Astrantia maxima (masterwort)
The Zellerbach Garden of Perennials
June to July is the perfect time of year to appreciate the full, colorful splendor of the Jennie B. Zellerbach Garden of Perennials, the breathtaking western-most focal point of the dramatic axis across the Garden from the Main Gate. Anchoring the west end of this major east-west axial vista, the Jennie B. Zellerbach Garden is one of the most prominent and architecturally important gardens at San Francisco Botanical Garden. Curator Don Mahoney says, "This is the best-looking year yet for the area up the steps and through the arbor toward the back. It's exploding with color right now."
Established in 1966 by past San Francisco Botanical Garden Society Board President, Jane Coney, in honor of her grandmother, Jennie B. Zellerbach, the first garden was designed by Ed Williams, a principal of Eckbo, Dean, Austin & Williams (EDAW). His design included a huge Torrey pine that shaded the garden, greatly influencing what plants would thrive there. After the Torrey and other large trees fell, the exposure and growing conditions became quite different. The garden was redesigned in 2001 by Herb Schaal, a protégé of Ed Williams. As Jennie so loved pastel-colored perennials, this remained an emphasis in the redesign which included three arbors, several stone columns and the installation of ADA walkways.
A Penny Per Rose: How Jennie Inspired Jane Coney's Love of Horticulture
When Jane Coney was ten years old, she begged her mother not to send her to girls' camp during the summer. She wanted instead to spend the summer with her grandmother, Jennie Zellerbach, at her home in Hillsborough. Rows of roses lined each side of Jennie's driveway, which she paid Jane to deadhead. For every dead rose removed, Jane earned one penny. Eventually, over five summers, Jane was given the privilege of helping choose new plants for her grandmother's garden, leading to a love of gardening that would last her whole life.
A member of a pioneering California family, Jennie was born in Nevada City in 1872. She was the wife of Isadora Zellerbach and the mother of Harold L. Zellerbach, chairman of the executive committee of Crown Zellerbach Corporation; James D. Zellerbach, former U.S. Ambassador to Italy; and Mrs. Claire Zellerbach Saroni. Throughout her life, Jennie was a distinguished civic leader and remained a gardener until her death at the age of 93.
Granddaughter Jane presided at the dedication for the original Zellerbach Garden in 1966, after working closely on the design with landscape architect Ed Williams. Although it looks much different today, it remains an endearing memorial to Jennie Zellerbach, Jane Coney and one of San Francisco's first families.
Changing Conditions Give Rise To A Labor of Love
The Jennie B. Zellerbach Garden is one of the collections in the Garden that is not focused on a geographic area or a particular horticultural grouping, but was instead designed strictly for its aesthetic appeal. Characterized by flowers with subdued hues, it is an ideal place for quiet contemplation. In the last decade or so, Jennie's love of certain herbaceous perennials has been a challenge for gardener Bob Fiorello and volunteers Patsy Kobe and Pat Wipf.
First, the great Torrey pine fell, and over the years, other canopy trees succumbed, changing the garden's light and exposure dramatically. With the wide expanse created by the fallen trees, there was a lot of space to fill and a need to use more flowering shrubs and fewer herbaceous perennials. Through experimentation, the gardeners found that some of Jennie's favorites did not work in the changed space. They still kept true to her wishes, however, using pastel pink and blue flowering varieties as much as possible. Luckily, the white Wisteria and Clematis Jennie loved so much are still prominent features climbing and trailing gracefully over the arbors.
Volunteers Patsy and Pat are constantly on the hunt for new plants to try in the beds behind the arbors and in the horseshoe-shaped main plot. Since the redesign of 2001, all measures are being taken to help battle the poor soil condition, drainage issues, gophers and invasive varieties of plants that have done too well, including dwarf Astilbe, Alchimela and Geranium himalayense.
Although not invasive, Phormium (New Zealand flax), which provides a stunning burgundy vertical feature in the garden, is getting too big and will have to be removed. Patsy reports that after years of cultivation, the hard clay soil is coming around, but gophers are still rampant. Volunteers now plant anything new in gopher baskets to protect the root ball.
Patsy says, "I've loved working on this project over the years, it's been fun, but it has been challenging, too. Every year we try new plants. If the plant works, it stays!" Patsy beams as she notices an Astrantia in bloom for the first time ever on the south side of the horseshoe plot. "This is very rare, so exciting," she says. Spying a weed nearby, she quickly pulls it out with a quick flick of her wrist. Hand weeding these beds is vital to keep the garden looking its best. "We're out here every Friday from 10am–12pm," she says and adds with a smile, "Of course we're always looking for more help!"
The garden is maintained with an annual grant from the Zellerbach Foundation, hard work from Gardener Bob Fiorello and a small but loyal group of volunteers. If you would like more information about this volunteer opportunity, call Chloe Wieland at (415) 661-1316 ext 400, or email her at CWieland@sfbg.org.
Special thanks to Jane Coney's son Zach, who provided much of the information on Jennie and Jane for this feature.