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A Garden Odyssey in San Marino, California

by Cordelia Donnelly
photographs by Cordelia Donnelly

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No 80, April 2015

When Cordelia Donnelly set about redesigning the garden of her newly purchased 1926-built Spanish-style house, she put a great deal of thought into what she wanted to achieve. Her underlying belief was in sustainability, both in the materials used for construction and for the water that would be used to maintain the plantings. She describes how this influenced the design, firstly by avoiding the use of concrete:

“I did not pour cement in the front yard garden because cemented hardscape is viewed as unsustainable…. Concrete for my house renovation was poured only where required by Building Codes. As a foundation for steps leading into the garden from the street, green-treated wood beams are skewered into the slope by steel rods, a method used for building steps on hiking trails in US National Parks. The next layers use Stabiligrid tile, clad with copper as the riser material, hardwood planks for treads, finished by quartzite pavers set in sand. A liquid acrylic polymer was used to harden the sand while also providing permeability. The impermanent nature of the front steps allows pipes to run underneath and remain accessible in case of maintenance or breakage, obviating the need to demolish concrete”.  


“Much of California is experiencing Scylla and Charybdis megadrought conditions in frightening proportions, with no end in sight. Many people are unaware of this impending sea-change and its ramifications. Sustainable water use is imperative – it is the only way to sail through treacherous water shortages. As I planned my garden, I hoped it would serve as a model, allowing fellow garden voyagers to escape the jaws of the megadrought. Attending a course taught by Lili Singer at Theodore Payne convinced me to rip out the grass lawn as a first step.”  

Grey gravel surrounds the pool. Notice the interesting-looking pots. Cordelia writes: “Online searches led me to ‘Smart Pots’ made of recycled plastic bottles, to use as larger containers”.

Aesthetically the garden follows two quite separate ideas, first Chinese philosophy:
“I fell in love with the idea of views in a Chinese garden unfurling gradually to the viewer, much like the scrolls of a Chinese landscape painting. The viewer must take a journey through such a garden in order to enjoy the different vantage points.”

Antique Chinese gates

The second idea was to use Australian natives - inspired by the Pacific Horticulture/MGS 2010 Symposium at the Los Angeles Arboretum.

“This Symposium, its speakers and garden tours, the gorgeous Australian plants at Jo O’Connell’s booth, and conversations with people about gardens changed my life, within the already transformative context of researching Chinese gardens. The garden tours convinced me to remove all sprinklers and install drip system irrigation for the entire garden. The ‘Woolly Pockets’ I saw at the Symposium helped me to create vertical gardens on walls and balconies… I decided to use Australian native plants for my garden after seeing their poetic textures and recognising their symbolic ‘otherness’ as well as their significance to plant evolution and the geological history of our planet.”

Australian native plants in Cordelia’s garden

A magnificent Australian plant - Myoporum floribundum
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