Seeds: Daisy Mah to retire; what of the WPA Rock Garden?

Published: Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3CALIFORNIA LIFE

Her days are numbered in Daisy's garden.

Daisy Mah, an institution in the city of Sacramento's parks department, formally announced what few people wanted to hear – she's going to retire.

That puts at risk what she's spent most of her career creating: a horticultural oasis in William Land Park.

In particular, Mah molded the WPA Rock Garden into a botanical gem, packed with thousands of perennials, bulbs and shrubs. Next to the amphitheater off Land Park Drive at 15th Street, the three- quarter-acre rock garden is in almost constant bloom, attracting abundant wildlife as well as many human visitors.

"I enjoy the hummingbirds, just flitting about," she said. "I love the native bees; I can sit there, mesmerized by a plant covered by bees. I try to pick out plants that they like."

This paradise didn't sprout overnight.

"When I first started, I thought I could help beautify the garden," Mah said. "That was fall 1988. I got a small grant – about $300. I went to Cornflower Farms and spent half the money on 30 plants."

It was a start. From that modest seed money, Mah grew the rock garden into a showplace. She propagated many of the plants herself.

"I try not to focus on just flowers," Mah added. "I use form, structure, texture to create beautiful views and effects throughout the garden. Flowers are nice, but it needs to be interesting without blooms, too."

Her first Land Park supervisor cautioned that she shouldn't be too ambitious in her project.

Said Mah, "I realize now that he thought it would be hard to continue if it got too complicated.

"And what I've done has so much diversity," she added. "It is complicated."

Conscientious as always, Mah gave the city plenty of notice. Her tentative retirement date is October 2013.

But like any plants person, Mah knew she had to plan months or years ahead.

Who will take up her work?

Now in her 32nd year with the parks department, Mah turns 60 in 2013. Serious cutbacks in park staffing led her to make the hard choice to retire. Only four people do the work that used to be divided among dozens. Retirees are not replaced.

"The garden has been good to me in so many ways. It's keeping me in good shape. But I can't keep this up," she said.

"Because of cutbacks, I was assigned to empty garbage cans," she said. "My elbow is starting to bother me. I figure I'll hurt myself if I keep it up much longer."

For two decades, Mah focused almost exclusively on the rock garden. She also takes care of Land Park's Swanson Terrace, its valley oak border, duck pond and the island at the boat pond.

"After fulfilling other park duties, about half of my day is spent caring for these gardens," she said. "I oversee dedicated groups of volunteers whose help has been indispensable. Together, we are managing to keep up with the ongoing maintenance needs."

Volunteers are invaluable, she noted.

"Just this year, I've had many new volunteers," she said. "They're so passionate and they've been fantastic. Without their help, my work and the garden would degenerate pretty fast. It's a group effort."

Mah's impending departure is bittersweet news for Sacramento's gardening community.

"I think the first order of business would be to rename the WPA Rock Garden as 'Daisy Mah Garden,' " said Sacramento radio host "Farmer" Fred Hoffman. "(Daisy is) a horticultural hero to many of us here in Sacramento."

Craig Powell, lead coordinator for the Land Park Volunteer Corps, agrees. In its third summer, the corps numbers more than 400, with about 70 showing up for monthly park cleanup days.

"Daisy is beloved," Powell said. "She's an amazing person. On our Land Park Volunteer Corps work days, she comes out – on her day off – to be one of our team leaders. She goes far above the call of duty.

"She's created these jewels of the park," Powell added, "but the city's policy of not replacing people when they retire will put these gems at risk. It's a serious, serious problem."

Mah hopes a plan can be put into place before she leaves. She knows volunteers will continue to be crucial to the effort.

Perhaps a group can form to adopt the rock garden. Or an organization can step forward to take responsibility, similar to the Friends of East Sacramento's adoption of the McKinley Park rose garden and Clunie Community Center.

"I hope someone steps up and does something," Mah said. "I just don't have the energy to do it myself."

Volunteer to help

• The Land Park Volunteer Corps hosts work days the first Saturday of each month, from March through November. The next work day will be at 9 a.m. Oct. 6. The group meets at the large picnic area behind Fairytale Town in William Land Park. For more details, email Craig Powell at or call (916) 718-3030.

• Volunteers interested in working with Daisy Mah on the WPA Rock Garden can contact her via the city's Volunteer Program. Click on for details.

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