Cocktail party at Shirley Watts’ Garden: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling


Early arrivals to San Francisco for the recent Garden Bloggers Fling were invited to a cocktail party at designer and artist Shirley Watts‘ home in Alameda. Shirley graciously opened her home and garden to about 50 complete strangers, and we eagerly trooped through her kitchen and into the back garden for refreshments and to get the first photos of the Fling. Down a few steps from the back door, this circular paved patio and shade garden full of hydrangeas greets you.


The intimate patio is an eye-catching focal point itself, with letters, square paving setts, and other found objects embedded amid the flagstones. This is the first hint of many letters and words that Shirley has sprinkled throughout her garden.


A dark-gray gravel path curves through the narrow garden to a shade pavilion in back. Facing wooden benches are backed by trellis and roofed with slats covered by a climbing vine. You can see a glimpse of a translucent scrim hanging at the back of the pavilion, which was covered with text; I was unable to get a good picture, unfortunately. At right you can see words on a translucent cube, open at the top, from which issued the sound of trickling water. Yes, that’s actually a fountain. Shirley uses a lot of recycled objects in her garden, and I’m guessing both the scrim and the cube are repurposed materials.


Inside the shade pavilion, facing benches offer a place for intimate conversation.


A silvery vignette of potted plants


Euphorbia flower. Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’ — thanks to Helen for the ID!


Here’s another view of the translucent cube fountain, backed by a lush assortment of shade plants, accented by a single, tightly clipped boxwood on the right.


A peek inside reveals colorful, ceramic flowers set amid a froth of tiny leaves. I’m not entirely sure how Shirley created this effect, but the water seems to be funneled up to the potted plant, where it trickles over the edge to a pool of water below.


Coming back up the path, you see a fun, asymmetrical roof and chunky, leaning pillars at the back steps. David of The Desert Edge and Loree of Danger Garden are checking out something on the patio.


Yet more words in this literate garden. The entire side fence, which you get glimpses of through the shrubs and trees, looks like a stuccoed wall with text carved into it. That’s just an illusion. As Shirley explained to me, the fence is draped in pieces of a castoff billboard promoting a movie starring Orlando Bloom. Orlando’s handsome face even graces part of the fence.


The late afternoon light was caught in this little spider’s web.


An architectural fragment with an owl adds a sense of history to the garden.


Here’s Shirley, offering watermelon slices to her guests. I talked with her a little about an art project she’s curating at UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, entitled “Natural Discourse.” She mentioned that she’s been discussing the possibilities of a similar project at Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead, Texas — a little closer to home for me and something I’d love to see.


Here’s Kelly Kilpatrick, head planner of the San Francisco Fling, looking relieved that events are finally underway after months of planning. Kelly and her team did a magnificent job of selecting gardens for the tours and making sure that everything ran smoothly for three days of shepherding two busloads of garden bloggers around — not an easy feat in a busy city with challenging terrain.


And glancing up through the open window I got a great smile from Kylee Baumle of Our Little Acre. That’s my friend Layanee of Ledge and Gardens to the left.


The elegant and witty Susan Morrison of Blue Planet Garden Blog and co-author of Garden Up! was here for her first Fling. Susan was a wonderful mentor to me during the process of writing my book.


Shirley’s garden was sweet-smelling with roses, lilies, and this nicotiana, strategically planted by the open window.


Dark pots topped with chunky, black rock set off Shirley’s potted plants.


By the back steps, succulents grow amid leafy groundcovers. The beautiful allium seedheads, I noticed, had been cut from elsewhere in the garden and stuck into the ground as sparkler-like accents.


‘Othello’ roses glowed as the sun went down.


I think this blue fence is at the back of Shirley’s garden. I like the way the purple flowers harmonize with it.


Shirley does have a front garden as well, with stone walls elevating the central portion of the garden, providing some screening from the street.


I ran into Denise and Loree out there, two of my favorite bloggers. First-Flinger Denise blogs at the beautifully written and gorgeously photographed A Growing Obsession; click the link for her eloquent description of Shirley’s garden. Loree is the Danger Gardener, whose stunning garden I visited before the Seattle Fling two years ago.


I didn’t spend much time out front because the party was out back (and inside), but here’s a small vignette: Aeonium in a Victorian urn.


At this point I noticed that the sun was setting, and Shirley had promised that her lanterns would be lit at dusk. I hurried to the back garden again, where Kelly, Leslie, and Loree were hanging out on the patio.


A closeup of the patio’s letters…


…and a scented lily. Wait, what’s that glowing behind the lily?


Shirley’s lanterns, gleaming in the dusk amid the lush growth of her garden. Did you notice the text in the lantern glass?


Shirley told us that the text is from Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein! How clever is that? Like a moth, I found myself irresistibly drawn to them and walked around reading the lanterns.

My thanks to Shirley and her husband for opening their home and garden to us. What a great start to a weekend of San Francisco garden goodness!

Up next: Literally carved out of a hillside under a freeway, the garden of sculptor Matt Gil is an example of gardening tenacity. For a look back at my introductory post about the San Francisco Fling, including our group photo, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

22 Responses

  1. ricki says:

    This is the best part of the fling for us stay-at-homes: seeing different bloggers’ takes on the gardens you visited. Thanks for your generosity.

    Ricki, I hope to meet you in person at the next one in Portland. Meanwhile, the pleasure in posting about these gardens is mine. I’m glad you enjoy the virtual tours. —Pam

  2. marmee says:

    i adore this garden. don’t you just love when they are so intimate and personal? i would’ve been drawn to those lanterns as well reading every word.

    Yes, a garden with so much of the owner’s personality is definitely a delight, and this one had plenty of personality. —Pam

  3. Shirley says:

    I’m enjoying seeing all the photos from this garden which looks like a wonderful start to the Fling weekend.

    Artists and designer’s personal gardens like this one are so interesting when they use the things they love. She has pulled all the elements together without shouting “themed garden”.

    You’re so right, Shirley. It was a creative garden without looking contrived. Indeed, much of the craziest stuff — like the Orlando Bloom billboard — actually seemed rather understated. —Pam

  4. Helen says:

    The cocktail party was ideal for me a new flinger as it gave me an opportunity to meet a few people properly and get to know them which I think would have been harder if we had gone straight on the tour, so to speak.

    I loved Shirleys garden as it was so different to any gardens I have seen here in the UK and I really found the use of ornamentation inspiring and to a degree liberating.

    The flower you have labelled Euphorbia is a Mathiasella bupleuroides Green Dream – one of only a few I recognised!!

    Helen, I am so glad you came to the Fling and that I was able to spend some time with you at dinner and on the bus! Thanks for the correct ID on the flower as well. —Pam

  5. Alison says:

    I was so rushed and breathless when I finally arrived, I didn’t get good photos, and missed so much while saying hello to bloggers. I really appreciate this great post about Shirley’s garden, including the info about the history of the garden art.

    Not getting good photos is not much of a loss when your time was spent catching up with friends! It was so good to see you there again, Alison. —Pam

  6. Delphine says:

    Hi everybody ! you are all wonderful gardeners.

    Hi, Delphine! Thanks for stopping by. I hope one day we’ll have our first French attendee at the Fling. —Pam

  7. Scott Weber says:

    Haha…it’s makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who re-arranges my Allium seedheads ;-)

    I would too if I could grow them, Scott. They’re too gorgeous to deadhead and not reuse. —Pam

  8. Laura says:

    I have two old rescued lanterns and would love to recreate Shirley’s idea…does she use paper and solar, or some other material that withstands fire?
    Thank you for sharing, can’t wait for more and I feel enlightened to see a photo of Denise of AGO who I follow.

    Denise was so funny — in a way I didn’t quite expect from reading her blog. And I wasn’t exactly what she expected either. She thought I’d have a 10-gallon Texas twang, and she seemed a bit disappointed that my accent is rather nondescript Midwestern. Ha! As for Shirley’s lanterns, she told me that she’d had the text copied onto some sort of translucent plastic, I think. You can see that she retyped the text to fit exactly the shape of her lanterns. —Pam

  9. claire says:

    Great post on the party. I agree that the party was a way to get my feet wet with other bloggers before the tour started. I hope the same thing happens next year in Portland as I am planning on attending. Great pics of people too. I found that when I got home that I neglected people pictures and had mostly plants!

    Some years I’m better about getting people shots than others. With this garden I did better on the people because it was the first day. ;-) —Pam

  10. Peter/Outlaw says:

    You got some amazing images of this wonderful garden and event and noticed things that I missed! I so long to wake up in a room that someone else cleans, get on a bus filled with excited gardeners, and tour gardens all day! Oh well, something to look forward to next year, right?

    You summed it up so well, Peter. Yes, I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year in Portland. I’m so glad to have met you this year! —Pam

  11. Denise says:

    The aftermath of the fling via blogs is almost as fun as the fling itself. How many times have we found a subject/garden we love in a magazine and been disappointed at the few photos selected or abbreviated coverage? The coverage and different points of view on these gardens really lends another layer of complexity, and I’m seeing lots I missed. I think your posts are going to attract lots more bloggers to the next fling in Portland, Pam.

    Oh, I do hope so! The more, the merrier. And yes, reading everyone’s varying perspectives on these gardens is almost as fun as Flinging. Almost. —Pam

  12. Love this! Your pictures really capture part of what makes this garden special. I don’t know how you managed with 50 of us squeezed in there.
    P.S. Thanks for calling me witty and elegant. I plan to drive my husband crazy tonight bragging.

    I dashed through the house and out the back door before most others got past the scrumptious food in the kitchen, Susan. That was my secret. ;-) —Pam

  13. Carol Jean says:

    This garden is such an inspiration! The roof over my patio has taken a slight dip over the past 40 years, and I have been suffering over it. Tomorrow I am going to buy some exciting paint at the Habitat For Humanity store and have some fun with it.

    A little paint can certainly work magic. I have some painting on my horizon as well, but inside the house. —Pam

  14. What a delightful beginning to the Fling. I too would be drawn to all of those words.

    It was an English major’s garden, Lisa. ;-) —Pam

  15. Jenn says:

    OH! I am SO SAD that I could not attend. You guys. I am very glad that you all share your experiences with the ‘rest of us.’

    Thank you!

    I’m sorry that you wanted to be there but couldn’t, Jenn. But I hope the posts help you feel as if you were there too. I hope to meet you at Fling one of these days! —Pam

  16. kathy says:

    Feeling whiny that I was stuck in a conference room less than an hour away from this garden on Thursday night. Bad planning on my part ! I won’t make the same mistake next year.Great photo of Denise and Loree..Denise looks fully recovered from our Long Island marathon the previous weekend !

    Oh, to be so close but stuck in a conference room — tragic! :-) I did not know that Denise is a marathoner. How awesome of you both! Hope to meet you next year. —Pam

  17. Wow I’ve seen many a post from the fling and no photos of me what-so-ever, now in this single post I think I appeared 4 or 5 times! It was a super fun beginning to a great weekend. What makes it better…the people or the gardens? I still can’t decide, luckily…I don’t have to!

    I must have been lurking in your wake, Loree. ;-) Seriously though, it was great to see you again at the Fling. —Pam

  18. sandy lawrence says:

    Always a treat, Pam, your photos. Composition, angle and perspective are everything; boy, have you got those down. Plus writing skills and … aren’t we the lucky ones! That billboard fence and the script lantern glass are remarkable. It must have been like a treasure hunt of discovery to visit here. Thanks for the tour of this unique garden.

    Thanks for the kind words, Sandy! Yes, this garden was a treasure hunt — nicely put. —Pam

  19. What a unique garden – I am loving (and thinking where I can do it around here) all of the embedded art in the paths/patios I have been seeing on the tours…SO COOL!

    I think there will be a lot of people scouting for old metal letters on Craigslist in the next couple of months, Heather. Shirley’s lettered patio is inspired. —Pam

  20. Great share, Pam. The gardener/garden has a strong “voice” and you captured its essence. Hope I can make the Fling another time…

    I hope you can too, Marian! —Pam

  21. Good documentary, and some of those looked quite vacant – good job capturing that aspect. Though meeting all those folks was fine with me, too!

    Yes, meeting other bloggers is a fantastic part of the Fling experience. So glad you made it this year, David. —Pam

  22. Wish we had gone to Shirley’s garden. After the early flight, I was wiped out. Thanks for sharing it with us. Love the lanterns with the text. What a great garden.

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