Picture this. The instructor suddenly backs into the wall, arms stretched up and out; her fingers curl around imaginary branches. She has just transformed herself into a passion vine, and if you were listening as well as laughing, then you were a student in Jo Goodwin’s gardening class. Since the mid-1970s, her antics and knowledge have kept her students coming back for more. I joined nine years ago and filled seven notebooks with invaluable facts.
As soon as she graduated from the University of Pittsburg in 1973, she drove, taking the scenic route and tent camping all the way to Napa. She soon met her future husband, Rod, and by December of 1973, he had bought 14 acres at the base of the Eastern hills. The original home had burned to the ground, but there was a small cottage and a huge barn. While living in the cottage, they renovated the barn into a beautiful two-story home. Jo incorporated the old foundations and walkways into their new garden. “I’m the ultimate recycler,” she says.
Besides teaching, by 1975 Jo had received her A.S. in horticulture, and in 1986 she received a degree in landscape architecture from UC Berkeley. She has had a thriving landscape business since the late 1970s and has never had to advertise. “I’m only as good as my workers.” she says. Clients — including Pine Ridge Winery since 1978 — tend to stay with her. “Nature’s Way Landscaping” describes her way of life.
I met Jo on a cold foggy August morning and we began our walkabout on a trail through their coastal live oak forest, where I met “the Rodenator.” It looks like a giant vacuum cleaner that “guarantees to rid your property of most burrowing rodents.” A combination of almost pure oxygen with a tiny bit of propane is injected into a rodent hole, and then ignited. This lifts the tunnel system and then collapses it with a loud boom that signals the demise of gophers and their cousins. If the Rodenator doesn’t get them, Magnolia Mae will.
A yellow Lab, Magnolia Mae is an easy-going, squirrel-chasing sweetheart, who joined us on the trail that goes to the top of Mt. George. A creek cascades down in the winter, unearthing relics like flints, an old grinding bowl and old bottles. Evidence of the fire gives the forest a Hansel and Gretel aura in the morning fog. I notice a new water tank and solar pump and Jo’s magnificent curved glass 1950’s Everlite greenhouse that displays her many tropical plants. Jo showed me her tropical bat plant, (Tacca chantrieri). The “flowers” are maroon-black bracts with long trailing squiggly whiskers.
Wherever we stop, there is another view, a partially hidden Zen pad, bubbling fountains, an arbor-covered swing — it is impossible to take in the diversity of this garden in one visit.
A colorful kinetic sculpture centers the vegetable garden, where Jo has planted Persian zinnias to ward off gophers, but a vole has just chewed its way through a full-grown cosmos plant. Jo has planted four pumpkin varieties and the Three Sisters that grow well together — corn, beans and squash. The beans climb up the corn and the squash keeps the weeds down below them both.
The compost pile is handy to Jo’s work areas where she continually tries out new varieties of just about every imaginable kind of plant. There is an olive orchard, a fruit orchard, a fragrant camellia (C.‘Hana-jiman’) hedge, a wisteria tree and a tempting pool situated to view the valley.
Perhaps the loveliest part of the garden is the rose walk, where rose covered arbors shade a series of steps leading to several terraces where more than 400 different roses thrive along with Jo’s other favorite flowering plants. Jo shared her seedlings and cuttings with her students at every class.
All of her landscape is organic and no pesticides or herbicides are used.
“I don’t have one favorite plant. It’s just the challenge of growing something new that I love,” she said.
As I leave Jo and Maggie Mae, I realize that I’ve been given a private two-hour class. I miss her — and I miss her classes. Perhaps she’ll miss us enough to return some day. It isn’t every teacher who can turn herself into a passion vine.