The gardens around us


It is a great satisfaction to me to review and recommend Julie Monson’s new book, “Gardening on California’s Coast.” A former president of the Inverness Garden Club, a Master Gardener and a longtime columnist, Julie has befriended and mentored many gardeners like me who have appreciated her focus on our Mediterranean climate, her close attention to the particular needs of our coastal gardens, her scrupulous research and her lucid writing style. 

I enjoyed her columns over many years, experiencing with her the seasonal cycles, the ups and downs of the gardener’s life and the occasional garden crisis. On that point, she notes in her introduction that her first column, written in 2001, was on Sudden Oak Death. 

This book was born of those columns and was originally intended by Julie as “something small… a pulling together of articles…to present to my children and family,” she writes. Happily for us all, she expanded on that idea. Modest in size relative to the glossy coffee table tomes we know (this book is a paperback!), “Gardening on California’s Coast” spills over with beautiful images of familiar gardens and plants of this area. The photographs are accompanied by clear, readable text sprung certainly from its author’s critical mind and deep knowledge of the natural world, but also from her pleasure in family and travel and her ability to tell a tale. An important story is of building her own Japanese-style garden based on a passion conceived on a childhood visit to The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino: “I was about twelve, and I still remember how astonished I was at the spare, open serenity of the house and the elegance of the informal garden,” she writes.

Page after page of beautiful photos interspersed with careful, spare, but conversational prose, tell the story of how Julie mediated this lifelong love for the formal elegance of Japanese gardens with the need for a relaxed landscape that includes native coastal trees and plants (and occasionally even invasive seasonal visitors like bleeding heart, foxglove or forget-me-not). 

Images from the Monson garden stand comfortably beside the those of Kyoto temple gardens, and a story of Julie and her husband, Jim, visiting their friend Professor Nakamura in his exquisite Kyoto garden is followed by another of Julie back home in Point Reyes “attempting imaginary water with a dry, stone-filled stream.” 

Like some other local gardens, my beloved garden is a mixture of childhood memories and newer experiments; it needs a steady hand to keep it from straying into a harum-scarum of abundance and chaos. A little more of the “tranquil atmosphere” of a Japanese entry garden would be welcome.

“While I love exuberant, colorful gardens, and they cheer me up, there is something deeply satisfying about these small, serene spaces that encourages me to take a deep breath and slow down,” she writes.

“Gardening on California’s Coast” leads on, chapter after chapter, to stories and photos and good practices for the wide range of trees and plants in coastal Marin. In a chapter titled “Reliable Favorites,” I found wonderful shots of Plant Park and the Gables Garden in Inverness, as well as window boxes photographed on trips to Alsace and Germany. Julie was part of the Inverness Garden Club committee that built the medians in downtown Inverness and gives us an account of choosing the 70 plants involved in the project. 

A chapter titled “Food and Flowers” includes snapshots and lessons from the community garden in Point Reyes Station, the Hog Island Oyster Company garden in Marshall and several ranch gardens in Chileno Valley.

One last thing: handling the book for the first time, I was struck by how comfortable it felt. It may be a strange thing to say about a book, but how else can I explain the light weight in my hands; the soft, almost brushed feel of the brilliantly colored cover; the ease of flipping the pages; and the pleasure of the photos on virtually every page, mellow and soft in hue, and of text that is not too dense to take in. This is a paperback that stands on its own, an artifact that asks for handling. At 140 pages, it seems proportioned for holding, almost like the garden tools we need.

Julie Monson will discuss her book with Wendy Johnson, co-founder of the gardens at Green Gulch Zen Center and author of “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate,” at 4 p.m. during the next meeting of the Inverness Garden Club on Wednesday, March 8 at Point Reyes Books. All are welcome.


Barbara Jay is a longtime member of the Inverness Garden Club and a former chair of the Inverness Garden Club Scholarship Committee. She lives in Inverness Park.