Home & Garden

East Sacramento garden is a consuming passion

Eileen Starns loves to cook. The East Sacramento woman also loves to garden.

So, what’s more convenient then growing her own ingredients? When she needs fresh herbs or tomatoes, all Starns has to do is step outside her kitchen door.

Starns is among many city dwellers who’ve embraced “edible gardening.” That trend has helped make the annual East Sacramento Edible Gardens tour a fast-growing success.

Held during Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork celebration, the tour brings home the concept that food grown closer tastes better. It can look good, too.

“This is real farm-to-fork; it’s urban farming at its roots,” explained Susann Hadler of Soroptimist International of Sacramento, the tour’s host.

Now in its fourth year, today’s tour showcases six gardens packed with food as well as beauty. Adding to the ambiance, members of the Sacramento Symphonic Winds will provide live music for guests at each garden. UC master gardeners will answer questions.

Proceeds support Soroptimist charities including Sierra Forever Families’ Camp Wonder and St. John’s Program for Real Change. Organizers expect more than 1,000 patrons to take part.

Starns was one of those ticketed guests on last year’s tour. That’s what inspired her to open her garden to visitors today.

“I went on the tour with my son, grandchildren and a friend,” Starns recalled. “My friend said, ‘Eileen, your garden is so beautiful, you should be on this tour.’ So I stepped up and volunteered. I feel very honored they chose me.”

This year’s featured gardens and gardeners all came to the tour through similar routes. They saw the tour as guests, then asked to take part.

“We have sign-up sheets at the gardens during the tour,” Hadler said. “A lot of people want to be part of it.”

That spirit reflects Sacramento’s self-awareness as the Farm-to-Fork Capital. And these gardens demonstrate that growing food can produce beautiful landscapes as well as meals.

At first glance, Starns’ garden is a cottage-style fantasy of flowers, framed by picket fence. The edible plants are tucked among more traditional ornamental landscaping. Bumblebees happily buzz spikes of lavender, rosemary and sage. Creeping thyme forms a fragrant carpet of green leading to the front door. Flowering crabapples tempt birds with clusters of red-and-gold fruit. Roses, hydrangeas and butterfly bushes greet visitors with bushels of blooms in soft pastel hues.

In particular, Starns used several shades of blue flowers from the ground-hugging ajuga and little forget-me-nots to the 7-foot-tall lilac bushes and morning glories climbing over arbors. They may not be “edible,” but help beneficial insects.

“I love blue in the garden,” she said. “Bees love blue flowers, too.”

On a quiet street near Sutter Memorial Hospital, her two-bedroom home sits on a snug lot, but she’s made the most of her limited space.

“When I bought the house six years ago, I just had lawn,” Starns said.

After a year of planning, she started digging in earnest, creating patios, raised beds and garden rooms. (A landscaper helped with the bigger elements such as pouring concrete and building shade structures.)

Some additions are unexpected. For example, she turned a north-facing side yard into an enchanting “Secret Garden,” full of gnomes, hostas and ferns.

“Every little nook and cranny has something special,” Hadler said. “There’s so much to look at.”

A retired library assistant, Starns decorated her garden “rooms” like her warm and cozy house – with lots of interesting objects. Painted white, mismatched wicker and bamboo chairs invite visitors to sit awhile on a shady patio. Dozens of charming birdhouses perch on the rafters. In shabby-chic country style, salvaged shelves and tables hold pots of succulents and whimsical knickknacks.

“I love garage sales, I love little shops,” Starns said with a semi-guilty smile. “I can’t resist.”

Some items are useful as well as decorative. A collection of vintage galvanized buckets and tubs hangs near her potting shed. In winter, they catch rain that Starns saves for later use for her container plants. Most of the in-ground landscape is on drip irrigation.

Along the fences hang several mirrors, catching the light and the flower-filled views.

“I love to decorate the garden,” Starns said. “I’m always looking for things; I’m running out of space. I learned the garden is more than the plants. In winter, it gives me other things to look at when the garden is mostly dormant. I don’t like bare fences.”

Throughout the garden, Starns combined pretty edible plants with ornamentals. Dozens of herbs line the edges of her flower beds, awaiting their turn in tea or culinary creations. Sweet potato vines look just as nice as the nearby clematis. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and basil have their own space in raised beds, brightened with marigolds.

Starns manages to harvest a lot from her small space, she said. For cookies and pudding, Starns has persimmon pulp in the freezer from her Fuyu tree. For lemonade or sauces, she has lemon juice, harvested from her Meyer lemon trees.

In the backyard, she kept a sliver of grass as a play area for her grandkids: Oliver, 9, and Fiona, 6. They visit Grandma three mornings a week before going to school.

“They’re getting into gardening, too,” she said. “Their father loves to garden. My grandson surprises me with all the plant names he knows.”

That’s part of the appeal of today’s tour: Kids are welcome and admitted free.

“A lot of families participate on the tour,” Hadler said. “It’s a great opportunity for children to see: This is where food comes from.”