Cover Story - June 23, 2010

Glorious gardens of Woodside

The Putnam family grounds and gardens, planted and tended by mother and daughters, are among those featured in this weekend's Master Gardeners' tour

by Renee Batti

To coax living plants from bare ground requires only a few fundamentals: seed and soil, water and light. Anyone, it seems, can be a gardener.

But to create a grandly vibrant, awe-inspiring garden, another ingredient is essential, and that's passion.

Sisters Lisa and Kathleen Putnam can tell you a thing or two about passion for gardening, and while doing so, it won't take long for them to mention the name of their mother, the late Mary Lou Putnam.

"I am eternally grateful for the love of gardening she gave me," says Kathleen, who lives in San Francisco and travels frequently to her family's Woodside ranch off Canada Road to care for the ornamental plants and trees on the grounds.

Her sister Lisa is the "edibles" gardener, and credits her mother entirely for her love of planting, tending and harvesting a bountiful garden.

Since Mary Lou Putnam's death in September 2007, the two women have taken over the gardens their mother established during nearly two decades at the site. (The Putnams lived on Mountain Home Road for about 20 years before moving to the current family grounds in the early 1990s.)

Lisa had been living in Marin when her mother became ill, and moved back to the ranch to be with her. She, her husband, and their two young children stayed on, and created "a kind of mini farm" out of what was formerly her mother's kitchen garden, she says.

In overseeing the ornamentals on the grounds, Kathleen tends the lavender and the 1,000 roses — bushes, trees, and climbing plants — that her mother loved so much.

It was Mary Lou who planted the roses along Canada Road, her daughters say, and every Feb. 28 — Mary Lou's birthday — the whole family gets together to prune and clean up the roses.

The Putnam gardens will be one of three private sites on the Educational Garden Tour sponsored by the Master Gardeners of San Mateo and San Francisco Counties. All the gardens on the tour, including two others on public grounds, are in Woodside. The tour is set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 26. (See separate story.)

Mary Lou was a Master Gardener, as are Lisa and Kathleen now. To be a Master Gardener, one must complete a rigorous University of California Cooperative Extension program, and volunteer in programs designed to help other gardeners.

According to the program's website, "through community service and educational outreach, (Master Gardener volunteers) provide home gardeners and community organizations the knowledge and skills to create a healthy environment for the counties."

Generations of gardeners

Lisa and Kathleen say their mother had them working in her gardens by the time they were 8 years old. "(She) taught all of the kids how to tend to plants, gave us lessons on 'dead-heading,'" Lisa says, referring to the technique of removing spent blossoms from plants to encourage more growth.

And just as the daughters caught the gardening bug from their mother, at least one more generation of the family seems headed for the same avocation, if not vocation. Lisa's daughter, Jennifer Carlsmith, applies her 6-year-old energy, curiosity, and will in the edibles garden. "Jennifer is a very good gardener," Lisa says. "Her interest (is) in the insects, but she is excellent at plant identification. She helps sow seeds and tend to plants."

Both Jennifer and her younger brother, Ryan, help with the harvest as well — kales and cabbages, beans and peas, artichokes, asparagus, squash, tomatoes, and a lot more.

Participants of the tour will be able to walk through the gardens while taking in other nearby features of the grounds — horses and chickens that provide the organic fertilizer for the soil, a beekeeping operation that contributes to the pollination of the plants, and an heirloom fruit orchard.

The 20 horses on the ranch are the passion of Joe Putnam, the family patriarch and car dealership businessman who served on the Woodside Town Council for a number of years.

Among the ornamental plants tour participants will see, in addition to roses and lavender, are salvias, manzanitas, grasses, "tuxedo" ceanothus, and flannel bush. There are uncommon trees, such as dawn redwood, atlas blue spruce, evergreen ash and holly oaks.

Kathleen says one of her favorite trees is "the horse chestnut my mom planted by the barn, kind of a horticultural joke."

Interns and apprentices from Filoli Gardens in Woodside help with the gardens in exchange for housing, a relationship begun many years ago by Mary Lou, who also volunteered as a Filoli docent.

Also critical to garden- and grounds-keeping are Luis Alman Sr. and his son, Luis, and Marcelo Diaz, all of whom work full-time and also help care for the horses.


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