Features/ Ginger and Walt Valen in a portion of their six acre garden, Thursday April 3, 2008 in Boonville. Walt Valen was the former director of the Strybing Auditorium in San Francisco and has since retired to the Anderson Valley with his wife.(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)2008

Former head of Strybing Arboretum has retired to Anderson Valley, where he's creating his own magnificent showcase garden

For your average gardener who needs achievable boundaries to stay in check, the prospect of cultivating a 5-acre "back yard" would send them scurrying to put money down on a condo. Too much temptation. Too much potential for aggravation and defeat.

But for Walt Valen, just "Bring it on!"

Five acres is a relative window box of geraniums for a guy who managed a 56-acre urban botanical garden, filled with more than 7,500 varieties of plants from around the world.

For 20 years -- from 1979 to 1999 -- Valen was director of Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park -- since rechristened the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

"He was happy with 56 acres. This is a comedown," laughs his wife, Ginger. "And he had minions and a plant collections committee and a signage committee and a garden staff of 13. It's pretty hard when you get old and you're stuck with another old person you want to order around and yet, who has just certain capabilities."

And the other "old person" on his current "staff of one?" That would be Ginger.

She casts a mischievous glance at the boss of Stony Bottom Gardens in Boonville. Lest there be any mistake about who is calling the shots, "Honcho" is emblazoned on the back of his cap.

And yet these two 60-somethings, each with strong personalities and sometimes very different visions, have negotiated a peaceable balance of power after joining forces to create their very own botanical garden in the heart of Anderson Valley. He's a plant geek with no use for garden goo-gahs. She is a ceramicist with a compulsion to decorate.

"Walt was not afraid to get his hands dirty. You could often find him in the garden working alongside the gardeners, probably as an escape from the desk work he was responsible for," says Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture Magazine and a former education director at Strybing, of his old boss.

"He also had an amazing ability to balance the excitement of working in Strybing Arboretum as director with the downside of having to deal with all the bureaucracy of the city and county of San Francisco," Turner says. "He managed to remain on top of it and cheerful. And now he's able to do it in his own garden in Boonville without having to deal with any bureaucracy -- beyond his wife."

Like the arboretum, the Valens' creation is a series of small gardens. They spread out beyond a flagstone patio softened with festuca and thyme and dotted with cobalt blue pots.

"Retirement has been," Ginger says, pausing long before adding, "...an education. Living together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doing the same project, it's interesting how territorial one becomes. Walt has gotten easier and I've gotten easier. He hates statuary and he hates tschotchkes.

"And yet, as you can see, he's eased up a bit," she grins, nodding toward a vast space dressed up with everything from dogs made from an old radiator and other salvage to metal turkeys to ceramic bunnies in Easter colors.

And how did Walt, the serious horticulturist who worked his way up from part-time nursery worker in Turlock to managing one of the country's great public botanical gardens, manage to come around?

"I know who cooks dinner," he laughs, then allows, "I've always liked pots. The other stuff, I've learned to like and some of it is very nice. Ginger does nice things and I'm proud to have them in the garden."

Some of the trees are sporting Ginger's ceramic eyeglasses ("You look at a tree," she says, "they're looking right back at you.") A giant Loch Ness Monster made by her pottery teacher Alexis Mayer wakes from the deck of a series of open pavilions in the center of the gardens. A door to nowhere hangs suspended, Alice in Wonderland-style, from the branches of a bay tree.

"More than gardens, I like to collect plants," Walt says of his own interests. "I don't have a lot of one kind of plant. I have many 'one' plants."

They moved from San Anselmo to Anderson Valley eight years ago, downsizing their house to 950 square feet and upsizing their garden multifold.

"We actually only have been planting about 2? years," Walt says. "Before that it was trenching, digging a new well, getting the infrastructure in place." That includes a 45-station irrigation system. But Walt also has a peculiar love for hand watering and has installed hose bibs everywhere.

"When you're standing there in front of it, watering it throughout the year, you learn a lot about a plant and its growth patterns," he explains.

The gardens are still in their infancy. Whole sections, including a formal Italian garden, a water garden and a "secret garden" trenched within berms and entered through a corrugated metal tunnel, are still just part of the vision.

But taking in the broad sweep, it really is looking like a well thought out landscape with defined spaces radiating out from a broadloom of green grass planted in enriched mushroom compost brought in to replace an infertile patch of sand and gravel -- once a creek bottom.

Walt doesn't worry about whether he's being horticulturally PC in an age when turf is under attack. Well water keeps his grass green.

"People can laugh at me. I don't care. Cause I like lawns."

One of the first gardens to go in was "Juju's Garden," (a former neighbor child's attempts to say Ginger), filled with low-maintenance Mediterranean plants like cistus, grasses, rosemary and lavender. Water plants and vines thrive in an old clawfoot tub they unearthed. A rusty Depression-era bed frame is repurposed into a bed of succulents.

The acreage in early spring is colorfully swished in multitudes of tulips and some 6,000 narcissus (because critters don't eat them.) Hog fencing keeps out the deer and a black cat patrols for gophers.

Beneath a cypress grove are the rhododendrons and other shade-lovers. In a sunny back corner, raised beds provide food for the table. And after buying an adjoining property with a former Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, they began adding new gardens, including a patch all in yellows.

Ginger occasionally opens up the hall and sells garden art -- her own fun ceramics and works from other local artisans. She'll open during the annual Anderson Valley Garden Tour May 10, an event the Valens stirred up several years ago to unify the gardening community.

There is much work ahead, but the couple are happily caught up in the process, figuring the joy is in the planning and execution. While they love nursery hopping and fine crafts, they aren't too proud to shop the garden bargains at Costco.

"We really do work well together and we have to work on a budget. When you're used to shopping at Nordstrom and getting your nails done once in awhile, and now you shop at Land's End and you've got dirt under your nails at dinner parties," Ginger laughs, "there's no pretense."

Meg McConahey, a staff writer, can be reached at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@ pressdemocrat.com.

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