Modesto’s Secret Gardens
By Noel Daniel
“Modesto Garden Club” is no small name around town. They’ve planted the flowers in front of the Doubletree, take care of the Victims Garden in front of the courthouse, and they hold a widely successful annual Spring Garden Tour. This year it was in the college neighborhood, a community of thin streets, towering trees, and beautiful gardens.
The tour took place on Apr. 16, spanning from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and holding a large crowd for a good part of the day. Docents were sprinkled dutifully throughout the tour, doling out helpful information about the tour’s seven gardens. One of the bigger names this year was the House in the Middle of the Street.
But this local landmark wasn’t the only unique space. The tour included secret gardens, outdoor living spaces, a children’s playhouse, and more.
The tour not only serves as a reminder of how beautiful Modesto can be, but also as a means of helping the community. Proceeds allow the 90-year-old organization to continue beautiﬁcation projects, therapeutic gardening, children’s education, and horticulture scholarships.
The ﬁve gardens other than the House in the Middle of the Street, located at 401 Griswold Ave., were located at the following addresses: 602 Auburn St., 206 Helen Ave., 916 Mills Ave., 1225 Magnolia Ave., and 1904 Potter Ave. It was the House in the Middle of the Street, of course, that made the biggest impression.
Once nestled in an olive orchard at the end of a long sycamore-lined driveway, this farmhouse-turned-wonderhouse had to relinquish land as the town around it grew. The olive grove was subdivided, and houses were built along the driveway, eventually making the House into the island that it is today. Eventually, a stone wall replaced the picket fence and the rest is well-landscaped history.
“There was an outbuilding on the property behind the house where they would have people rent,” said Gerry Yockey, Chairman of the Spring Garden Tour. “The last owner over the years put the outbuilding and the home together and made it one house.”
The current homeowners have loved the home for 40 years and have tailored it to honor 100-year-old redwood, pine, cedar, tangerine, and grapefruit trees.
The massive yard is sectioned into four areas. First there’s the public yard, which is small by design. It’s crowned by the foliage of magnolia and cherry laurel trees that block the home’s windows from public view—and far above all this, a century-old pine tree looms.
Within the custom-wrought iron fence is a sprawling yard sporting a pool, a ﬁre pit, three gazebos, and a tennis court that can accommodate basketball and volleyball games. And at night the magic of the house is only multiplied. Every tree is up-lit, and strands of exterior lights cling to the branches. Imagine a dinner party there, sitting by the ﬁre pit after a dip in the pool as the gardens twinkle with string lights.
And the garden’s more than just pretty—it’s practical. In order to conserve water, the inside lawn was replaced by artiﬁcial turf. Most of the perennials were adopted from the mother of a family friend, such as the azaleas, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and ferns. As a result, there’s no real planting scheme. As plants were offered by friends, a place was found for them to thrive.
In fact, several of the gardens had drought-tolerant plants or artiﬁcial turf. The house of Mark Runnels and Nichelle Simpson is one shining example of many. Runnels removed much of his conventional vegetation for a symphony of over 200 plants that provide wondrous color and required hours and hours of research. The plants include dragon’s blood sedum, kangaroo plant, barberry, catmint, arbutus, Santa Barbara daisy, heather, lavender, ﬂax, euphorbia, Russian sage, lantana, nandina, succulents, ice plants, and a variety of grasses.
The Modesto Garden Club featured countless beautiful vistas, even recommending that 1904 Potter Ave. should be visited throughout the spring and summer to observe how the garden changes. But the question is, how do they ﬁnd these gardens? And how can one get involved?
“We look for yards that have interesting curb appeal,” said Yockey. “I see ﬂowers growing in the yard, they must like to garden. And Garden Club members let us know if someone is interested in showing their place.”
It’s not just a matter of beautifying your own space—it’s about beautifying the community. A beautiful hobby like gardening can easily turn into a profound and introspective experience.
“I think our garden club is important to the community because we have helped out the downtown beautiﬁcation projects,” said Yockey. “We take care of the ﬂowers at the downtown clock, the 242 pots that we plant twice a year, the Victims Garden by the court house, and the Modesto Arch.”
For More Information, visit the Modesto Garden Club Office at 622 14Th St. or Call 209-529-7360. Most cities in Stanislaus County have a Garden Club. For a Garden Club near you, check out the Oakdale Garden Club, the Turlock Garden Club, or check to see if your city has a Garden Club.