Earlier this month, my mother and I attend the Elizabeth Gamble Garden’s Spring Tour, which is held annually in Palo Alto. Each year, Gamble Garden feature Palo Alto residential gardens on the garden tour as well as their own extensive garden on Waverley Street. The spring bloom at Gamble Garden is especially spectacular.
I have been attending this tour for about 15 years and a most extraordinary garden was featured this year. This garden was truly “garden as art.” Envisioned, designed, sculpted, and crafted by husband and wife gardening team, O’Malley and Jonathan Stoumen. What is unique about their garden… it is entirely edible!
Seven years ago the Stoumens moved to Palo Alto from Healdsburg to be closer to family. They purchased their Spanish style bungalow and began the transformation process. Their garden was in much need of tlc… it possessed a gravel front yard and backyard with a few plastic flowers stuck in the ground and one large redwood tree. The forgotten landscape was an empty canvas for the Stoumens, which they wiped clean and began the process to transform the space into an edible paradise.
After O’Malley and Jonathan designed their new gardens, they laid out the backyard planting beds in true north and south orientation to minimize plant-to-plant shading. They also designed a trellis system from rebar. To do this, they manually bent long pieces of rebar into arched shapes, which where then inserted into submerged pipes located along the beds and then secured the rebar at their junctures with wire and welding. This trellis system assists the large and trailing plants to grow naturally. The rebar was formed into a variety of shapes, such as a canopy arching over the length of their walkway, where pole bean plants grow upon and dangle in the breeze. Their tomato plants are trellised in this fashion too. The tomatoes are allowed to stretch to the sky and not feel confined to a cage. They also build a green house in the backyard where they grow all their seedlings.
The Stoumens also built a beautiful chicken coop, which is the focal point of the backyard, and where an apricot and peach tree reside for shade for the chickens. The coop houses five chickens, which not only provide delicious fresh eggs, but also are allowed to forage in the planting beds in between seasonal planting for bugs, snails, grubs, and larvae. O’Malley said, “They are the best for pest control. My beds are virtually pest-free.” In addition, she composts chicken manure which is used for fertilizer.
For the nighttime intruders, Jonathan has installed a solar-powered Zareba Red Snap’ R electric fence, which keeps squirrels, raccoons, and rats out of the blueberry bushes and tomatoes. He has also installed motion-activated sprinklers to keep nighttime critters out of the fruit trees.
Jonathan and O’Malley have planted a fruit orchard in the front yard with six varieties of trees and citrus: pluots, cherries, apples, pears, plums, and figs. But what is unique is the fashion in which the trees are planted. They have selected three semi-dwarf varieties of each fruit and have planted them in a triangular form eighteen inches apart. The varieties selected offer the advantage of a longer and more staggered harvest. The three trees are pruned to appear as one tree.
A variety of water features and bird feeders have been included in the design of the gardens to encourage birds to come visit. Birds assist in the pest management of the gardens, although some of them like to eat the berries, which O’Malley has four varieties. She nets the berry bushes to keep the birds out.
Mulching is a large part of the over all health and maintenance of her garden. Mulch is used in all the beds in a variety of forms. The neighbors’ grass clippings and leaves are used in the front yard while pine shavings and alfalfa pellets are used in the raised beds in the back. All of this organic matter helps with fertilization, water retention, and makes for happy worms. O’Malley uses all the green matter waste from her house and garden either by composting, chipping, and finally mulching. The design of their gardens and all of these practices are to aid in healthy biodynamics.
When I sat down with O’Malley and asked her where she had learned all of her gardening knowledge she replied that she had been gardening all her life… she learned to love gardening from her mother. And now she and Jonathan have taught their two children to love gardening. She told me that she and Jonathan had lived in Humboldt County prior to Healdsburg, where they lived “off the grid” in the Coast Range. It was there that they had to learn to live off the land. They grew all their own food. In addition, they installed a Swiss windmill, which generated all their electricity for their home. In moving back to Palo Alto, they were excited to recreate and adapt their earlier gardening experience to suburban living, utilizing their knowledge in architecture, edible gardening, plant propagation, and solar power.
Jonathan has been an architect for over 40 years specializing in sustainable architecture for both residential and commercial buildings. Jonathan is a pioneer in the solar design of buildings and products. Their garden in Palo Alto is an extension of what he advocates in his work.
What struck me on my two visits to this garden was the level of thought and detail given to each and every aspect of this space. Every detail of this garden is treated with great attention to functionality and artistic interpretation, which in the finished work, exudes the knowledge, craftsmanship, and love that had been poured into the garden’s creation. The Stoumens are true visionaries. They have created an environment that is uniquely their own, all the while demonstrating to us that home gardening biodynamics is truly in all of our grasps…all the while valuing and embracing art!
Jonathan Stoumen, Architect
Residential and Commercial
O’Malley’s chickens have their own website. It started when O’Malley would send chicken pictures to her daughter at work for fun. She said, “Keep them coming mom, as they always make me laugh.” O’Malley started adding captions on them like the chickens were at work. Pretty soon many people were requesting her daily chicken emails. O’Malley decided to start a website where she can post her “chickens at work” photos. That was in 2010…her site is now viewed worldwide. It is subscription based and now viewers submit their chicken photos to her via the site and she has a weekly caption contest.