Orleans-born and raised Ehrhart, who along with his brothers inherited a passion for gardening from their father. By the time he was college-age, he’d already had had a brief fling with orchids.
After college and then the army, Ehrhart ended up at UC Berkeley, where he obtained a few cuttings and rooted them on his water heater. When he graduated, he moved to Walnut Creek and found his camellias flourished. After stockbroking for 15 years, he started his own alarm business. It allows him to work at home, where he can look out into his thousands of blooms.
Past president of both the American and Northern California Camellia societies, he still considers gardening strictly a hobby, mammoth though it is.
His children, now grown, didn’t follow in his horticultural footsteps.
“Maybe picking up the petals when they were children burned them out. Two of them said, Don’t you think this is getting out of hand?'”
But with the passion of a lover, Ehrhart sees camellias’ beauty, even during the 10 months a year they’re not flowering. He also enjoys creating hybrids with new colors, new forms and fragrance.
“I’m embarrassed to say, I’m not so much interested in keeping the old ones The hybrids are so much superior to the old ones.”
He has had a chance to name five hybrids none after himself. “I’ll name one for myself when it’s 12 inches in diameter, yellow and fragrant. Or even 6 inches.” He chuckles. “I’m nowhere near.”
Miriam Wilkins has lived in the same El Cerrito house for more than 50 years. “I was born in El Cerrito 81 years ago,” she says, then adds in her deadpan manner, “That’s not much progress.”
Wilkins has made up that distance by putting El Cerrito on the map in the world of roses. The Heritage Roses Society, an international organization she founded, celebrates its silver anniversary this year, 25 years after Wilkins decided to launch a concerted effort to preserve the hardy beauty of old roses, whose lineage can date back thousands of years.
Her garden, which spills over into her neighbors’ 8,000-square-foot lot, is also a world away from her childhood home.
“We were the poorest family in El Cerrito,” she recalls. “Our struggle was to maintain life. We were poor; we were wondering what the next meal was coming from.”
Growing roses was something the former schoolteacher could do while tending to her children. Her four children were under the age of 5 when Wilkins saw an ad in Good Housekeeping for a catalog, “Roses Yesterday and Today,” introducing roses prior to the hybrid. She sent in her 50 cents, then began buying roses.
“After I outgrew our lot,” Wilkins says, “my neighbor let me garden on his yard.” Her new neighbors have happily let Wilkins continue the arrangement.
In 1974, it was not just an allegiance to the past but a concern for the present that motivated her to organize Heritage Roses. Many of the display flowers in rose shows used pesticides in their upkeep. “We don’t want to ruin the environment,” she says.
Wilkins and her fellow members have been able to see famous rose gardens from the world over: Germany, France, New Zealand, England. Meanwhile, “wonderful friendships have grown out of it.”
She’s found they flourish in El Cerrito. “All you have to do is stick it in the ground and forget about it.” Indeed, she adds, “twice I had a landslide the roses, they didn’t care.”
Wilkins attributes her own “amazing good health” to gardening. She does concede that her magnificent roses might have the upper hand. “When I started off, I didn’t have enough. Then it got away from me,” she says. “It’s an attack jungle now.”
Barbara Tague’s orchids just kept dying.
When she had her youngest child, Tague retired from her job as a banker. The family had just moved into their new Martinez home, which overlooked the valley. The family room had a big sliding window that received bright sunlight half the day.
“It just dawned on me it would be a perfect window-box place for some exotic plants, and orchids came to mind,” Tague says. So, like many orchid beginners, she began with cymbidiums. “Little did I know that cymbidiums live outside.”
Those survived nicely, and her husband, Dean, began buying her a couple of phalaenopsis.
“I promptly killed them,” Tague says. “I overwatered them and just loved them to death and I kept trying and killed another few.” Finally, her husband had a suggestion: “Why don’t you join a society and meet other orchid growers and find out what you did wrong?'”
Of course, that’s how the obsession begins. “You see other plants, you just want more plants. It became a passion.” At the time, Tague had also been tending to her bonsai collection, which she kept to a minimum of 60 “because bonsai takes a lot of time and patience, and I’m running out of time and patience to divide between them.”
While 60 bonsai plants might not sound like a minimum, compare that to her 300 or more orchids in her greenhouse.
“When they bloom, you bring them into the house; it makes me so happy and cheerful.” The challenge to keep them alive and have them rebloom especially resonates since she killed so many. “That’s my tuition, I guess. I paid to learn.”
Although Tague, who emigrated from China more than 40 years ago, never grew up gardening, orchids have returned her to her heritage, especially when she tends her Chinese cymbidiums.
She has found that in China, poets and artists for thousands of years have referred to these slender, graceful plants in their work.
“So the Chinese were lovers of the orchids from way back when.”
Robert Bradley became involved with fuchsias because of a scientific miracle he has never since been able to duplicate.
“I joined the fuchsia club in 1980,” recalls the Kensington resident, “because of the fuchsia magellanica.” When a clone he made of the red-and-purple fuchsia bloomed, the new flower was white and lavender. To this day, nobody, including botanists, knows how this happened.
“I thought I did something really amazing, and apparently I did,” says Bradley, who still has progeny of that plant. Naturally, everything the former botany-turned-art major has cloned has come back the same.
Bradley who has held various positions with the American Fuchsia Society used to have hundreds of fuchsias, but since he designs other people’s gardens, he has cut back on his own yardwork. He still has about 30 fuchsias growing from the soil, many survivors from the freeze of 1989. They are an uncommon sight, Bradley points out. “Hardly anyone knows what these plants actually look like since they grow them in pots.”
Until the freeze, his fuchsias dated back to when his parents planted them in the 1930s; the house was a wedding gift from a parent. Like many locals, his parents had followed the gardening trend started by Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. “I guess they thought it was cool. They put them in and thought God would take care of everything,” he says.
A young Bradley was less indifferent about the yard. At age 12, he saw that his neighbors had ivy, so he planted some. “My mom, you know, was perfectly willing to have it stay bare dirt,” he says with a laugh.
When he moved back into his parents’ home to care for his mother and stepfather, he tore up the ivy “it had grown all over the house” put in soil conditioner and planted more of his favored flowers. “I’ve been specializing in fuchsia species ever since the fuchsia mite hit here in ’84.”
The last few years have been quite a struggle because of the last freezing winters. “The freeze two years ago had me in a funk for a long time.”
Bradley and his fuchsias have had to tangle with another menacing force, albeit more charming: the resident hummingbird. “I would go out and spray the fuchsias every night with a mist spray, and the hummingbird would get in the mist and take a bath,” he says. Every summer, two male and one female Allen’s hummingbirds try to take over the yard.
“Hummingbirds look like they’re very sweet but they’re very hostile,” says Bradley, who knows when to yield. “I let them have the run of the yard.”
Yukio and Ann Nakatani
More than 50 years ago, Yukio and Ann Nakatani met at the Concord Japanese American Club.
“I guess the garden, flowers and bonsai that put us together,” recalls Ann. “Always our love is through the nature.”
When they bought the house they live in today, it was brand-new and absolutely bare no garden, no flower, no trees.
Now it’s a forest, though an unlikely one, made up of 300 bonsai trees. Some have been pruned and trained since they were seedlings, others are salvaged tree stumps. One, a 300-year-old juniper, came from the 1939 world’s fair at Treasure Island. “It was almost dead; now it’s nice and green,” Yukio says. “I try to save the trees I’m kind of refurbishing.”
While his wife, a senior professor of Ikenobo Ikebana Institute, teaches biological science ecology and ornamental horticulture, Yukio hR>as the background in bonsai. His family had lived in Concord since the late 1880s; in keeping with Japanese tradition, his parents sent him back to Japan to be educated and keep the grandparents company.
Due to graduate in March 1943, Yukio found himself stuck when the United States declared war with Japan in December 1942.
“I kind of was a lone American boy in wartime Japan,” Yukio says. To earn spending money, he helped care for the local bonsai garden. “I always talk to bonsai, trying to make them comfortable, and so they make me comfortable. A little therapy, I think.”
He finally came home after the war. Yukio moved from farming to landscaping to medical research engineering; those business trips to Japan gave him a chance to visit the bonsai garden.
The Nakatanis met not long after Ann’s husband died of diabetes. A military wife, Ann arrived from Japan about 50 years ago, during the Korean War. The family moved from Missouri to California after her daughter contracted polio, and doctors recommended a Pittsburg surgeon.
In the Bay Area, Ann obtained various degrees, including her community college teaching credential in horticulture. In 1965, the Nakatanis opened the Cherry Blossom Bonsai Studio, where they have taught thousands how to cultivate the miniature gardens, and other Japanese arts.
Their bonsai gardens mean the Nakatanis are surrounded by loved ones. “Every time when I go see them, or am about to go see them, I feel like I’m going to see another member of my family,” Yukio says. “First thing, I see them, I say, Hi, you guys, I’m here again.’
“You never want to just have one, you want more, more, more,” Ann says. “We are 70 years old now. Every day, we get up in the morning, water; at noon we mist, we have to cut, we have to fertilize, spray, reshape, pull the weeds. It’s like you end up with a baby.”
The energetic Nakatanis raise their 16-year-old granddaughter, whom they adopted after Ann’s daughter died 15 years ago. Her first daughter, who was aR> schoolteacher, had been hit by a motorcyclist around that same time. Sadly, the accident forever affected her mental state, Ann says. “That’s why maybe bonsai is good therapy. When the flowers die, you start a new one.
“The circle makes a very good recipe for the human being, to give peace of mind. Human beings do things with nature and it’s an understanding how they survive, and how they die.”