The father in the Dell
Thursday September 10th 2009, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Family,My Garden

Robin sent me pictures of McCrillis Garden in Bethesda, Maryland, my hometown, sparking this post.

One time back when my children were young, my folks were visiting and we took everybody to see the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It was fascinating having Dad there: various plants would spark memories for him that I knew nothing about and get him talking.

His family had moved a few times while he was growing up, and each time, his father had declared the new place home by planting salpiglossis by the mailbox,  Dad said, pointing out what to me had to that point simply been a random flower.

His father had died when I was maybe three, and any point of reference between Grandfather and me was to be treasured forever.  Salpiglossis it is.

We walked the paths with the kids often running ahead, we admired the lake, we saw the ducks–sorry, no bread here–and we were about to head out of the park, done for the day, when we saw a small sign in front of a narrow break in a long high hedge running by the side of the road.  Hey! We can’t miss out on that!  And so we found ourselves walking into the hidden-away deep shade and quiet peace of the McClaren Rhododendron Dell.  We had it almost completely to ourselves.  It was late in the season for seeing rhododendrons, which were a family favorite–and yet a few were still putting on a good display.  And there were so many other things in full bloom.

Dad and I, talking, found ourselves a little apart from the rest of the family; this was in the days back when the Dell looked like this.  We were exclaiming over how gorgeous it all was–look at that yellow clivia, and that orange one–they’re related to amaryllises!  And that rhodo, and… Dad’s father had taught horticulture at the University of Nevada and was agriculture secretary of that state. (There’s agriculture in Nevada, wonders the East Coast-raised granddaughter? Nevermind.)

There was a gardener there who was trying not to pay too obvious nor too much attention but finally just couldn’t help himself.  He stopped the two of us and told us apologetically, “I don’t usually accost people in the park,” and went on to say how thrilled he was that we appreciated the place.  He held his arms out towards the whole expanse of Monterey Cypress and flourishing undergrowth and declared, “I have the best job on the planet!”

We got to ask him questions; he got to share more of what he does, and I came away eager to come back when the rest of the rhododendrons were on full display.

After we got out of his earshot, Dad turned to me and said, with the proud smile of a father, “We just met a male Alison.”  Someone who loves what he does and loves being able to share it. To which I would say, I’d just found a counterpart to my Dad.  Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and loves people.

Since that day, a huge storm destroyed much of the Conservatory of Flowers and took out a thousand trees. The shade was gone.  The paths became inaccessible and many of the Dell plants were damaged by too much sunlight and then by a virus.

Over the years, a little progress was made, but not much.  This spring, at last, fourteen years later, San Francisco awarded the contract for a major renovation.  There is a Facebook meet-up group of volunteers to help, too, and things are moving forward.

I can’t wait to go visit the outcome.

The new redwoods replacing the cypresses will take awhile to catch up.  My future grandchildren will love the place.  I’ll tell them to go hunt for the salpiglossis.

9 Comments so far
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Beautiful post, Alison. Love the beautiful flowers. I always love to see what other “zones” have for flowers that we, in colder and shorter season Vermont, don’t have.

Comment by Joansie 09.10.09 @ 3:31 pm

“We just met a male Alison.” What a wonderful compliment! It has been many years since I was in the Conservatory of Flowers or the Rhododendron Dell. Your description is beautiful. I never got to talk to a gardener there.


Paddy was driving down the street in a sweat because he had an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking place. Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place I will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of me life and give up me Irish whiskey”. Miraculously, a parking place appeared. Paddy looked up again and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found one.”

Comment by Don Meyer 09.10.09 @ 4:44 pm

Wonderful story! Thank you. 🙂

Comment by Toni Smoky-Mountains 09.10.09 @ 5:57 pm

I am glad the happy story has a happy ending on the way :-}
I miss my garden.

Comment by Diana Troldahl 09.10.09 @ 8:17 pm

I’ll be glad when the shade is restored and you dare linger there again.

Comment by Barbara-Kay 09.10.09 @ 8:56 pm

Another great story! The joy of all of you was clearly visible in your words.

Comment by TripletMom 09.10.09 @ 9:40 pm

Lovely story. My paternal grandmother died when I was four, and she was quite the gardener, always on an altar guild, in a garden club… There are so many flowers that bring her to mind, but this time of year, it’s pansies.

Comment by Channon 09.11.09 @ 6:52 am

Alison, I began this comment and then lost it. So I’ll restart. Thank you for bringing back the memorable day in Golden Gate Park. This seems an appropriate spot to mention some things about my father, who gave you a blessing when you were born, the only one of his grandchildren who received this gift.
Dad grew up on a small Variety Farm in Brigham City, Utah. They raised fruit and vegetables and probably had a cow. His mother died when he was 8. He was the first of his generation to get a college degree. He would work, then go to school, then work again. He was 30 and had two sons before he graduated from Utah State in agriculture.
His first job was teaching agriculture, coaching, and cutting other teachers’ hair at Moapa Valley High in Overton, NV. At one time farmers had had big crops growing pecans, but Dad discovered the trees were diseased and persuaded them to cut down the trees and switch to other crops.
Two years later he was appointed Director of Vocational Agriculture for the State of Nevada, Carson City, and later this was expanded to be the head of all vocational education in the state. He also taught some at the University of Nevada and Colorado State. In many ways he revolutionized a lot of agriculture in the state. During WWII he became director of Veterans Education and Rehabilitation (the GI Bill) for the Nevada region, Reno, a position the filled with distinction until a bad heart forced his retirement and move to a lower altitude, Walnut Creek, CA.
Wherever he went Dad was the consummate gardener. Our homes in Carson City, especially the new one beginning 1936, the two homes in Reno, and finally the one in Walnut Creek were always garden showplaces. What he planted and grew in California was different from what would grow in Nevada and Utah, and he thrilled with the challenge of mastering new things.
He was always a people person, but that’s a whole lot of other stories. The point here is his love for the garden–flowers, fruit, vegetables, and chickens, too. Of his three sons, my brother Richard was the best gardener. My brother Bob moved around too often as a Navy officer to develop many gardening skills.
You have many of his genes, all good ones.
Love, Dad

Comment by Dad 09.11.09 @ 8:04 am

Hi Alison — I have no idea how I ended up here — probably a search on something something Bethesda (tomato cages perhaps?) — check your stats and let me know.

I live in Bethesda and have been to McGrillis Gardens many many times — usually after a heavy dinner with friends or relatives. I’ve also walked through “the Dell” in Golden Gate Park — before the storm that destroyed the trees — in fact the Rhododendrons I saw there were the first I’d ever seen (I grew up in Northern Illinois).

I’m envious that you have a father who can still comment on your blog. Mine thinks the Internet is science fiction and has trouble even using a remote control for his television.

I’ve bookmarked your blog. Cannot wait to read more.

Comment by Dona 06.10.10 @ 1:15 pm

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