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This woman dedicated herself to the McEvoy Ranch gardens in Petaluma

Koski-Kent’s tips for gardeners

Keep your trees alive during this drought. Trees are expensive and take a long time to replace. They also provide shade, habitat, cooling and absorb carbon dioxide.If you have a vegetable garden, plant crops that can produce for a long season with a similar amount of water such as kale and chard as opposed to lettuce.Deadhead regularly to keep whatever flowers you do have blooming.Consider buying a statue or other garden ornament that gives you joy and doesn't need watering.Remember that, like with previous droughts, the pandemic and fires, we will get through this.

Margaret Koski-Kent added whimsical elements among the vegetables and fruit

While majoring in horticulture and floriculture at Cornell University, Margaret Koski-Kent heard this warning from her professor: Make sure you love this career choice, because you won’t make a lot of money doing it.

Now three decades into her horticultural career, Koski-Kent doesn’t regret her decision.

“I am so blessed and grateful I was able to do a job I loved, at places I loved, and my efforts were appreciated,” she said. “Not everyone is given these opportunities.”

For 15 years, Koski-Kent oversaw the gardens at McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, ensuring a bounty of organic produce for the ranch’s two chefs, the McEvoy store at the SF Ferry Building and for farm products while also fashioning inventive seasonal additions to the gardens.

In line with the high standards Nan McEvoy set at the ranch for her organic Tuscan-variety olive orchards and the oil they produced, the gardens surrounding the ranch’s houses expressed McEvoy’s appreciation of art and creativity. Informal and varied according to the style of the surrounding buildings, they created a transformative world unto themselves.

Long lunches from ranch to table

Koski-Kent was introduced to organic gardening by her mother, who grew vegetables in their backyard in Chicago. Later, her first agricultural job was harvesting pickles at the family farm in Mauston, Wisconsin. She earned her bachelor’s degree in plant science at the UC Davis and began working in the landscaping industry.

But working in the industry, she became somewhat disillusioned when clients’ immediate response to any problem was “What can I spray on this?”

Happily, Nan McEvoy hired her as the head gardener at the McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma in 1998. Koski-Kent spent the next 15 years working with a team of like-minded professionals such as former longtime orchard manager Shari de Joseph and Jeff Creque, now director of rangeland and agroecosystem management at the Carbon Cycle Institute, to create special and extensive gardens, places that resonated deeply with the ranch’s many visitors.

“The landscape was so alive and expressive of life. People felt it,” Koski-Kent said. “A garden is like a dormant seed. When you give it water. it explodes. But that beauty can be so fleeting.”

The 5 acres of multifaceted gardens included a mixed fruit orchard, vegetable terraces and a kitchen garden. There were other eye-catching surprises, like a blue-and-purple iris bed mulched with bumpy white oyster shells; a naturalistic Mediterranean garden of gray foliage and dots of vivid, red-fruited pomegranates; tranquil plantings around a fantastical Asian pagoda; a Victorian cottage; a bank of lavender; and a Georgian glasshouse.

The all-organic ranch, surrounded by a sea of shimmering gray olive trees and punctuated with six ponds, awoke early each day with bird song, pollinating insects and other wildlife.

Koski-Kent’s memory of driving to work each morning in the dark is still sharp. She recalled spending the hours before dawn on paperwork and plans for the day’s projects. When the team arrived, she would go outside and work with them.

“I was so motivated. I was energized by the fact there was so much beauty. The garden was like a painting, with different versions that changed during the year and years in endless combinations creating new pictures,” she said.

“It was a unique opportunity to grow flowers and plants that really expressed themselves. ... We were so committed to growing organically. In both ways the earth nurtured the team, and they it.”

Nan McEvoy was an unusual business owner who didn’t dictate to her staff, Koski-Kent said.

“Nan gathered professional people around her and brought them together to do their best work,” she said. “She knew what she liked and what she didn’t, and we always tried to create plantings and tend the ranch and gardens to please her. She had a very sharp eye.”

With her former Peace Corps work in several countries, Nan McEvoy had seen the best way to connect with others was over meals. At McEvoy, she set aside a couple hours for lunch each day to conduct business and develop ideas and friendships with her staff over a meal made from produce grown on the land they all nurtured.

Koski-Kent and her team grew vegetables, herbs, berries and fruits for the two chefs, Gerald Gass and Mark Rohrmeier, to make lunch or sell at the McEvoy store at the SF Ferry Building or for farm products and for Nan McEvoy’s personal use. Koski-Kent said there were more than 1,000 individual sowings of vegetables and flowers each year to keep production constant.

Koski-Kent’s tips for gardeners

Keep your trees alive during this drought. Trees are expensive and take a long time to replace. They also provide shade, habitat, cooling and absorb carbon dioxide.If you have a vegetable garden, plant crops that can produce for a long season with a similar amount of water such as kale and chard as opposed to lettuce.Deadhead regularly to keep whatever flowers you do have blooming.Consider buying a statue or other garden ornament that gives you joy and doesn't need watering.Remember that, like with previous droughts, the pandemic and fires, we will get through this.

Gardening can be a solitary occupation of somewhat mundane tasks, she noted, but it is the crew that makes things happen. “No one gardens alone,” she said. Nan McEvoy wanted to ensure her staff were compensated for their efforts; she supported them and their families and encouraged their education, as well as the community’s.

The kitchen garden was a favorite place for McEvoy, and Koski-Kent saved room there for “quantities of flowers that Nan loved, showy displays that made her smile.”

Each season, Koski-Kent would include fun and whimsical plantings like beds with stick teepees covered with Cobea scandens and Caracolla vines and scarlet runner beans, or heavenly scented Cupani sweet peas. Other areas had gourd and hop arbors. The beds were rotated with flowers and vegetables, Agrostemma, larkspur, poppies, amaranth and zinnias did especially well.

A row of heavily laden and beautifully pruned Meyer lemon trees shielded the garden from the road. Another imaginative planting was an imposing concrete water tank festooned with sweet peas in spring and brilliant orange thunbergia in summer.

A second passion

After Maurizio Castelli, an internationally acclaimed enologist from Montisi, Italy, facilitated the planting of a vineyard at McEvoy Ranch in 2006, Koski-Kent started making wine for the enterprise.

She already had taken many viticulture and enology classes and participated in sommelier training and certification. She also had interned at Bastianich and Podere 414 wineries in Italy and, in California, at Scherrer Winery and Talisman Wines. Winemaking became her second passion.

Nan McEvoy died in 2015, and Koski-Kent started her own a garden design and consulting business. Some of her clients are people who used to visit the McEvoy Ranch.

“It is so much more difficult not being full time in one garden. All the challenges are there without the day-to-day observations,” she said. “These challenges have been intensified by the fires, smoke, drought and climate change of recent years and the plants are calling for help. I see that as my new job, and it can keep me up at night.”

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