Carmichael garden becomes a golden sanctuary

Irv and Pauline Faria found their slice of paradise in their own backyard. In a nod to the one who does most of the work, they nicknamed their haven “Pauline’s Garden.”

“This is our oasis in the city,” said Irv Faria, a retired college professor. “The greatest joy of Pauline’s Garden has been creating a woodland garden paradise, then watching as it grows and the mature garden emerges.”

Sweethearts since high school in Concord, the Carmichael couple have been married 60 years. Fifty years ago, they moved into their home, built on the bank of Carmichael Creek. This year marks the golden anniversary of their garden, too.

“When we moved here, nobody else lived here,” said Irv, who served as director of the human performance laboratory at California State University, Sacramento. “We were all by ourselves for years.”

On their 1-acre lot, they started with nothing but cattle pasture, blackberry bramble and 70 native oaks. That was only part of the challenge. The lot straddles Carmichael Creek with steep slopes on either side. The banks drop down more than 20 feet to the rocky creek bed, still thick with blackberry vines.

Deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums and countless squirrels are at home here, too. As suburbia shrank its native range, wildlife found sanctuary in this secluded glen.

Instead of fighting nature, Pauline and Irv Faria elected to embrace it. On a series of eight terraces, they planted trees, shrubs and perennials that wildlife could enjoy along with them. On each terrace, a seating area provides a place for people to rest, and observe the wildlife, while surrounded by nature. Their efforts earned their garden designation as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Federation. Occasionally, they welcome people to visit, too.

“Our goal has been to create a world apart, a sanctuary, a place of serenity removed from the everyday world,” Irv said. “Today, the garden offers the quietude of the natural world, thereby celebrating nature by capturing its essence.”

As if on cue during a recent visit, a wild tom turkey, easily a 20-pounder, lets out an emphatic gobble-gobble as it scrambles out of the bushes and ascends to an oak branch 20 feet up. This bird knows where it will be safe this Thanksgiving.

Lenny, the couple’s Australian shepherd, tries to keep the coyotes at bay, but the deer, turkeys and other critters are free to roam. The Farias enjoy watching their passing parade.

“This morning, I saw a big buck with huge antlers,” said Irv, now 82. “He was just passing through, walking along the creek.”

Besides being a home to wildlife, the garden itself puts on an entertaining show. About a dozen water features – including large frog ponds, a hillside waterfall and cascading fountains – make the sound of water the garden’s constant background music. Whimsical wind sculptures, created by Lyman Whitaker, spin in the afternoon breeze. Several bronze statues also people the landscape.

For her woman-made woods, Pauline picked plants that would provide seasonal color as well as year-round texture. The birds, bees and butterflies also enjoy the flowers and fruit.

“I love the foxgloves in the spring,” Pauline said. “This year, I had great luck with my salvias. I love to watch the hummingbirds.”

At home in this woodland, crabapple trees mix with birch and dogwoods. Hydrangeas, azaleas and rhododendrons add to the lushness. Accenting the deep greens with shiny fruit, citrus trees hang heavy with ripening oranges, mandarins, lemons and kumquats.

Said Irv, “Throughout the year, the garden displays the cycle of seasons with their changing charms.”

In fall, that seasonal charm comes from a forest of 200 Japanese maples. The couple planted about 100 cultivars, starting with 70 Acer palmatum that had sprouted on a neighbor’s property. The maples thrive in the dappled shade of the centuries-old oaks.

In November, the maples form a brilliant oxblood cascade of leaves down the creek’s slope. A ruby red October Glory, one of the better known maple varieties, stands out like a spectacular torch above a green blanket of ferns and cast-iron plants.

Along the zigzag path, a column of liquid amber trees drips golden punctuation in the red sea of fallen maples leaves.

Tempered by temperatures, the colorful display, which needs a hint of frost to be at its best, is impossible to predict but always impressive, Pauline said.

“It’s probably different every year,” she said.

On one bend of the path is a large glass greenhouse, full of orchids and seedlings.

“We dug out the hole for that greenhouse’s foundation,” Irv said. “Trouble is, the trees grew, so now there’s no sun – just in winter after the trees lose their leaves. But it’s a place where we can start seedlings.”

Another bend holds a shed-turned-carving studio where Irv works on wood, a hobby he picked up from Pauline.

Now 80, Pauline devotes her days to the garden. Every day, she’s doing something.

“Normally, I just walk around, then I find something to do,” she said.

Her big task in fall: gathering leaves. They’ll become mulch and compost for this all-organic garden.

“She does everything,” Irv said, shaking his head with a sense of wonder. “She works at this garden all day and sometimes all night.”

The couple credit nature for their garden’s success.

“We have really good soil,” Pauline said.

“Before we got here, these oak trees dropped leaves for more than a hundred years,” Irv said. “All those leaves just worked their way down (into the humus). You take a shovel, dig in and it’s – wow!”

The results still dumbfound the gardener. Day by day by decade, her work added up.

“I don’t know how we ever did all this,” Pauline said. “Every time I come out here, I wonder how. It amazes me sometimes.

“We just started up there by the house and gradually worked our way down to the creek,” she added. “As we got older, we decided to do more for the wildlife. It’s a lot of fun, even if it’s work.”

Irv is more philosophical.

“Through the garden, we have attempted to satisfy our need to stay in touch and exist in harmony with wild nature,” Irv said.

“It has been our fortune to have a garden sanctuary set apart from the everyday world. It’s our private world we enjoy sharing with others.”


Pauline’s Garden is occasionally open to local clubs for group tours in fall and spring. Each April, Irv and Pauline Faria welcome the public to visit during the height of spring bloom. To contact the Farias, send an email to


As part of an occasional series, we’re looking for local gardeners with stories to tell about their special relationship with their garden. If you’d like to suggest a candidate for this series, please send an email (with a photo if possible) to: Or mail your nomination to Debbie Arrington at Home & Garden, Sacramento Bee, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852, .