The Grounds Surrounding the UC President's Home Serve as Classroom
and Leafy Retreat
by Julia Sommer
This class takes its final exam in a gorgeous 11-acre garden high in the Kensington hills, lovingly tended by four full-time gardeners and the current residents: UC President Jack Peltason and his wife, Suzanne.
The class is Landscape Plants and Horticulture, and the final entails identifying 40 plants in the garden by genus, species and common name. Students arrive early for a last-minute cram walk around the garden, in full spring bloom.
Built on several levels with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, the garden surrounds stately Blake House, official residence of the UC president. Managed by the Department of Landscape Architecture, Blake Garden is a student lab as well as an idyllic retreat for the public.
The house was designed and built in the early '20s on what was then bleak, windswept acreage by architect Walter Bliss for Cal alumni Anita and Anson Stiles Blake. The Italian Renaissance-style house was planned partly as a windbreak for the gardens to come, designed by Anita's sister, Mabel Symmes. She graduated in 1896, returning as one of Berkeley's first landscape architecture students in 1914.
Anita Blake, an avid plant collector and horticulturist, planted the garden with about 2,500 species from all over the world, including dawn redwoods from China, Himalayan dogwood, New Zealand lacebark, African corn lily and Guernsey lily.
In 1957 the Blakes deeded their property to the university, retaining a lifetime right to live there. Anson Blake died in 1959; his wife in 1962.
"Blake Garden is well loved by the people who know it. It's a special, wonderful place," says John Norcross, garden manager since 1986. It is especially lovely in the spring, with columbine, delphinium, rhododendrons, beauty bush and pride of Madeira flowering in profusion. The best time to visit, says Norcross, is mid-March through June.
Water lilies are opening in the long reflecting pool and smaller ponds, which the Peltasons keep stocked with goldfish, despite the ravages of racoons. A fence installed four years ago keeps out most of the deer that feasted on the garden in the past.
Virtually no insecticides are used, except for a bit of Round-Up for major weeds. "We steer clear of chemicals," says Norcross.
The cutting garden, full of dahlias, carnations, roses, zinnias and sweet William in May, is a favorite place for Suzanne Peltason to pick flowers to decorate Blake House for official functions. President Peltason has added tomato plants to it.
A greenhouse shelters tropical plants, seedlings and cuttings. This is also where you can pick up a self-guided garden tour brochure.
Garrett Eckbo, professor emeritus of landscape architecture, is reconstructing a gazebo that will make a particularly fine picnicking spot overlooking the bay.
A riot of birds is attracted to this green, watery haven from urban grit, including a resident great horned owl, sharp shinned hawk, red tail hawk and great blue heron. Egrets and ducks looking for a home alight in the reflecting pool.
Norcross and his staff of three professional gardeners are aided by work study students and volunteers. The garden also serves as a teaching tool for UC Extension, Merritt and Diablo Valley community colleges.