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San Rafael's Falkirk center gets a makeover

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Towering turrets, gilded gables and soaring stained-glass windows, gleaming interior wood paneling and parquetry floors, exotic bunya-bunya, oak and redwood trees surrounded by swathes of emerald green lawn. These are but a few of the unique physical attributes of the Marin jewel known as Falkirk, the cultural community center in San Rafael. Now, with the transformation of a portion of the grounds by the Marin Master Gardeners, this venerable beauty can add succulent and Mediterranean gardens to the list.

    Until 18 months ago, the west-facing side of the mansion was an eyesore, sporting a few undernourished and dispirited trees, weeds and abundant rocks. The space, once used as the family garden, seemed an ideal candidate for a makeover. At the time, Marin Master Gardeners were interested in developing some demonstration gardens - ones that featured succulents and Mediterranean plants, providing the community with examples of beautiful, low water-use plants in aesthetic combinations. To enthusiastic master gardeners Leslie Hutchinson and Jessica Wasserman, the sun-soaked space seemed perfect for a succulent garden. They got a team going and last summer, landscape drawings, plant lists and irrigation plans were presented to and approved by the City of San Rafael Parks and Recreation Department. The new succulent garden was under way.
    Concurrently, another team of master gardeners led by Gail Mason were developing plans for a garden that would feature a range of plants from the five Mediterranean climate zones of the world - climate characterized by warm to hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.
    The area, laid out in an arboretum-like fashion, would feature plants grouped by country of origin: Australia/New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, the Mediterranean Basin in Europe and California/Baja.
    The final design plans were drawn up by landscape architect Fred Warnecke, a longtime Falkirk fan who had developed a master plan for the garden grounds in the 1990s, and this team was soon under way.
    While it might seem that succulents and Mediterranean plants are not consistent with Victorian styles, a photograph of Falkirk from the early 1900s shows succulents and other western-looking plants flanking the semicircular drive in front of the house.
    Also, those bunya-bunya trees, Araucaria bidwillii, the distinctive towering evergreen conifers on the east front lawn, are Australian natives. The use of these types of plants early in the 20th century was something of a novelty and plants from the far corners of the globe were quite the style.
    Built in 1888, Falkirk was named for the Scottish birthplace of the home's second owner, Robert Dollar. His descendants occupied the house until 1970 when it was destined to be converted to condominiums. In 1972, it was saved from demolition through community activism and has served as San Rafael's community cultural center for the past 30-plus years. The new gardens are more examples of a community effort, pulling together the Marin Master Gardeners, the City of San Rafael, the Marin Municipal Water District, Center Point volunteers and many merchants and individuals.
    "If it weren't for community action at the time, the space at Falkirk would be just another condo development," Larry Mulryan, former mayor of San Rafael and a Master Gardener working on the project, said. "Now, a new generation is taking the lead in getting the community involved to make it a more beautiful and sustainable place."
    The succulent garden features soft curves and undulating berms surrounding a 3-ton stone bench, a perfect place for viewing the garden in all directions. The dry stream bed and crushed granite pathways accentuate the myriad plantings that boast a variety of sizes, colors and shapes; fill niches; tumble over rocks or nestle close to the ground. Crassulas, dudleyas, echeverias, sedums and sempervivums are artfully arranged to highlight their often otherworldly appearance and allow for up-close appreciation.Ê
    Across the path, the Mediterranean garden is filled with more than 400 plants, ranging from low-growing shrubs and perennials to large shrubs and trees, like the Australian Acacia vestita or "Hairy Wattle," a lovely weeping tree with soft grey-green leaves.
    Plants represent a range of forms, colors, textures and sizes as well as novelty; Mason describes the Coreopsis gigantea in the California/Baja section as "a very Dr. Seuss looking plant."
    Interpretive signs guide the visitor through the areas, and plants are in the process of being labeled.Ê
    "This has been an excellent collaboration which has greatly enhanced the Falkirk grounds," Falkirk director Jane Lange said.
    - What: Mediterranean and succulent gardens open house
    - When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 30, 2009
    - Where: Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission Ave., San Rafael
    - Cost: Free
    - Information: 485-3328