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Santa Rosa man who lost home in Tubbs Fire uses replanted garden to help, heal

When David Galpin purchased his northwest Santa Rosa home as a weekend retreat some 20 years ago, the thick stand of trees was what caught his eye.

The 1957 ranch house was a little down at the heels, and the landscape was a lot of hard dirt and scrub. But the trees were glorious — all mature pines, redwoods and oaks, plus a massive spreading maple. Rather than fighting the naturally forested habitat, Galpin set about creating an enviable shade garden of ferns, bromeliads and aurelias.

“It was like an oasis back here,” he said. “The trees would be in front of and behind you. It was like being within a forest.”

When he retired from an executive position with Levi Strauss, he and his partner moved from San Francisco to Santa Rosa permanently and finally completed all the home-improvement projects that had long been on their list — refinishing the floors, installing air conditioning, getting a new heat pump, organizing the shed. Everything was finally the way they wanted it to be. And then the The Tubbs Fire happened.

The firestorm of October 2017 obliterated both the house and the garden, destroying 60 trees. Galpin found himself with an open piece of land, completely exposed to the sun.

Once again, he chose not to fight what he had. Rather than replanting a forest, he decided to capitalize on all that sun exposure and redecorate in a riot of flowers.

“When you’ve got lemons, you might as well make lemonade,” he said on a sizzling day in a garden that at the moment is mobbed with zinnias. He delights in surprising visitors who, upon entering the backyard, feel like they’ve crash-landed in Oz.

Galpin made not just lemonade but a tropical fruit punch packed into less than a quarter acre. He calls this space Sonoma Healing Flowers, a tiny production garden where he grows fresh flowers for bouquets he hopes will lift spirits, including his own.

For every bouquet he sells, Galpin donates one to Food For Thought, a food bank for pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS or cancer or who are at home recovering from a hospital stay or COVID-19.

At least that’s the goal. Right now, he’s giving away more bouquets than he’s selling as he gets his boutique flower farm up and running. He’s currently bringing 20 bouquets a week to the Food for Thought headquarters in Forestville during the height of the growing season.

“There is scientific evidence that if you’re in the hospital and you have flowers around, you will heal faster,” Galpin said. Bouquets vary depending on what’s in bloom. The peonies, gladiolus and lilies have given way to the dahlias, tuber roses, zinnias and the tall and stately white-and-purple liatris.

Having a charitable component to his little flower farm was essential.

“That,” said Galpin, “has always been a part of my DNA. If you’re not doing something for others when you’re so blessed, they’re not a match for me.”

At the food bank, clients who come in to select healthy foods see the flowers in a bucket; their eyes light up when they learn they can select a bouquet to take home.

“People like feeling like someone cares enough about them to grow flowers for them,” said Taylyr Johns, who assists with operations at the food bank. “It’s those little things that make a difference in the lives of people who are having a hard time.”

Personal healing project

Creating Sonoma Healing Flowers also proved important to Galpin’s own healing.

Losing everything in the Tubbs Fire, then being forced to drop his life to oversee a difficult rebuild, was traumatic and often depressing for Galpin, whose original garden was very much created by his own hands.

“The pain of the fire and the rebuild, to this day, is hard,” he conceded. “I try to be on the optimistic side, but the reality is that some days I still get so depressed over the whole thing and what it took away from my life.”

As he contemplated how to turn the muddy mess outside his door into something that would once again draw him outside, he envisioned a garden that would facilitate healing and a return to happiness.

Re-imagining the space and doing much of the work himself, including installing infrastructure like lighting and irrigation, provided a creative distraction during the pandemic.

The soil had been so compacted by heavy equipment after the fire that he had to bring in three big truckloads of topsoil in order for anything to grow again. Flower beds are laid out as borders along a flagstone path.

Some things miraculously survived the fire, including several tall palms he had planted from small pots years earlier, and an agave out front. A chaste tree that came back after the fire is filled with dusty blue blooms. A pile of impossible-to-kill naked lady bulbs were replanted and are happily proliferating in bright pink. And in the front yard, manzanita, madrone and yucca also stubbornly rose from the ashes.

Anything that was determined enough to come back was allowed to stay, Galpin said. The palms are clearly fire-resilient and require little water.

Galpin is determined to make his garden environmentally sustainable. His drip-irrigation system draws from a well and delivers just what is needed, with no waste. He loves zinnias, not only because they are brightly flamboyant and make for dramatic cut flower arrangements, but also because they are disease-resistant and require little additional water during dry months.

While the big trees are gone, he replaced some with fruit trees, such as a Granny Smith apple, a Double Delight nectarine and pear and apricot trees. Not wedded to strictly conventional blooms, he raises artichokes as well, both for arrangements and as a cool structure in the garden.

Tropical aura

His vision for his garden is of a Palm Springs resort, with a garden of decorative salt-and-pepper rock and a variety of palms, from Phoenix palm to a date palm from the Canary Islands to Mexican fan palms.

Galpin has gardening in his bones. Born in Iowa, he studied landscape architecture for two years at Iowa State University before dropping out and heading west to the more progressive Bay Area. Both his parents were avid gardeners, and designing and installing a garden largely on his own was a natural expression of his creativity.

Galpin is hoping to develop a flower subscription service. But in the meantime, people can order from his website, sonomahealingflowers.com, or arrange for custom bouquets, as if they were picking flowers from their own gardens.

The project has proven to be restorative after a nearly five-year process of recovery from the Tubbs Fire, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We like to entertain and we enjoy the outdoors,” Galpin said. “Our climate is so beautiful. So it’s fun having people here again who appreciate what is here.”

One of his favorite moments is when guests round the corner of the house and are gobsmacked by the kaleidoscope of blooms.

“I feel,” he said, “complete again.”

For More Information

Sonoma Healing Flowers: sonomahealingflowers.com

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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