Japanese maples accent garden built with love on the rocks

Debbie Arrington

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. -- Working with wildlife for most of their lives, Vivian Kee and Lou Merzario wouldn't feel at home without it.

Perched on a hillside, their house feels like part of nature. Birds of every feather dine at feeders and splash in shallow pools. A flock of wild turkeys struts through the property without fear. Black-tailed deer are frequent visitors along with jackrabbits, squirrels and other creatures.

But except for the big trees, little of this foothill haven is as they found it. With a lot of muscle (and a motorized wheelbarrow), Kee and Merzario turned a barren, red-dirt slope into a peaceful forest sanctuary, framed by massive boulders and studded with Japanese maples.

"I lived in the southeast Alaskan rain forest for 20 years," Kee said. "It inspired this lush, layered look of landscaping."

Under a canopy of black oaks, a 15-foot waterfall cascades down stone walls into a large pond, fringed with Japanese forest grass. Carefully placed branches allow lizards to cross the streaming water. Basking rocks invite frogs to relax and lunch on bugs.

Nearby, water bubbles in a grotto fountain surrounded by hand-hewn pumice walls. Another fountain beckons visitors to an Asian garden room, screened from the street below. A sweeping deck provides views of the hills and surrounding foothill forest.

Said Kee: "Our outdoor deck is larger than the whole house. That shows our priorities."

As a botanist, biologist and ranger, Kee retired after 32 years in the U.S. Forest Service.

Merzario, now an engineering consultant, also spent much of his career taking care of nature. They originally met in 1984 while working at Alaska's Admiralty Island National Monument, where Kee was stationed for two decades. They became reacquainted after Kee transferred to Northern California. They married eight years ago and settled in Grass Valley.

The couple wanted a foothill home that allowed them to stay close to nature. Their 1.67-acre parcel sits across the road from a creek. But the home's original landscaping -- or lack of it -- left a lot to be desired.

"When we moved in (in 2005), we had a raw hillside and funky green retaining wall," Merzario recalled. "It was just awful."

About 17,000 pounds of rock became the foundation for hillside terraces and water features. The soil is held in place with geo-webbing and rebar.

With a background in pool installation, Merzario used rebar-reinforced gunite to stabilize water features and set the stones in place.

"We moved all that rock ourselves," Merzario said, "plus 140 bags of soil. This garden is more Vivian's vision, more my brawn. She has the artistic sense."

Both avid gardeners, the couple needed space to plant. The terraces are packed with rhododendrons, camellias, carpet roses, lavenders, sages, evergreens, nandina and other plants that can withstand the cold as well as nibbling by wildlife.

"In the foothills, flat gardening space is at a premium," Kee said. "So you have to create it.

"Our challenge was the elevational differences," she added. "We didn't want cattle-chute steps everywhere."

With patience, they crafted a series of garden rooms and patios, stair-stepping up the hillside and joined by flowing water.

"I've always had a strong interest in art, but chose biology for my career," Kee noted. "Then, I realized, gardening is a form of art -- color, texture, composition."

Softening the edges of her landscape are many Japanese maples.

"I've always liked their look," she said. "Lou and I both have a passion for them, along with rhododendrons. The oak canopy allows us to have them."

The foothill setting is ideal for the little maples, which grow under the shade of larger trees.

"It's just perfect for them," Kee said. "It's cold enough for them to get deeply colored in the fall, but not so cold in winter to kill them."

The one thing Japanese maples don't like -- hot, dry wind. Said Kee, "In those conditions, they're toast."

The couple lovingly care for the maples.

"We keep them trimmed so the light can come through the leaves," Merzario said. "The scarlet leaves are simply stunning when they're backlit."

"In spring and fall, our garden has a layered look of red and green," Kee said. "It's a beautiful effect."

Retirement has allowed her to devote full time to the garden, she noted. Now, she has a little time to relax in her paradise, too.

"I love the serenity," Kee said. "I tell Lou, 'This is our vacation destination -- our Fiji or Bora Bora.' You don't want to leave."