Marin Independent Journal

A secret Zen garden


Looking back on his childhood in a Seattle suburb, Michael Donohue remembers his family's backyard garden of a few planter boxes with fruits and vegetables. But, even then, he dreamed of having his own garden with a redwood tree.

He found his redwood tree — several of them actually. They came with a lovely home and garden set on a 7,000-square-foot lot with the Mill Valley creek running through it that Donohue purchased in 2016 after a bike ride through Mill Valley.

By then, though, he'd been exposed to the beauty of Japanese culture and design and wanted his new garden to be informed by them.

He especially wanted his garden to express the concept of wabi-sabi, a philosophy and design approach that celebrates the beauty in simplicity, imperfecti­on and impermanen­ce in both natural and manmade elements.

According to Donohue, his interest in Japanese aesthetics was first piqued by a visit to Song Tea, a tearoom in San Francisco, followed by a trip to Japan in 2015.

There, he was “inspired by the Japanese gardens surroundin­g the temples,” he says. “I felt this trip helped me understand the sense of Zen and gardening.”

So, in 2020, when he had spare time due to the pandemic, he started the two-year process of cultivatin­g his wabi-sabi garden that now occupies about half of his lot.

“My goal was to create a secret Zen garden, a private and intimate space to welcome me home after a long days work,” he says. “A sensationa­l garden that felt calming and beautiful.”

For help, he relied on what he calls his “all-star” team —

San Francisco designer Eva Holbrook, who helped create the wabi-sabi design of his home and garden, and Diego González from Diego's Gardens Inc., who helped secure the plants and trees from California nurseries, devised the irrigation scheme and maintains the garden. Both sourced objects from around the world.

As part of the garden journey, Donohue says he wanted to get “lost in the details of the gar

den,” handpickin­g each of the natural and manmade elements “in their humble and imperfect forms.”

Doing this, he adds, “required reviewing thousands of plants, flowers, trees, lighting, statues, stones, bridges, sounds and smells to bring an overwhelmi­ng sense of peace and relaxation to everyday life.”

Today, the serene garden features a cherry blossom tree above the upper pond in what Donohue says is “the most imperfect, perfect place.”

An arched wooden bridge crosses the babbling creek, and Japanesest­yle lanterns light the path that travels under a canopy of red maple trees. Thoughtful­ly selected statuary and symbolic figurines of animals and objects are placed throughout the area planted with ferns, birds of paradise, cherry laurel and loropetalu­m.

“Everything fits together in a unique complement­ary way,” he says. “There are so many details and moments.”

Through his home's walls of glass, he says he can “take in the magic of the garden from the living room and kitchen.”

He observes the red maples as they progress from full bloom to wilt and drop within two winter weeks.

In spring, he watches, in wonderment, the explosion of color as the cherry blossom tree bursts into a cloud of pink and white blooms before their ultimate downward drift to the pond below.

“I always think this looks like confetti after a great celebratio­n or party,” he says.

And, while he's entertaine­d by the bustling of birds, squirrels and other wildlife in his summer garden, it's autumn, and especially Halloween, that is one of the most joyful times for him.

That's when he welcomes more than 1,000 wide-eyed trick-or-treaters to the garden, made moody with strains of haunting music and eerie dry-ice “fog” that floats above the fish-free ponds.

“This is definitely the time of year when it receives the most compliment­s,” he says. “I love when the children tell me that this is their favorite house.”

In true wabi-sabi style, his garden is always evolving and permanence is never promised.

This spring, he says, he'd like to host his first hanami, or flower-viewing party, with guests gathering beneath the cherry tree to experience its beauty in full blossom.

He wants to create safe hiding places in the pond so his pond koi and goldfish can swim there, and he's considerin­g adding a karesansui, or a raked garden of sand, gravel or stones.

For someone who wanted to get lost in the details of his garden, this garden has given Donohue all that he's asked.

“For the hundreds of hours of planning and thought that I put into the garden, the joy and beauty it brings to my everyday life can't be described,” he says.

Show off

If you have a beautiful or interestin­g Marin garden or a newly designed Marin home, I'd love to know about it.

Please send an email describing either one (or both), what you love most about it, and a photograph or two. I will post the best ones in upcoming columns. Your name will be published and you must be over 18 years old and a Marin resident.

Don't-miss event

• Help plant pots of seeds, herbs and succulents that will be sold at Novato Garden Club's Spring Bloom Sale at the club's meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Margaret Todd Senior Center at 1560 Hill Road in Novato. Refreshmen­ts will be served. Questions? Go to NovatoGard­

PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertaini­ng topics every Saturday. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 412, Kentfield 94914, or at pj@

 ?? PHOTO BY EVA HOLBROOK ?? Michael Donohue's Mill Valley wabi-sabi garden in springtime.
PHOTO BY EVA HOLBROOK Michael Donohue's Mill Valley wabi-sabi garden in springtime.
 ?? ??
 ?? PHOTOS BY MARGO GAZA ?? Japanese-style garden plants and elements create Michael Donohue's Mill Valley garden.
PHOTOS BY MARGO GAZA Japanese-style garden plants and elements create Michael Donohue's Mill Valley garden.
 ?? ?? Michael Donohue in front of his serene Japanese-style garden.
Michael Donohue in front of his serene Japanese-style garden.

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