On a blustery October morning, Daisy Mah methodically tended the WPA Rock Garden at Land Park, just like she’s done almost every day for 25 years. Ignoring the wind, she transplanted sages and trimmed back barberry bushes. She checked on recent additions and noted where there might be room for more.
As part of her regular fall routine, Mah tweaked the stone beds and moved plants to where they could be seen at their best. Never mind that the clock is ticking on her career with the Sacramento’s parks department. Mah keeps planting for the future.
“My last day is Halloween,” said Mah, who turned 60 this year. “I’m trying not to be too big of a pain in the neck.”
But Mah has a long list of things she wants to do during her last official month as the rock garden’s keeper.
“When I started in 1988, it was mostly ivy and bare beds,” she said. “It was originally designed for annuals so there would be lots of color. By the time I got here, it wasn’t colorful at all.”
Mah asked her Land Park supervisors if she could make some improvements in the rock garden, constructed as a beautification project by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. “They said, ‘Do whatever you want to do – but there’s no budget.’ ”
So Mah decided to improvise. For the garden’s makeover, she relied on perennials, succulents and California natives that needed less water and maintenance than more traditional city landscaping. She rescued agaves that had been dumped in the street. She grew cannas from discarded rhizomes. She planted all sorts of seeds, gathered from other gardens.
“My parents came for China,” she said. “I grew up with very little. I learned when I was very young how to propagate plants and collect seed. That came in handy.”
Now, the WPA Rock Garden is a horticultural gem. Terraced on one acre between the amphitheater and Fairy Tale Town in Land Park, the garden boasts thousands of perennials, bulbs, shrubs and trees, almost all propagated and planted by Mah.
“It’s one of a kind,” said Sacramento parks supervisor Tiger Badhan. “There’s not another garden like it anywhere.”
On this fall morning, the rock garden buzzes with activity as Mah quietly keeps to her tasks. “We have so much wildlife in the garden,” she said. “Birds, butterflies, bees, lizards. I hear toads now. That’s pretty exciting.”
Every garden bed brings back memories for Mah. Green- and white-flowering perennials fill a long thin bed next to the parking lot. Succulents spill over terraces at the back of the garden overlooking the amphitheater. Native plants cover a nearby hillside.
“I call this my Brownie bed,” she said of a cluster of California natives. “A Brownie troop came out to help me plant it. That blue oak was only a few inches tall.”
That tree now tops 25 feet.
Something is always in bloom. On this autumn day, lipstick-red California fuchsias and pristine Japanese anemones vie for attention. Red-hot pokers catch the sun. Needlegrass and other graceful grasses flutter in the wind.
“Native grasses are beneficial for bees,” Mah said. “It’s a good protein source. I’m really into wildlife these days and growing things for them. This is their oasis.”
Mah, a parks department worker for nearly 35 years, announced her impending retirement more than a year ago. She worried that the garden would be abandoned after she left.
Her call for help brought out several volunteers who have embraced the garden and a chance to learn about perennials from a master.
“The volunteers rescued me,” Mah said. “The last five years, it’s become more and more difficult to work in the garden. We’ve had so many cutbacks (in the city’s parks department). We used to have 30 to 40 people working in Land Park. Now, we have five people for the whole park.”
The heavy workload took its toll on Mah, but she never forgot her garden. Every weekday at 6 a.m., she would be out there, tending to its needs.
“I’ll work as hard as I can until it’s over,” she said of her career. “I have no set plans. My husband and I want to travel, but I know I’ll want to garden.”
Mah’s co-workers are still getting used to the idea of Land Park without Daisy.
“Daisy is kind of excited, but I’m sad,” said Badhan, who has known her for more than 30 years. “She really, really knows what she’s doing in that garden. She’s very dedicated, very knowledgeable and she really cares about this garden.”
Badhan marvels at Mah’s dedication. She rarely took a sick day, even when battling major illness.
“She never takes time off,” he said. “Saturdays, Sundays – she comes out to the garden to work on her own time. She’s still helping with other projects, too.”
Plans have not been finalized on how the garden will be maintained after Mah’s retirement. She’s hopeful that her position will be filled by another plant person who loves perennials.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Badhan said. “I’m not going to find anyone like Daisy. I’m hoping she’ll come back to help us.”