If horticulture and human relationships seem unrelated, it's because you haven't met Danna Breen — yet. Breen's garden, set on a knoll overlooking Windy Hill in Portola Valley, has become a favorite location for bringing people together, forging relationships and creating community.
Even the word she chooses to describe her exceptional ability to connect people is related to the garden. "I'm a pollinator," Breen declared. "I bring people together when I think they should meet each other. I like lifting people up."
Breen wants people to gather, to share, to talk to one another, to "dwell in possibility" and not to be isolated. Years ago, out of concern for elderly neighbors who were becoming closed off from others, Breen created "Hot Dog Tuesdays," with everyone invited into her garden to share a simple meal. Although the original Tuesday guests have long since passed on, the Hot Dog Tuesdays gatherings continue every summer in Danna's garden.
Breen was born in Philadelphia and says she "was raised all over." In 1972, Breen's father, Dr. Walter Bortz, a physician and distinguished gerontologist, accepted a position at Stanford. Young Danna and her siblings were packed up along with the family dogs and a bunch of wine in the VW bus, and the family headed west to their new home in Menlo Park and, a few years later, to Portola Valley.
Returning home from college, Breen worked at Al's Nursery for the summer. That was the beginning of her obsession with plants.
"Al was a challenging boss," she recalls. "He handed me a copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book and told me to memorize it. I was headed to law school but all I could think about was plants."
Breen went on to work with noted landscape architect Nancy Hardesty, whose firm specialized in projects involving California Oak woodlands including Portola Valley Ranch.
Prior to starting her own business, Breen also worked with Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco.
Reaching out to other people began, at least in part, out of necessity. As a single parent with four young children under the age of 4, Breen had to make connections in order to raise her brood. She constructed a cottage on her property for another single mother, creating what she called a small commune.
"She built a tribe around each of us," Breen's daughter, Tenley Breen, recalls. Now a curriculum developer who works from the home she grew up in, Tenley Breen says her mother "knows how to make magic in everything she does. When we were little girls, she would tell us to go pick fairy bouquets."
Danna Breen's passion for gardens and gardening led her to found the Portola Valley Garden Club in 2008. Pamela Dorrell is a member and considers it her most powerful tie to the community.
Reflecting on her friend and fellow gardener, Dorrell offers this observation: "It seems connecting people is the air she breathes. She is so gregarious and curious. She wants the world to flourish, so she tends with care in the garden, the town and person-to-person to make everything the best possible. And surely it delights her."
Breen also delights in doing what she calls "guerrilla gardening," examples of which include beautifying the gas station by planting hollyhocks and vegetables; filling the urns outside Robert's Market with geraniums, and leaving plastic Easter eggs full of California Poppy seeds for people to find and scatter. Wanting people to have fun with nature, she once planted pumpkin seeds at the corner of Alpine and Portola roads with a sign that read, "Please water the pumpkins."
"Whenever I drove down the road I would see people-bikers, kids, elders-wrestling watering cans. Lo and behold, there were pumpkins," Breen says.
A member of Portola Valley's Architectural and Site Control Committee for 15 years, Breen has been a vital force in other aspects of the town for over 27 years. She was actively involved in development of the Town Center and served on the Construction Committee. Of her many accomplishments, she is most proud of her role in uncovering ("daylighting") the creek. "It was brilliant. It is the crowning glory of the Town Center site."
Even unfortunate situations present opportunities for Breen to "pollinate." Case in point: "The Poison Oak Guys." While out for a walk with her dogs on Easter Sunday afternoon, Breen came upon two young men resting by the side of the road, quite unaware that they had plopped down in a lush patch of poison oak.
She stopped and warned them of their peril. "They looked panicked and didn't know what to do, so I told them to stand up carefully, not touch anything and get to the hardware store to buy Technu," she recalls. "Then I remembered the hardware store was closed, so we walked briskly back to my house. I got out the Technu and told them to start washing."
She sent them off with the rest of the Technu and instructions for what to do when they got home.
One of The Poison Oak Guys is Josh Mendoza, a young Silicon Valley engineer who recently started a nonprofit that aims to provide students with the "soft skills" they will need to succeed in business
. "When someone offers help, it's wonderful. They touch your life. Danna is a special person," Mendoza says.
The other Poison Oak Guy is Tai Tran, a digital marketing expert who has been recognized by Forbes as one of "Thirty under 30."
The two men suffered no ill effects and made a surprise return visit to Breen's home a few weeks later, this time bearing gifts of thanks. They presented their rescuer with a pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and a flowering nontoxic plant.
Breen and the two men continue to communicate. "One thing leads to another," Breen remarks about her new connections.
Just as a diverse selection of plants creates gardens that are healthy and pleasing to the eye, the people in Breen's orbit are an eclectic and interesting mix of backgrounds, professions, cultures and ages. At one of Breen's recent gatherings, you could eavesdrop on Josh Mendoza (one of the now famous Poison Oak Guys) in conversation with David Stork, distinguished scientist, author and Ted Talk presenter while watching a little girl on a swing make wide loops over the meadow.
Wandering to the patio you would step around at least two chickens and step over Charlie Cooper, the yellow Labrador, hungrily watching welder and metal artist Bill Sorich supervise a flaming pizza oven. Seated at a table nearby, you would spot a woman wearing a unique scarf and pause to chat with Ana Lisa Hedstrom, an internationally recognized textile artist.
Making your way into the kitchen to partake of a table laden with colorful garden-inspired dishes, you would see Brook Coffee busily shaping pizza dough. Brook designs edible gardens and works with local schools to help kids learn to garden. She had just come from helping students make Mother's Day presents of herbal teas. She met Breen through Garden Share, an event held on the second Saturday of each month at Portola Valley's Town Center.
The cottage that once housed a single mother's family is now a guest rental, which presents landlady Danna Breen with more opportunities to bring people into her circle. Former tenant Julie Lythcott-Haims is a writer and author of the New York Times best-seller, "How to Raise an Adult." Nearing the deadline for her first book, she searched for a writing retreat and found Breen's studio apartment.
"Her front door was always open, and the house had an in-and-out feel to it which was very welcoming," Lythcott-Haims recalls."To be with Danna is to feel cared for. When I showed up on day one, Danna presented me with a mason jar of water she'd left out under the light of the recent full moon, which she called 'moon water.' She said it would be good for me to drink it — that it would help me with the creative endeavor I was undertaking.
"I didn't know this woman from Adam, and I tended not to go in for that kind of thing, but I believed her. And I drank it. And I'm pretty sure it helped."
Whitney Mortimer, partner and chief marketing officer at IDEO, found the listing for Breen's cottage while remodeling her house in 2016. "I instinctively sensed in that first response that I had just met a new friend," she recalls.
"Danna has a keen sense of how to live in nature. She advocates for dark skies and curates her garden only enough to let the natural wildness shine through. She is delighted by all the creatures with whom we share our environment — the seasonal frog chorus, the turkeys strutting on the rooftops, the birds building nests in the corners of her gardens."
Nicholas Targ, an environmental attorney, returned to Portola Valley after 20 years to a property in need of attention and a landscape that included a vexing and persistent patch of thistles. Targ shared his ideas for renovating with Breen.
Pointing out the historical aspects of the landscape and the trees, she replied: "You don't need to do any of that. It's just fine. This is what you are going to do."
After a dedicated program of sheet mulching and plenty of horse manure, the thistle patch disappeared. In its place is now a meadow of native grasses.
In summing up Breen, Targ offers this observation: "The thing that's quintessentially Danna is that she approaches people like she does gardens — 'It's just fine.' "
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