Arden Park's annual tour spotlights six suburban oases
By Susan Maxwell Skinner
Though spring is the favored season for garden tours, a three-year tradition by the Arden Park Garden Club schedules its annual fundraiser safari next month. The Sept. 25 event will invite vicarious green-thumbers into six homes.
“We choose September to be different,” says tour organizer Virginia Cannon. “We catch the turn of the season, with some fall color.”
In this pancake-flat neighborhood, the show gardens are within a mile of each other; attendees often walk or bicycle. Cannon, whose home was featured last year, says the tour aims for relevancy within its community. Gardeners typically have modest budgets and do their own digging.
“We all love the magnificent gardens seen on some glamorous tours,” she says. “But there’s a huge amount of pride when you’ve achieved something yourself, instead of plunking down money and having someone else do it. For our tour, we choose gardens where someone could see an idea and duplicate it in their own yard.”
A case in point is Todd and Cathy Johnson’s half-acre lot. For reasons of economy and botanical compassion, the Johnsons have given growing space to scores of unwanted plants.
“About 80 percent of what grows here is has been dug up from other gardens,” says businessman Todd. “I hate to see a healthy plant thrown away. A lady gave me two dogwoods she wanted to be rid of. I found the perfect place; they’ve since quadrupled in size and their flowers make a beautiful display.
“On the tour, I hope people will gain ideas about placement and what you can do with orphan plants. In a big yard, there is always a spot.”
Nearby, Vietnamese-born gardener Me Thi James has established a palm-shaded refuge from Eastern Avenue traffic. Japanese maples provide russet lower contours and great clumps of bird of paradise flower in profusion. Stone lions crouch on the home’s tiled portico. Asiatic lilies splash vivid color through flowerbeds. The gardener employs the contrast of hydrangeas and roses in her multicultural theme.
“In my country we have many different flowers. Some don’t do so well here,” notes the former fashion designer. “So I do my best with what I can grow.”
Tickets to the six-garden tour cost $10 in advance or $15 on Sept. 15. One of Sacramento’s oldest garden organizations, the host club was established when settlement of Arden Arcade mushroomed after World War II. APGC now has 50 members and meets monthly at the Arden park Community Center (1000 La Sierra Drive). Membership is $20 per year. Club fundraising supports garden- and nature-related nonprofits in the area.
For more information about the tour, call 487-5825.
Rancho del Paso’s Dove Story
Doves are part of biblical and romantic symbolism. The feathered harbingers also symbolize peace and hope in many cultures. Few locals know that Carmichael has its own dove story.
A journal by Arcade historian Nellie Jellison relates the tale. Her account dates from the 1840s, when pioneer John Sinclair co-owned the huge Mexican land grant called Rancho del Paso. Its eastern extremity is now part of Carmichael. In Sinclair’s home, his wife employed several Native American women as servants. According to Jellison, one maiden “possessed marvelous beauty and was the daughter of a chief.”
Though she had a suitor among her people, she was beloved of a tribesman from the north. With a raiding party, the determined intruder stole his love and headed for the mountains. Her tribesmen pursued. In a desperate fight, two fatal arrows were shot and the lovers perished. Indian legend says that to immortalize their devotion, the Great Spirit transformed them into mourning doves.
Every season thereafter, the avian couple could be seen in the tree under which the runaways fell. The rancho’s Victorian lore said that, during the dove-hunting season, no sportsman’s aim could harm the couple. If shot, they vanished like phantoms.
The fabled doves’ tree is long gone and all that remains intact of Rancho del Paso’s massive spread is 2 acres in Carmichael. Here stands the 1850s house that bloodstock magnate James Ben Ali Haggin built for his farm manager, John Mackey. Probably the oldest house in Sacramento County, it is now owned by Teri and Rick Niello.
“We have a pair of doves that nest here every spring,” Teri Niello says. “When I first heard the legend, I was sure our birds were the lovers. It’s a wonderful feeling that this place is their refuge. Our home’s history is enriched by the legend of the doves.”
Carmichael Geranium Society Bows Out
It gave us the Lady Carmichael geranium. It marketed the first yellow geranium hybrids and taught us pelargonium cuisine.
For 20 years, the Carmichael Geranium Society staged spring festivals that had fans fighting for specimens. Once the world’s largest geranium club, the society is now disbanded. Added to our boarded-up bowling alley and vanishing small businesses, Carmichael Americana has suffered yet another loss.
Because members were unable or unwilling to fill 2012 board positions, the geraniatas reluctantly voted to throw in the trowel. “It was a sad decision,” says the group’s horticulturalist, Donn Reiners. “Ever since I joined the club nine years ago, I admired its vision.”
Explains President Jean Prather: “We didn’t just love geraniums; we loved the community.”
Armed with small shovels and big hearts, members performed two decades of local volunteerism. They maintained public gardens and donated park benches, picnic tables and trees. They developed a garden for the visually impaired. To mark Carmichael’s centenary, Reiners produced a Lady Carmichael hybrid that became a community icon. Later the club located and nurtured a few sick specimens of a “First Yellow” geranium (originally developed in Australia) and marketed the first of this hybrid in the United States.
In its heyday, membership topped 150. At the final count, 60 were on the books.
Such decline is the malaise of modern times. Busier lifestyles and waning leadership energy have stunted garden clubs everywhere. American geranium fans are additionally cursed by bans on European imports (the plant can harbor potato viruses), while specialized nurseries in the States cannot compete with corporate stores that offer cheaper, hardier strains.
“In the 1960s, there were five geranium nurseries near Sacramento,” Reiners says. “One grower is left in North America now.”
The Geranium Society’s fragrant festivals will be no more. “Some years, we had 1,500 people through the doors in five hours,” Reiners recalls. “When we introduced Lady Carmichael, we sold 600 plants in less than an hour. We could have moved four times that number if we could have grown them.”
As long as flowers bloom, the future is not all bleak. Society faithfuls still pet and pamper their prize plants. Geraniums will still paint drab Carmichael corners with brilliant color.
Says 17-year society member Bernice Holbert: “I have plants from cuttings shared with me long ago. When I tend these, I think of the people who gave them to me. Through our gardens, geranium friendships will survive.”
Aviator and Civic Leader Ross Davidson
My Carmichaelite friend Ross Davidson was 91 when his seemingly indefatigable heart stopped beating in May. He left a community bereft of its most tireless town haller, its chamber of commerce pillar, its geriatric tennis champ, polka dancer and distributer of cookies at park concerts.
Industrious, generous, outspoken—adjectives for the man abound. But lifelong patriot and great American are epithets that outrank all. Having survived three wars, numerous plane crashes and a wound that added a Purple Heart to his chest, Davidson did not sweat small stuff. A West Nile mosquito immobilized his right arm when he was 88. Davidson simply kept on marching through life, to his own drum.
Raised in Alabama, he ditched a musician’s career when World War II began. He soon was flying bombers over Germany.
“I was immature and naïve,” he recalled. “On our first mission, three planes out of 18 returned home.” His wartime career included 87 combat missions and more than 1,000 combat flying hours. Flying in the 92nd Bomb Group, he crash-landed (or had his B-17 damaged beyond repair) six times. Because of the enemy flak he attracted, comrades called him “Clay Pigeon.”
In the late 1940s, he became a test pilot. As inspector general and pilot for the Air Force Missile Test Center, Davidson helped install missile tracking stations throughout the Caribbean. These contributed to NASA’s Cape Canaveral space program. He was later project officer for the construction and testing of the DEWLINE project, which covered the Arctic wasteland from Alaska to Greenland.
John Wayne’s movie “Island in the Sky” enacted the dangers of such aviation. Real life hero Davidson admitted: “Looking back, it scared me to death. I depended on one little aircraft engine. If that had failed, I’d be on an ice floe yet.”
Though established in Carmichael soon after the war, his wife and three sons followed their colonel to an Air Force job in Japan. His final posting was McClellan Air Force Base. From there Davidson flew Vietnam War missions.
“Most people learn their lesson after one war,” he shrugged. “I went back for more.”
Carmichael civic life became a retirement passion. A businessman and town spokesman, he opened his mouth and wallet frequently. Ross wore varied hats. He knew everyone and never hesitated in calling in favors from the powerful—but never for himself. Over decades, he was awarded scores of awards for public service. Lest we forget, the most recent of his caps were those goofy wig-hats the wily prankster distributed at park concerts.
It seemed his battery would never run out. But a winter decline sent him in and out of hospital for months preceding his death. Ross attended a May chamber of commerce luncheon just a week before bidding a lucid goodnight to his son. He died the next morning, in his own home.
With the full military honors of his burial, our country’s “finest generation” lost another legendary son. Carmichael farewelled an institution.
Goodbye and thank you, Ross. It’s a quieter town these days.