Home & Garden

Her patch of pioneer spirit

Rudbeckia, celosia and wisteria add color to the saloon's porch at Annie Donovan's ranch.
Rudbeckia, celosia and wisteria add color to the saloon's porch at Annie Donovan's ranch. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Think denim, plants and sunshine, and that’s Annie Donovan. By the work of her own hands, she has transformed her 12-acre ranch in Creston into a showcase of informal country gardening. Donovan and Ken Palm purchased the old stagecoach stop property nine years ago, drawn by the spring-fed ponds, sandy soil, oaks and wide views from the 1,400-foot-elevation site.

Annie and Ken could see that, despite the old, dilapidated house and outbuildings, the water and land would be perfect for their interests: gardens and animals. Ken, a descendant of original 1884 Paso Robles ranch homesteaders, had been a cattle rancher and heavy-equipment business owner. Annie was raised in a gardening family in the rural Hamptons of New York. She graduated in biology from Cal Poly, worked as a microbiologist, raised four children and now works for Farm Supply as a plant specialist.

“Working at Farm Supply is like a candy store for me,” Annie says.

While Annie’s two sons did the construction work on remodeling and enlarging the old house, Annie and Ken lived in a little guesthouse on the property and began the work of leveling and terracing, adding trees, lawns and fences. Through her work, Annie had developed a thorough knowledge of appropriate plants for climate zone 7, bringing home a new favorite plant every week for her expanding garden.

By leasing 30 acres of adjacent property, Ken had room for his cattle and horses. He built a chicken coop on the property, and it was such a good design that he now provides coops for sale at Farm Supply. Nearby, Annie turned an old outbuilding into a potting shed by adding a large sink, painting the walls white and installing a brick floor.

Here she creates colorful pots of mixed annuals and perennials, and processes summer vegetables.

One of the best surprises of the property was that she could grow a host of tropical shade-loving plants under the oak and mulberry canopy.

Because of the presence of two mature orange trees, she knew the property had its own moderate microclimate. She took advantage of this, incorporating many varieties of ferns, Japanese maples, begonias and camellias around a small pond near the house. Another shady bed features a mix of several different perennial hostas, coralbells, lamium, and some annual coleus for their magenta color.

Out in the sunny open areas, Annie created country beds packed tightly with a foundational plant surrounded by sun-loving perennials as calendula, rudbeckia, potentilla and scabiosa. Daylilies and roses highlight a gazebo, while dark blue vitex and bright red crocosmia bordering the lawn made quite a show for the Fourth of July.

Steeped in local history, ranch life and a pioneer spirit, Annie and Ken converted the old garage into an authentic saloon, complete with a custom wooden bar, player piano, pool table, jukebox and old ranch memorabilia; rodeo photos line the walls.

Outside is a built-in barbecue and sitting area near the large natural fishing pond, which is surrounded by white ranch fencing and natural river willow trees.

It’s a great setting for informal get-togethers and even a wedding now and then.

“There’s always room for another project,” Annie says. Just six weeks ago, she completed two rock walls and planted a new lawn, and is now adding more flagstone pathways. She is constantly on the lookout for new plants and keeps her sleeves rolled up for doing all of her own gardening.

“I don’t like fancy,” she says, “I prefer the more forgiving informal garden and ranch setting, with lots of room for friends and family, and especially, for my little grandson to play.”

Contact Connie Pillsbury at conniepillsbury22@gmail.com.

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