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Master Gardeners transform Falkirk grounds, greenhouse

Masters of the House
Marin gardening group transforms grounds and greenhouse at Falkirk mansion
Jennifer Upshaw 
Marin IJ link to article

December 29, 2007

Just a few years ago, the grounds surrounding the Falkirk mansion's 1927 greenhouse with its gothic lath-house entry were bare in some spots and wildly overgrown in others.

Today the area is teeming with lovingly landscaped life thanks to the Marin Master Gardeners, brought in to transform the greenhouse and surrounding garden at the historic San Rafael property, a city cultural center.

"This is a recognition of what a very successful collaboration this has been between the Master Gardeners and Falkirk," said Falkirk director Jane Lange, as she took another look at the transformed grounds Friday. "It's a huge piece of property, so there's areas that have not been taken care of for many years."

The arrangement is working out so well that the rebirth of the gardens is expanding in scope now that the city has a memorandum of understanding with the University of California at Davis Cooperative Extension. Marin Master Gardeners members work as unpaid staff for the extension, answering public inquiries and providing information on plant health and gardening practices.

Plans this spring for the 1889 Queen Anne Victorian, once the home of steamship and lumber magnate Robert Dollar, include the creation of a Scottish rock garden at the center of the mansion's turnabout.

The effort has been paid for with a $10,000 challenge grant from the Marin Community Foundation Partnership Fund, a $14,000 grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust and $16,000 in in-kind donations from local businesses.

Close to $15,000 has arrived from private donors, including descendants of the Dollars, Bruce and Ella McCormick of Stevenson Ranch. Bruce's mother, Virginia Mary Dollar McCormick, was the granddaughter of Robert Dollar.

The Master Gardeners has been toiling away at Falkirk since 2002, about two years into Lange's project to reinvent the gardens.

Cosmetic work, such as renovation of the wedding garden and cottage, was first. It wasn't until the dilapidated greenhouse took center stage that the Master Gardeners arrived.

The city in 2001 tackled the bones: new plastic windows, paint, electrical work, steel structural support - all accomplished mostly through in-kind donations from local businesses. The renovation paved the way for the Master Gardeners, who in 2002 brought in design and planting expertise.

Led by Master Gardeners members Al Stone, Sandra Meyers and Elizabeth Finley, a landscape designer, the gardeners dug in around the greenhouse and an enclosed space to the west.

The enclosed garden, which thus far has kept out the many deer that roam the property, features a new fence designed by Stone to echo the historic lath work surrounding the greenhouse.

Falkirk's historic nature and old age make it expensive to maintain, city officials said. This year, the city spent $220,000 on Falkirk operations, not including facility repair, gardening, grounds maintenance and other work.

Having help from the Master Gardeners takes some of the pressure off,

Mayor Al Boro said.

"It's great the Master Gardeners have partnered up with Falkirk," he said. "It's not practical for the city to keep up the grounds."

From the gardeners' perspective, the program offers a chance to help adorn the historic property while schooling future gardening experts.

 "This is a community project and it's an educational experience for the community and future Master Gardeners," Stone said.

Stone, who has lived and breathed the Falkirk project since 2002, doesn't worry about what he'll do when he's done.

"I don't think I'll live that long," he said.

Contact Jennifer Upshaw via e-mail at jupshaw@marinij.com