Sculpture and found objects mingle in Marcia Donahue’s garden

Peering from the shadows of an exuberant, densely planted front yard, artist Marcia Donahue’s turbaned and hooded figures — exotic wood sprites? — give a sense of mystery to her Berkeley, California, garden.

On July 1st, the day after the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling ended, I joined bloggers Jean of Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog and Melissa of Houston Garden Girl, tooling across the bay in Jean’s rental car to Berkeley for lunch at famed Chez Panisse. Which was delicious, by the way. Afterward, we drove a few blocks to Marcia’s home and garden on Wheeler Street, which Peter of The Outlaw Gardener had told me about during the Fling.

Marcia generously opens her garden to the public on Sunday afternoons. This was Monday. Still, I knew that Peter had arranged a Monday visit with her (little did I know the BART strike would keep him from getting here), so while Jean parked at the curb I stepped hesitantly into the leafy bower of her front garden to go knock on the door.

I noticed I was being watched.

Heavy necklaces of carved and stained spheres hung casually from tree branches, as if a giantess with tribal tastes had draped them there after a party.

At the front steps, a sign announced the owner’s devotional leanings.

Marcia is also into bowling balls. A potted collection decorates her front steps…

…and dozens more create a lumpy, colorful mulch in her planting beds.

But it’s her haunting figures that really grabbed me.

So I knocked on her door, and Marcia answered, and she very kindly agreed to let the three of us see her garden. “Go ahead,” she said, “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

With meandering, narrow paths and tall, overhanging plants shoehorned into an average-sized yard behind her two-story home, and with sculptural discoveries around every bend, it truly is a garden of exploration. It’s not traditionally “pretty,” but it’s wonderfully fantastical.

Of course, there are quite a number of pretty vignettes, like this stone bench softened with creeping plants…

…and this surprisingly large pond hidden behind a wall of plants.

Aside from the sunny pond, much of the garden is shady and mysterious with dense plantings, repurposed castoff objects, and fanciful, organic-looking sculpture.

Red, leaning, ceramic poles — reminiscent of bamboo culms and also strangely phallic — line this transition from shadow into light.

More jointed “bamboo” sculptures, in a color that echoes the hot-pink cordylines

Marcia makes them in white too, which I like as shade-brightening accents.

She playfully incorporates found objects into her garden, like this gigantic spring, which holds a collection of tillandsias and larger bromeliads.

Stone skulls grin up at you from ground level, and inscribed gravestones are laid as paving and bed edging. Marcia told us she got the gravestones at the dump from a tradesman who was closing his business and dumping his inventory. The stones and skulls definitely add a macabre vibe.

Short of flying up to the roof for a bird’s-eye view, this is the widest shot I was able to get of Marcia’s densely layered garden. I took it from the back corner of the garden, peeking out from under a tree and across the pond toward the back of the house.

A telephoto view reveals crazy daisy faces peeking out from the treetops.

Amid the mysterious, macabre, and zany, there are also peaceful vignettes like this…

…and this.

A chicken coop made of salvaged materials is half hidden at the back of the garden, adorned by a whimsical necklace of ceramic eggs. Do you think it encourages the hens?

This might dismay them — except the snakes are harmless if realistic creations of Marcia’s. Nature informs all of her work, and each sculpture or other creation fits seamlessly into the garden.

It was a pleasure to meet a creative artist and fellow devotee of Flora. I’m grateful to Marcia for generously sharing with three strangers her garden, which is clearly a personal space, filled with plants and objects that have special meaning for her. I’ve admired her work in gardens across the country, from Chanticleer in Pennsylvania (she sculpted several pieces for the Ruin Garden) to the Dunn Gardens in Seattle, but I didn’t really have a sense of who the artist was until this visit.

I couldn’t leave Marcia’s garden without choosing a few small sculptural pieces as a souvenir for my own home. Marcia has a marvelous assortment of clay bulbs and fruits offered for sale, and I wish I’d thought to take a photo of them.

But I fell in love with her clay acorns and chose three. Each acorn cap is unique, and the biggest has Korean letters or words etched into it. I wonder what this acorn says? I didn’t think to ask, so I guess it’ll be a fitting reminder of Marcia’s mysterious, creative garden.

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

13 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This is a fantastic garden that awakens your child-like Secret Garden feelings. It is exciting to see in pictures. I can imagine how you felt while there.

    I felt a bit like an intrepid explorer, Lisa. A new garden is always a treat to investigate, and an artist’s garden in particular. You never know what you’ll find. —Pam

  2. cheryl says:

    I loved it most for the plethora of texture & shades of green in the plants… many of which don’t care for the heat of the Sacramento area… dang it! did you see all the little chickens scratching about?

    I did see a few chickens, Cheryl. There’s a little white hen visible in the photo of the stone bench, in fact. —Pam

  3. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Thank you so much for posting so many great pictures of Marcia’s garden. Your tour was almost as good as being there! Although I’ve never seen it in person, I’ve watched Marcia’s space evolve over the years through photographs. It’s interesting how much the garden changes as Marcia creates new objects, keeps some, gets rid of others. The pond is also relatively new. Years ago, it was from this garden hat I lifted the idea of using headstones, bowling balls, and other found objects in my own yard. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Now I know something new about your garden, Peter. I hope I get to visit your garden of found objects one day. —Pam

  4. Alison says:

    Thanks for the great pictures of your tour of Marcia’s garden! I loved it. Maybe some day I’ll make it back to San Francisco, and go visit. I wish I had stayed an extra day and rented a car to go with Peter. I really like those mysterious hooded people, and the enormous beads.

    Alison, those people sculptures were so intriguing. Also, I love that she puts them out front with no worries as to them “walking off.” She’s quite a trusting and generous person. —Pam

  5. I’d planned to take BART over to Berkeley too, and was foiled by the strike. Thank you for the next best thing!

    That darn strike! I’m sorry your visit to Berkeley was foiled. I hope you and Mr. Danger found other fun things to do that day. —Pam

  6. Thanks, Pam! How wonderful that you got to go there. A visit to Marcia Donohue’s garden was featured on the PBS Victory Garden show, maybe 18 or 20 years ago? It was amazingly different and intriguing.

    The bowling balls were already a feature back then, but I don’t remember the strings of large “beads” – love, love, love the necklaces in the trees!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I first saw her tree necklaces in Seattle at the Dunn Gardens, Annie, which was one of the stops on the Fling that year. It was so cool to meet the artist who’d made them. —Pam

  7. Oh Pam – this is so amazing! What a creative gardener/woman – I am totally in awe…

    Isn’t it fun to see the creativity that different people bring to their gardens, Heather? —Pam

  8. rebecca says:

    How intriguing – this garden! I enjoyed seeing it through your eyes/lens. (I found your choice of words quite descriptive. They added to my visual pleasure.) I recently acquired a few more bowling balls and gleaned some ideas for using them from your photo.

    I’m wondering where you’ll place your acorns…

    I think they’ll go on my office windowsill, Rebecca, where I can enjoy them while I work. —Pam

  9. Ragna says:

    Oh my goodness!!!! I dearly love this garden with all the garden art and original sculptures. I especially liked the dense planting with ceramic bamboo and beads placed about. I even dreamed about them … hahaha! All your San Francisco garden tours have been much appreciated.

    Hi, Ragna. Did you really dream about Marcia’s garden art? Sounds like you need to make a pilgrimage yourself! :-) —Pam

  10. Did the fun ever stop?!? Guess not. What an amazing end to the Fling. I especially like knowing it’s open to visitors on Sundays :)Thanks for all your work on making the Fling such a wonderful event. Jeannie

    Jeannie, nope, the fun never stopped. :-) Truly, the Fling is so much fun thanks to the wonderful people who attend and those who volunteer to put it on each year. It was a treat for me to see this garden as an “extra” after the Fling ended. —Pam

  11. Tom E says:

    Many times I’m feeling a bit too tired to read, so I think I’ll just open up Digging and look at the pictures. Inevitably the pictures are so interesting and well done that I’m compelled to read the accompanying stories. Well done!
    There’s probably a lot of us working on our shade gardens and garden art this time of year.

    Tom, that is such a lovely compliment. Thank you! :-) —Pam

  12. Les says:

    Thank you for sharing this garden with us. I remember ages ago seeing it on a PBS spot, maybe it was the Victory Garden. I have admired it since and seen her work at Chanticleer.

    Another commenter mentioned that it had been featured on PBS a while back. Pretty cool. —Pam

  13. ryan says:

    I’ve never visited her garden. It looks great, I should consider a visit. I see her sculptures pretty regularly in gardens around the Bay Area. They’re always fun.

    I like that Marcia (and Keeyla Meadows too) opens her garden to the public regularly, and for free. It’s so generous of her! —Pam