A garden of public delight

Gamble Garden celebrates 25 years as Palo Alto's 'secret treasure'

In the last decades of her life, Elizabeth Gamble could be spotted leaving buckets full of cut flowers from her bountiful garden on the sidewalk -- a gift to her Old Palo Alto neighbors and passersby.

But her ultimate gift was the garden itself, along with her lifetime home, a 1902 Colonial/Georgian Revival at 1431 Waverley St. It was originally built for her father, Edwin Percy Gamble, son of the co-founder of Procter & Gamble.

It was, indeed, the gift that keeps on giving. The Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden, now a state Point of Historical Interest, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Miss Gamble, as she was known, bequeathed the 2.3-acre property to the City of Palo Alto upon her death in 1981, with only one caveat: Use the property to benefit seniors.

Her gift set in motion competing interests: At one point the city considered proposals to expand the Lawn Bowling Green next door, to build low-income housing, to offer studio space for local artists, to house a teenage drop-in center or to use the house as a shelter for battered women.

During the four years the city was pondering what to do, the Garden Club of Palo Alto stepped up and offered to maintain the place in the interim, according to Karen Olson, who was president of the club in 1985 and is chairing the 25th anniversary committee.

The group formed a nonprofit in 1985 to aid in the work of administering and running the public garden and raising money to renovate the buildings.

Olson said the club was able to recruit a strong board with the expertise needed to tackle the list of tasks, from architectural and garden design to legal issues. Only one person tapped refused the offer, she recalled.

"These were huge jobs," but the board members' expertise lent credibility when presenting their plan to the city, she said.

After a lengthy debate, the City Council gave the Garden Club the go-ahead to permanently manage the property.

Olson still remembers thinking "when the Council voted 'yes,' now we have to do it. And we did.

"I was 45 years old and naive as could be," she said with a laugh 25 years later.

But today she points with pride to what was accomplished: a public garden with about 1,200 members, scores of active volunteers who maintain the gardens, all kinds of classes (from growing succulents to cooking with herbs) -- all without a dime from the city.

The first task was to raise the $1 million required to restore the main house and renovate the carriage house, which became a meeting room with a kitchen. They also made the facilities handicap-accessible, built restrooms outside the house and created an upstairs apartment for an overseer.

For funds, the Garden Club turned to supporters who earlier had signed petitions lobbying for the club's takeover of the property.

Then they got creative, petitioning the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust in Scotland for $10,000. They got $20,000 -- and later more, Olson said.

The Gamble family also contributed, happy to see their family home preserved, she added.

Today, it takes about half a million dollars a year to run the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden Center, which comes from membership dues, class fees and fundraisers, including the annual spring tour.

Many donors have moved away but continue to support the garden, noted Vanessa Roach, the executive director.

And, Gamble Garden has managed to create a $2 million endowment, with a campaign to raise $500,000 in the last two years alone, she said.

With membership slightly off this year, the garden is launching a membership drive.

"A lot bring grandchildren to events. It's nice to have that pipeline of people engaged," she added.

It isn't only paying members who keep Gamble Garden vibrant, but the hundreds of volunteers who do everything from pull weeds to cook and serve lunch once a month in the main house.

Tom Kotoske and Ian Aitchison meet at Gamble Garden every Tuesday morning to do the dirty work.

Kotoske, a retired assistant U.S. attorney who lives in Palo Alto, calls Gamble Garden "Palo Alto's unfound jewel."

He likes to tease that "I'm a gardener by hobby but not a very good one. They told me I couldn't touch anything green for the first six months!"

But he and Aitchison, a retired particle physicist and Oxford don, "do almost everything no one wants to do -- raking, planting, digging, moving trash."

Aitchison moved from a "pretty cottage in Oxford with a biggish garden" to a home in Mountain View with a small yard. His daughter spotted Gamble Garden, and soon he dropped by to see what he could do to help.

He regards working with plants as "stimulatingly different than physics."

"We'll leave something behind; the flowers and trees will go on. Meanwhile, it's our pleasure and task to look after them."

An added bonus for volunteers, Kotoske said: "We don't have to learn the Latin names for plants!"

Part of the attraction for Betsy Gifford, who co-chairs the garden volunteer committee, is the variety of people she meets while "on the job."

"Love of the Earth brings people together. ... For the more mature person, who has time to observe changes, weather patterns, nothing is ever the same two years in a row. There's something greater than man over which you have no control," she said.

Volunteers -- what Gwen Whittier, co-chair of the group of garden volunteers, calls the "dirty knees brigade" -- do 90 percent of the upkeep in the various beds, from the Mediterranean, native and cutting gardens to the new drought-tolerant-once-established area. The new bed now has vetch, clover and fava beans, which will be plowed under to make way for salvias, succulents and ground covers -- "what you can put in a garden in lieu of grass," Whittier said.

On a recent walk through the garden, Gifford couldn't resist pulling a weed. Laughing, she said her hands are proof she's "a dirt gardener."

Restoring the garden to its former grandeur is what she's most proud of.

"It takes at least 25 years to re-establish a mature garden," Gifford said, a Midwest native who grew up in a family of avid gardeners.

While expertise is appreciated, what's really required of volunteers is commitment, she said. Volunteers must be members, come in sturdy shoes, bring gloves and secateurs (clippers), be in good physical condition and be able to take direction, she said.

"You can't be a prima donna and say you can't get down on your knees," she added.

Once a month, volunteers get together for a brown-bag lunch during which they share everything from plant advice to what amazing gardens they've seen on their travels.

Of course, there are jobs for people who can't do the deep-knee bends. One of the oldest volunteers, Ann Inglis, is called the "master container engineer" for all the pots she washes in the potting shed.

Sometimes volunteering can lead to a paying job.

Jana Warren, assistant garden manager, started out as a volunteer five years ago when she was enrolled in Foothill College's horticultural program.

Foothill looks to facilities such as Gamble Garden to provide on-the-job experience for interns, said Dan Svenson, director of environmental horticulture and design department at Foothill.

"Gamble Garden has been very hands-on with their volunteers. ... (They) will explain what they're going to do that day, say, pruning roses, then volunteers will be involved in that process," he said. Plant-identification classes make field trips to Gamble Garden, and Foothill volunteers pitch in for the annual garden tour.

Foothill recently donated surplus dissecting microscopes, good for looking at bugs or parts of leaves, to be used by the third-graders involved in the Roots and Shoots program.

"They're a great organization. We can benefit from their facility and also help them out when they need a hand," Svenson said.

Dottie Free, co-chair of the volunteer committee, said Gamble Garden is constantly recruiting new volunteers -- and not just for garden upkeep.

"We're interested in people with leadership qualities, who like to organize," she said.

There are activities and classes for people of all ages -- including a Halloween Haunted House and puppet shows for children.

True to Elizabeth Gamble's wishes, Gamble Garden has become a magnet for older folks.

"Most of our volunteers are seniors. It provides socialization, a way to connect with Earth, with nature," Olson said.

Related stories:

Growing and learning

Anniversary celebrations continue throughout 2010

Gamble Garden by the numbers

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