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She rose to the occasion

Camille Martinelli’s garden is a meandering landscape of many levels in a parklike setting.


From the first step into the garden behind a welcoming house on Clay Street, I was enchanted — and surprised, too, by its size and parklike feeling.

This is not a manicured plot behind a single home, but a meandering landscape of many levels that extends the length of several properties on the block. The garden is the creation of Camille Martinelli, developed over the years by her research, study, hard work and passion. Her husband Marco has caught that enthusiasm, too — especially in the last couple years, and especially for roses, which are Camille’s favorite.

But on this day, she offers an apology: “I’m afraid you’ve missed the roses; they’re pretty bloomed out.”

While walking up a series of brick steps, under an arch of climbing vines and onto a cobblestone path, she points out a huge old birch tree with moss encrusted bark. “We’re very proud of that tree,” Camille says. “They’re very hard to grow here.”

The breeze picked up just then, creating a shower of rose petals from the fading blooms. There is a welcoming nook everywhere in this remarkable green space: a bench or a place to sit for a while, to take in the various views from particular spots.

Many of the plants are natives and all have been researched and chosen for their compatibility with this coastal climate. The Martinellis stress their adherence to organic, pesticide-free techniques for growing and working with plants that thrive here.

Camille is especially proud of the greenhouse she had made to her exacting specifications. Inside the glass-encased room are floral-cushioned chairs and a vintage metal storage cabinet from France, with that heavenly worn color and patina seen only on vintage French lawn furniture.

She thinks back on how and why she took on this labor of love.

“I’m from Florida. My mother nurtured some plants on the window sill. They did beautifully, but we had no garden,” she recalls. “In 1985, I was living in the Sunset and working in real estate. A fellow agent came into my office one day to show me a new listing. He said: ‘You’re going to buy this house.’ And we did. It was all overgrown back here, rough soil, all different levels. But it was such a spectacular spot.  I rose to it. I felt obligated.”

She also had a rose mentor. “I saw something in a magazine about a grower, the late Joyce Demits in Fort Bragg, who specialized in heritage roses,” Camille says. “She taught me so much. I went up there and would bring back small little pots of rose plants and put them in the garden. I learned all about the different varieties and what would grow here. Most of those roses are still here, in fact. Roses became the queen of it all.”

There were no fences or indications of separate yards when the Martinellis first moved in. The surrounding neighbors did not seem to care about the garden growing into their yards — and in fact loved seeing the transformation of what had once been open, untended space. All have access to the garden and are free to spend time there as they wish, but most seem content just to enjoy the view.

“This garden is not a geometric shape. It wanders, it goes up and down,” Camille says. “Where does it begin, where does it end? It’s a puzzle box.”

Camille describes the garden as having many different rooms. “Depending on the weather, you gravitate to certain areas, to catch the light or find the shade, or just enjoy the quiet,” she says. “Nature is so prevalent in this garden. I would never have become a gardener if we hadn’t bought this house.”

Photographs by Barbara Wyeth