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Wildlife fall under serene spell of Oak Haven Gardens in Arroyo Grande

Flowers cascade down hillsides, spill over large urns and pop up everywhere in Oak Haven Gardens near Arroyo Grande.

“Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul,” wrote Luther Burbank.

That’s the very goal marriage and family therapist Tara Storke and her husband master craftsman Richard Gormley hoped to achieve in creating their garden. As their website reports, their mission is to provide a beautiful and safe environment where you can enrich and enhance your spiritual, physical, emotional and mental well-being. She offers opportunities for meditation and counseling on site.

The relaxing sound of water in action fills the air from fountains of all shapes and sizes placed strategically throughout the garden. A waterfall tumbles into a shaded pond filled with waterlilies, a lotus and giant koi. Large green aeonium rosettes circle the edge of the pond.

After a deer, a black bear and a golden retriever all ended up in the pond, Gormley had the property encircled with a deer fence. It successfully kept critters out of the pond until one day Storke stumbled and fell in herself. She is as cheerful about the incident as the flowers in the garden.

“People often get fountains for their gardens or desktops after visiting here. There is power in serenity,” Storke said.

A Cecile Brunner rose climbs up to the deck off the master bedroom where views of the canyon below stretch toward distant mountains. A pair of large Raphis palms tower over their ceramic pots. Roses, which are primarily in pots, include white clustered Sally Holmes and Polka.

Watching scores of hummingbirds flit into their favorite flowers is delightful. Some of these plants include California fuchsia and fuchsia hybrids in hanging baskets and pots, purple cuphea (star burst), lavender, delicate pink agastache (hummingbird mint), abundant aloes, agapantha, penstemon, purple salvia and blue lobelia.

“We have hundreds of hummingbirds,” Storke said as she gracefully touched a magnificent deep purple clematis ‘Rooguchi’ ideally planted with its bell-shaped flowers in sun and feet in shade.

Although many plants in the garden are low water users, clematis is not. A pink and white fuchsia begonia grows vigorously at the shady front of the garden. Nearby a score of quail cross the driveway so fast the little ones appear to be walnuts on roller skates. The bluebird isn’t interested in quail. He has taken over a wren nesting box and quietly observes all visitors.

Not all the birds are happy. “The junco squawked and squawked and we couldn’t figure out why until we realized that repair to the deck had put his water and birdbath out of action. The noise stopped when we put everything back,” Storke explained.

She and Gormley are a talented team. They search out items at yard sales to repurpose and repair and aren’t afraid to tackle making complex furniture, holiday decorations or bird feeders from things many would toss.

Together they transformed a casually built home into a woodworker’s solid masterpiece, an outbuilding into a charming office/guest cottage, a tack room into a well-planned wood shop, and an acre and a quarter into a bird, animal and people paradise.

One important initial effort involved changes to an exceptionally long gray concrete driveway. They had it stained terra cotta and extended it with soil-filled Air-Vol Block planted with grass, an unthirsty fescue. The result: rainwater percolates into the extended driveway and is beautiful instead of utilitarian. An informal hedge of dwarf pomegranate curves along the concrete.

A California Thrasher makes a mess by taking his long curved beak and digging the edges of the drive looking for bugs. This bird is only found in California and Baja, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Oak Haven Gardens is recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat and is part of its network of mini-refuges. And according to the proudly displayed certificate: “Because of the owner’s conscientious planning, landscaping and sustainable gardening, wildlife may find quality habitat — food, water, cover, and places to raise their young.”

“Tara is a bird lover extraordinaire,” Gormley said. He doesn’t fuss about the junco’s mess, just sweeps it up. He tempers his wife’s exuberance by carefully ensuring the new plants she puts in get drip lines and that everything in the house and garden operate properly.

This might mean putting in a deeper well when dishwasher and toilet can’t operate at the same time. He is a master designer and builder while she is the master gardener. He has skillfully hidden anything utilitarian.

“Society garlic helps with gopher control,” Storke said. What does she do with the fruit from the different trees? “The birds get fruit before we do. We don’t mind.”

Although visiting racoons don’t care about aesthetics, the garden is enhanced by Japanese quince and maples, pepper trees, liquidambers, Toyon and coffeeberry, oaks and avocado, nectarine, apricot and plum.

The quail once tore an entire bank down in their search for food; Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ and Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ make a bank of blue and the area is holding now. Ceanothus ‘Marie Simon’ with its soft foliage is deciduous and is used as an ornament.

Pelargonium ‘Frank Headley’ — with its variegated leaves and gentle coral flowers — makes a positive statement throughout the garden. It quickly adapts wherever it is planted.

The writers and photographer for this story fell under the spell of Oak Haven Gardens and its serenity. They all left reluctantly.

For details visit Oakhavengardens.com.

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