Sunday, June 5, 2011

A home's beautiful Garden of Access in northern California

From The Press-Democrat in Sonoma, Calif.:

Great gardens often begin with a vision. And the same property can assume a multitude of personalities depending on the eye of the beholder.

When HolLynn D'Lil regarded the wedge of weeds between her modest Graton house and an overgrown creek at her property's edge, she saw a labyrinth. Not an imposing walled maze, but a design element with a message.

Working with artist friend Be Herrera, she created an inviting series of loops and spirals etched into the concrete, scrolling down from one end of the yard to the other. Each loop has a defined theme, charmed with raised beds and garden whimsy and leading down to a multicolored artist's cottage no bigger than a playhouse in a back corner.

The design plays on the image of the inner ear, with three canals and a spiral at the end.

“I call it ‘The Listening Path Labyrinth.' It's a metaphor for life,” says D'Lil of the stylized hardscape where form meets function hand-in-hand. “It really means life is a journey, and the best thing you can do in your life is to listen and learn.”

An elegantly composed woman who speaks with a soft whisp of a Texan accent, D'Lil has powerfully projected her voice for years for the disabled, advocating their right to use and enjoy the same places as everyone else.

It's a cause born of her own experience. As a fresh Texas A&M graduate driving home from a teaching job, she was in an accident that left her a paraplegic. And while she subsequently built a strong career as an expert on codes and regulations, serving as a private consultant, sitting on numerous state and federal boards and committees, leading seminars and working 11 years as the Accessibility Specialist for the state's Department of Rehabilitation, D'Lil sees that accident as a lifetime ago.

“My life,” she says firmly, “is not about my disability.”

Neither is her garden. It only accommodates it. The hard surfaces enable her to move about, while also giving the space a sophisticated and sculptural look. Raised beds put the plants she loves within reach so she can tend them herself.

“Raised beds are the best thing. Bring them right up to wherever you need them to be,” she counsels other gardeners, who may also be unable to bend or get down on the ground. “I don't think you lose anything esthetically if you do that, and the great thing with raised beds is that you can bring in the best dirt.”

Long-handled tools, like her trusty 18-inch pruners, extend her reach.

Each loop in the labyrinth has a theme stenciled into the concrete. The first loop “honors the body.” In this space she has her dining area. Follow the second loop to “nourish the mind.” Here is what she calls her “Yin Yang Herb Garden,” part of it made of drain rock to break up the hardscape.

The third loop asks that you “free the heart” so that as you enter the spiral, “the spirit will know.”

In the heart loop there is a little bench with a glass heart that someone appropriately left there. Here there also is an antique garden cart filled with potted plants — bonsai apple trees, lavender, succulents, a rose.

Two ponds created out of livestock water troughs bring water in to serve wildlife — her yard has been certified as a Habitat Garden by the National Wildlife Federation — with the water also symbolizing the life blood of plants.

D'Lil retired to Graton from Sacramento in 2004 and dived into the community. She was drawn to the level site and the fact that because of the adjoining “Graton Critch,” the simple house — part of a low-income, sweat equity project built in the 1980s — was pushed to the edge of the lot, creating a generous yard blessed with southern exposure.

She added 300 square feet to the house and drew the outdoors in, staining and stenciling onto the concrete floor a creekbed that mischievously runs through the house, complete with wildflowers and the “paw prints” of native critters.

Outside, her first task was to clear the creek, hidden beneath blackberries, ivy and four truckloads of junk. She replanted it with live oaks, California myrtles, dogwood and ceanothus.

One of the most distinctive features of the garden is completely concealed under the surface.

To mitigate the runoff created by all the hardscaping she needed for her wheelchair, D'Lil had Richard Miller with the Graton Community Services District design a water retention system. Dug beneath the surface throughout the yard are 15 50-gallon recycled soda pop drums punched with drain holes and connected by pipes that ultimately drain into the creek.

“The purpose is to grab the water that is coming down and draining off the property and slow it down,” she said, noting that some of the water may percolate into the groundwater “instead of creating a rain problem for neighbors downstream.”

The space reflects D'Lil's artistic eye and sense of fun. Beyond the little shed she turned into a studio is her “garden folly.” Inspired by the fantasy and novelty buildings popular in old English gardens, she made her own “ruin” with salvaged pillars, a cast iron fireplace and a door to nowhere.

Similar whimsy abounds, from the lettuce garden growing right out of a bag of “Happy Frog Potting Soil” set in an antique wheelbarrow to the lemon and kumquat trees planted in shiny corrugated metal garbage cans.

Many of D'Lil's plants came from the Graton Community Club, for which she's the current president. The club has a bi-annual Flower Show and Plant Sale, a town tradition for 85 years.

The garden, she says, “is a celebration of my new environment. I wanted to show my respect for my new town and my new community and just give thanks for this beautiful county.”