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A Passionate Pursuit

Martha Stewart Living, March 2008

The wedding of Mary and Lew Reid more than 20 years ago also united his love for plants and her talent for design. The result is an extraordinary garden.

Twenty-five years ago, when Mary Reid took her future husband, Lew, on a date to California's Sonoma County, she inadvertently began building a love story. Bypassing cafes, wineries, and other conventionally romantic places, she drove to rural Occidental, home of her favorite nursery, Western Hills. A legend among plant aficionados, the garden is famous for its collection of striking flora from around the world. So it was no surprise that Mary, a landscape designer, and Lew, a lawyer who liked to propagate plants, forged a bond there that led to marriage and, eventually, to an expansive garden near the scene of their date.

Their terraced landscape covers two and a half of the 140 rolling acres they bought outside Occidental in 1989. A few miles east of the Pacific Ocean and south of the Russian River, the garden overlooks farm fields, apple orchards, and fir forests. It's a colorful, impressionist-style composition, marked with broad paths and fluffy needlepoints of plants contained by sun-warmed stone walls. Its main axis focuses on the view, drawing a sight line from the patio of their California Craftsman house toward dramatic mountain ridges. Secondary routes radiate from a centrally planted circle of thyme and meander whimsically down steps and under trees.

These worlds are the living symbols of their partnership: Mary designed them, Lew grew the plants, and since the garden was installed more than 15 years ago, it has evolved with their shifting interests. When they first arrived, little existed on their hill other than a small cottage (which they ultimately expanded) and some towering trees: redbud, Japanese maple, flowering cherry, and one dawn redwood. Mary incorporated these into her plan, along with a plant wish list she had been keeping for decades and that she tailored to the hot summers and rainy winters of her Zone 8 property.

Since growing takes time, Lew began planning and planting two years before the design was finished. Some of his plant starts, including Australian callistemons and South African cunonias, were seeds and seedlings he and Mary were able to collect on trips abroad, thanks to her import license. Others, such as cupheas, senecios, and unusual roses, came from plants he bought at Western Hills or acquired from friends and mail-order nurseries.

"It's fun to take one plant, turn around, and have 50," Lew says, adding that its also useful when you're trying to fill a couple of acres, especially with plants that most nurseries either don't sell or don't carry in large quantities. "You wonder, 'Which ones will grow for me?'" he says, describing the challenge that first led him, back when he was in law school, to try sprouting seeds on a windowsill.

As Lew tended his greenhouse, Mary developed her sketches, drawing a series of abstract, interlocking shapes on a grid, an approach she learned from a class with English landscaper John Brookes. "You fiddle your shapes into a pleasing picture," she explains, "then decide what they'll be programmatically -- walks, patios, and borders." Lew suggested erecting walls made of the property's native serpentine stone to define and divide the garden's sloping spaces. To set these off without competing with the views, Mary planted masses of fast-growing, climate-appropriate ornamental grasses and Mediterranean natives such as rosemary, salvia, and rockrose (an inspiration from the 1990 book Bold Romantic Gardens, by Oehme and Van Sweden).

While these design elements gave the garden its early form, huge, windblown pennisetums proved chaotic near the house, and Mary moved all of the grasses to outlying, less prominent beds. Later, some of the Mediterraneans, such as rockrose and artemisia, became leggy and overgrown. During the gardens first few years, Mary regularly ripped out and replaced sections of it, leaning more toward "workhorse plants": penstemons, hydrangeas, long-flowering euphorbias, and small, multiseason trees such as pomegranate.

She also became intrigued by color, falling for orange (a hue she once disliked) because of its ability to shine in bright Sonoma County light. She gravitated toward painterly combinations -- a bed of pinks and burgundies, for example, arranged around red-tinged dogwood, wine-flowering abutilon, and ruby penstemons, all stitched together with a medley of greens.

Besides allowing for Mary's favorites, Lew, now retired, has gone through a collector's series of plant fixations: South African proteas, woodland hellebores, and primitive, grasslike restios, among others. "I never insist that Mary adopt my peculiar fascinations," he says.

Nevertheless, they often charm her, and she enjoys experimenting to find the best ones for their country setting. "Deer and gophers, a problem here, don't even like hellebores," she laughs. "And there are so many variations on the theme." Also recently retired, Mary has been rendering the garden's subtle details -- rose hips and Matilija poppies -- in watercolors as Lew follows his plantsman's curiosity into exotic and sometimes even familiar realms.

"I grew 30 new Japanese maples last year," he says. To the question of whether these trees will appear in the landscape, Mary is philosophical. "Gardening is a process," she says, "and Lew constantly reminds me of all the plants I once rejected. But more often than not, the two gardeners happily share each other's enthusiasms, a pattern that goes back 25 years, to a few sunny hours at a nursery.