Category Archives: Public Gardens

grand island mansion

Nothing surprised me more over the weekend than visiting for the first time an Italian Renaissance-style mansion in the heart of the Delta in Northern California, east of the San Francisco Bay.



It was the perfect Sunday drive along the Sacramento River to meet family members for brunch. The house, situated on the riverfront, has 58 rooms and four levels and is the largest private residence in Northern California.


According to the brochure, the mansion was designed in 1917 by renowned San Francisco architect J.W. Dolliver  for Louis Meyers and his wife Audrey, daughter of Lubin of the Weinstock Lubin department stores. It served as Meyers’ centerpiece for his fruit orchard empire and for entertaining guests who arrived by riverboat. Meyers was a orchardist and you can still see wide sweeping fields of pear trees surrounding the mansion and the surrounding town of Walnut Grove.



Outside, the grounds are nice – with fountains and statues and a great big hill for the kids to run down.



It has been restored by the original architect’s great-nephew, Terrence Black. Inside there is a funny feel of  luxurious period furnishings and European artwork likely not from the original private residence, but rather to transform it into a wedding location ( it is used primarily as an event venue). But several rooms including what I assume is the original private bowling alley and home theatre with beautifully carved wooded seats are a thrill to see. There is even a Hemingway Hunt room which serves as a bar lounge, with deer heads and furs on the wall.



I’m not clear if Hemingway ever stayed here, but I imagine that in the 1920s, bars called Hemingway were en vogue.

The house has been featured in National Geographic, Architectural Digest and Sunset Magazines.



Rather than pity a bygone era and beautiful home taken over by corporate events or weddings (didn’t the real Downton Abby do the same?), I rather enjoy imagining  a Mr. and Mrs. Meyers escaping San Francisco on riverboat, to the laid back country delta and surrounding orchards. A welcome break from the city, then and now.

The Grand Island Mansion is open for public viewing when it serves Sunday brunch on select weekends. Otherwise it is used for private group reservation. Private tours are also offered.


flying south


My mother in law, who lives in Canada, likes to describe how – like the Canada Goose –  she flies south each winter to escape the cold.  We took her lead recently and escaped the chill of Northern California to the warmer climate in the sleepy beach town of San Buenaventura, California – or rather the shortened “Ventura” – where we have friends.  (Curiously I have found that the word “Patagonia” – the outdoor clothing and gear company founded in Ventura –  and “Buenaventura” share the same number of syllables. Nonetheless, the city name got the the chop a long time ago.)

Ventura is a sleepy seaside and surf town. The area feels off the beaten track and we enjoyed exploring it.

Mission San Buenaventura, (1782), named for St. Bonaventure of Tuscany, is the ninth and last mission founded by Junipero Serra in California.


The gardens feature flowers and plants typical of the climate in Southern California. I’ll admit this girl from the north is envious of the colorful and lush landscaping possibilities here.



We took a whale watching tour with Island Packers out to the Channel Islands.


We missed the annual southern migrating gray whales that day (pregnant mothers arrive in the area first, then juveniles, followed last by the males) but experienced a pod of about 75 dolphins  jumping and splashing around the boat. And this New Years Eve sunset was a special treat on our return to the harbor.


Ventura’s city hall is beautiful. This is the view looking down from it to the shore, with the iconic palm trees lining the street.


The flagship Patagonia store in its historic building is not to be missed for some high-end outerwear shopping.


We welcomed 2013 tasting some of the best $1.25 carnitas tacos in nearby Carpinteria where we also discovered by chance a lovely bluffs nature reserve  and a beautiful and long sandy beach without crowds. Some of the tallest and skinniest palm trees I’ve ever seen line its small downtown and we twisted our heads back to peer up at them. The local surf shop had just the pair of Havaianas sandals I was looking for.


Soaking in the Southern California sun we came down for, we watched the surfers to the beat of the crashing waves.



home garden inspiration at the french laundry

A wrong turn in search for an outdoor spot to eat our picnic yesterday dropped us into the outdoor kitchen garden of  3-star Michelin,  award-winning restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, Napa Valley.

My husband is a home gardening enthusiast – and I, a garden-eating enthusiast – so we were thrilled at our luck at this chance encounter to experience world-class methods and perhaps take a few tips home. With a mix of garden envy and awe, we wandered through the carefully laid out plots in between grass pathways. They are producing unbelievably beautiful vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs.

I’ve read that in addition to being a professional test garden, the garden supplies around 30 percent of the The French Laundry’s produce. The restaurant is housed in a beautiful historic building that was once – you guessed it – a french steam laundry.


The restaurant’s organic garden grows many different kinds of vegetables and fruit and also tests unique plants. I walked past artichokes, lettuce, corn, eggplant,  three different kinds of basil and other herbs new to me, a variety of peppers and white strawberries. There were chickens and a bee house.

And then there were the tomatoes. We needed to find out what was in this soil to produce those tomatoes. The staff we talked to said they utilize crop rotation and organic compost – with chicken manure. There are perfectly placed drip tubes and tapes.

Enter the greenhouse where tomato vines are giant and tomatoes works of art.

The vines show off their supersized health.

The method of planting close together and meticulously stringing the vines up from top (see white string above)  are ideas we will take home.

The ice lettuce with hints of purple is beautiful covering.

The vegetables make room for flowers – many edible and used in the menu.

Freshly picked heirloom tomatoes, presumably for customers that night.


 Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry has earned its title as one of the  world’s best restaurants. The gardens, without doubt, are world class. Visiting them,  you will return home with fresh inspiration for your own garden.

Do you have a favorite public garden?

next up nature’s art

I’m not a gardener. I find it difficult to water the only two flowerpots that sit on our doorstep. That’s why I love succulents. But I also love to visit gardens and envy all master gardeners. In almost every town I’ve lived in there are public gardens and arboretums, and garden tours during Spring. Now is the perfect time to forego indoor museums and enjoy nature’s art outside.

 Two of my favorite gardens from our time living on Lago di Garda (Italy)  come to mind.

1. Il Giardino di Delizia

Held at the grounds of Palazzo Bettoni Cazzago in Bogliaco di Gargnano, these gardens are candy for the eyes. There are breathtaking views, colors, and –  above all – Amazing Garden Architecture set behind the backdrop of Italy’s biggest and   (although the Como/Maggiore fans may not agree)  most beautiful lake. This is one of those try-not-to-compare-to-what-you-have-back-home places. And-yes-we-did-live-10 minutes-from-here-and-please-don’t-ask-me-again-why-we-ever-left-such-a-wonderful-place.

Mediterranean climate plants are on display on multiple levels of the garden, and available for sale to the public. From the web site, it looks like the exhibitors are now selling fruit, herbs and olive oil. There are music concerts, guided visits and gardening workshops. If you find yourself in this part of Italy this month and enjoy garden touring, it’s being held the 21st and 22nd of May this year. Go!

Here I am very pregnant at Il Giardino di Delizia. Look behind Giant Tummy and you’ll see the beautiful  palazzo and lake.

2. Heller (sometimes referred to Hruska) Botanical Garden

This is another favorite  garden. It is located in Gardone Riviera on Lago di Garda next door to Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale villa (merits its own post). The garden features artwork with sculptures ( my newest love and the direction I want to take our own little garden) by internationally known artists such as Keith Haring. The gardens, owned by the ‘André Heller’ Foundation since 1998, was created by Arturo Hruska, who  collected approximately 500 species of plants, also recreating their natural environments and microclimates. I especially loved the tropical aquatic plants decorating  Japanese ponds (there is a huge variety of succulent and subtropical plants), and a forest of bamboo – something that looks out of place at the lake, but is part of the appeal for me. Unlike the first, this garden is open year round.

Have you toured a garden recently? Do tell.