Telling a tale

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, Februaru 25, 2009

The Jade Empress, wearing a sea-green headdress and holding an oversized fan, is about to take her place on stage. She has 22 lines, which she doesn’t think she’ll forget.

It’s the Tuesday dress-rehearsal of Ohlone Elementary School’s production of “The Monkey King.” The young actor is playing the same role her brother played a few years ago, but this year the show is a little different.

Parents still buzz around applying make-up, and Ohlone students work the light-system control board as they have in years’ past. But this year, the production is marking the first year of Ohlone’s once-controversial Mandarin Immersion program.

Ohlone has performed “The Monkey King” twice before, but Principal Susan Charles thought that mounting the Chinese fable this year would be a good way to welcome the new language-immersion program. Students will sing in Mandarin as part of the play’s opening number, amidst a vibrant cast garbed in traditional Chinese dress, intricate masks and headdresses. Fans and lanterns will decorate the colorful set.

On Tuesday, Otak Jump, an Ohlone teacher and the play’s director, stood among dozens of kneeling youngsters. In his pep talk, Jump encouraged his actors to play with the story.

“Even more than you play with it, let your character play with you, every moment you’re on stage,” he said.

“If you’re a monkey, be a monkey; if you’re a fairy, be a fairy; if you’re a spider, be a spider,” he said, transforming his body into each character he described. “A character never forgets its lines.”

The Ohlone students grinned and nodded their heads.

Jump adapted a classical Chinese “Journey to the West” tale and is directing 110 young actors, who form two casts.

The story was originally written about 400 years ago during the Ming dynasty, and with the addition of the pivotal role of Monkey, the allegory took on a supernatural element. The Monkey King is to East Asia what Mickey Mouse and Superman are to the West.

“Monkey King beats it by half in Asia. Everyone knows Monkey King,” Jump said. “He is a superhero; he can fly on a cloud. Monkey is impervious to being injured.”

Jump’s re-write of “The Monkey King” includes allegorical episodes telling of when Monkey is born, when he becomes the guardian of the immortal peaches, when he goes up to heaven and when he steals the clothes of seven spider spirits.

“When we did ‘The Monkey King’ before we never sang in Mandarin, but now we have a Mandarin class,” Charles said.

The immersion program has 40 kindergarten and first-graders, one-third of whom come from Mandarin-speaking families. Eighty percent of the school week, the children are taught in Mandarin and the other 20 percent in English.

“We’re taking the Immersion program and blending it in the Ohlone developmental model of teaching. It’s quite a stretch, but it’s a stretch I think we can do it,” said Charles, who added that the students are doing well.

“The Monkey King” will be performed on Thursday (school-only performance at 1 p.m.), Friday (school performance at 1 p.m. and public performance at 7 p.m.) and Saturday (public performances at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m) at Ohlone Elementary School’s multipurpose room, 950 Amarillo Ave., Palo Alto.

Out of the mud, a bike passage could rise

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, March 6, 2009

Six months of muck, water and mud flooding of a popular bicycle route under U.S. Highway 101 in Palo Alto could become a thing of the past.

The crossing, which is adjacent to Adobe Creek at Fabian Way in south Palo Alto, is closed to bike and foot traffic from November to March, forcing residents to use an over-crossing at Oregon Avenue, north of Oregon Expressway, or navigate freeway off-ramps at San Antonio Road.

But a proposal by the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, based on the Palo Alto Bicycle Transportation Plan could open the Adobe Park under-crossing year-round.

Commissioners, interested in improving the route as a gateway to the Baylands, met with the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee on Feb. 3 to garner bicycle commissioners’ support. The parks commission has assembled a subcommittee to draft various options for the Adobe Creek crossing, according to Cedric de La Beaujardiere, bicycle committee chairman.

Residents of the nearby Greenmeadow neighborhood have already met with the city officials regarding the under-crossing, which residents want, de La Beaujardiere said.

The current state of the under-crossing is at odds with the city’s goal to bike, walk and roll. With the Adobe Creek passage closed half of the year many people revert to driving as their primary means of transportation during the off months. The bicycle committee hopes that a year-long crossing will foster more bicycling and walking in the community, he said.

“Because (the Adobe passage is) currently closed half the year, the alternative for bicyclists is either going on San Antonio — which a lot of people will ride once and then never ride again because it’s not suited for riders going out to the Baylands” — or “alternatively, bikers can go to Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway, which is 1.5 miles away,” he said.

The bicycle advisory committee will ask the city to start a feasibility study to determine options for the crossing, including whether it should be an under-crossing, over-crossing or how much it would cost, he said.

The Adobe Creek passage has no known opposition and funds are available to see the project come to fruition, according to de La Beaujardiere.

“There have been some good suggestions that putting it within the city’s CIP (Capital Improvement Program) … will gather more money,” he said.

Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has a bicycle-expenditure program designed to help fund projects within the county, de La Beaujardiere said. VTA will match four times the money Palo Alto raises for the project, he said.

The estimated cost for an initial feasibility study is between $50,000 and $100,000, which can hopefully be met with grants from various sources in Palo Alto, City Transportation Manager Gail Likens said. The engineering study will figure out the exact price tag of the Adobe crossing project, but current estimates put it between $5 million and $8 million, she said

Foods that say 'I love you'

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, February 13, 2009

Whether a health nut or a junk-food fiend, in the salty camp or prefer the savory, everyone has different ways of qualifying the foods that are comforting.

Here are a few comfort foods that will undoubtedly warm the soul and say “I love you” loud and clear.

Think outside the box

Generally thought of as a boxed meal for kids, old-fashioned home-style recipes for Macaroni & Cheese are tough to find. Many of the recipes yield overly fussy, epicurean dishes or macaroni drenched in chalky white sauce.

Mac & Cheese remains an American staple but takes on a more sophisticated edge at MacArthur Park Restaurant in Palo Alto, where the dish is a favorite side order for restaurant goers.

MacArthur Park’s chef Faz Poursohi handed over the restaurant’s recipe for this American comfort food: cheesy, crispy and well-seasoned Mac & Cheese.

Macaroni & Cheese

4 cups elbow macaroni

3 T. butter

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups whole milk

8 oz. dry aged Cheddar cheese

4 oz. grated Cheddar cheese

1 t. dry mustard

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

Kosher salt & white pepper (to taste)

Cook the macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until done, about 5-7 minutes. Drain and toss with 2 tablespoons of butter; set aside.

Heat the oven to 350�F.

Coat a large baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter and set it aside. Put the heavy cream, whole milk and dry mustard into a saucepan. Warm over medium low heat, but don’t boil it. Remove pan from the heat, and add the dry aged cheddar and the grated cheddar cheese; stir until it is melted and smooth. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

Pour this over the macaroni and mix until well blended; put this into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the fresh bread crumbs evenly over the top. Bake until the top is golden and crusty, about 25-30 minutes. Makes 6-8 servings.

Say it with soup

Bikur Cholim — the Jewish custom of visiting the sick — is the basis for Stanford’s student-run group that delivers warm bowls of matzah ball soup to students feeling under the weather.

For three years, the Matzah Ball Brigade has received e-mails and Facebook messages from students requesting matzah ball soup for themselves or for sick close friends, whipped up batches of soup, delivered it to the sick students and attempted to bring good cheer to make the student feel better.

Yishai Kabaker was president of the group last year and said one of his most memorable deliveries was during finals week of winter quarter when in one night he received eight requests for soup.

“I biked all around campus careful not to spill the jumbling Tupperware of soup in the double paper bags dangling from my handlebars,” Kabaker remembered. “After a hectic evening zipping around campus, I got a lot of nachas (Yiddish pride) knowing that I had helped out students during the high season of finals stress.

Kabaker said the Brigade turns to an easy and on-the-go recipe from sites such as for its soup delivery service.

Matzah Ball Soup

1 32-oz. carton of boxed chicken stock

2 eggs

1 T. vegetable oil

1/4 cup sparkling water

2/3 cup matzo meal

1/2 t. salt

1/4 t. pepper

More oil for your hands

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, oil and sparkling water and whisk until combined. Add the matzo meal, salt and pepper and stir until smooth. Cover bowl and refrigerate mixture for half an hour so the matzo meal absorbs the liquid. The mixture will become more firm as it chills.

Bring chicken stock to a simmer. Lightly oil your hands. Scoop out a golf ball-sized lump of matzo ball dough and roll it in your hands to form a smooth ball. Gently drop into the simmering stock. Repeat with remaining dough, making 8-10 matzo balls. Cover the pan and simmer until done.

You can vary the size depending on your taste. The larger balls (6-8 per batch) will cook in about 30 minutes, while the smaller balls (12-14 per batch) take about 15-20 minutes to cook. The matzo balls are done when cooked through, light and spongy.

Place a few matzo balls in each soup dish then gently top with the soup.

Let them eat cake

Prolific food writer and Palo Alto local Lou Seibert Pappas shares a recipe for chocolate cake, a definitive comfort food. This is a classic dessert served at restaurants and thanks to Pappas you can make it at home as a special treat for after Valentine’s Day dinner.

These individual cakes are meant to have a slightly soft center when served warm. Dollop them with whipped cream or vanilla bean or coffee ice cream.

Warm Chocolate Cakes

3 oz. bittersweet chocolate (or 2/3 cup chocolate chips)

4 T. butter

4 eggs

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

3 T. cake or all-purpose flour

2 T. unsweetened cocoa powder

Melt the chocolate and butter over hot water, stirring until smooth. Whisk the eggs and sugar to blend. Fold in the flour blended with cocoa. Fold this mixture into the chocolate mixture. Butter and cocoa dust six 1/2-cup souffle dishes. Pour in the batter. Refrigerate 1-2 hours just to firm.

Bake on a baking sheet at 400F for 12-14 minutes. Unmold while warm and serve with ice cream or whipped cream, if desired. Makes 4-6 servings.

Ultimate hybrid: art + function

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, March 13, 2009

In a rustic home-studio in the mountains of Los Altos Hills, artist Meryl Urdang sits on her deck and watches the birds glide through her panoramic view of the East Bay hills. The birds inspired Urdang.

“I envy their ability to race across the sky, glide on the air currents, sky dive and dance to their own music,” the artist said of her reasons for creating Focus on Feathers, a new collection in her signature Silk-under-Glass art for walls and tabletops. The line pays tribute to the detailed plumage patterns of the Ringneck pheasant.

Urdang’s collection can be seen next week at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show at the San Mateo Event Center.

Urdang began by painting silk Judaica prayer shawls for her daughter. This soon transformed into a process of transposing photographed feathers, flowers, butterflies and other custom designs onto silk, which is then fused onto the backside of curved glass plates. After three years of producing the Silk-under-Glass collection, region specific pieces can be found in approximately 15 galleries around the country.

Urdang went through an arduous process of trial and error to develop her products. “Every piece of this I’ve had to do like research and development, because I’m combining technique and materials that weren’t meant to be combined,” she said.

For one phase, Urdang had to test 30 different products to determine which would work best. “I’m a research person at heart. There’s always something new to explore and try,” she said.

But this is a familiar process for Urdang. “Before I was doing this, I was using the other side of my brain doing analytical work with numbers,” she said of her previous life as a market consultant in the health care industry. Six years ago she took a workshop in silk painting and three years later she made the decision to switch occupations.

Urdang’s recent union with the art world makes for a vastly different lifestyle with little delineation between home, studio and office, but Urdang said she loves all aspects of her new career.

“I love that I’m combining some of my background with technology with more organic and spontaneous aspects of my work. I love designing things, seeing people’s reactions and bringing that sense of joy that I have with my work,” Urdang said. “I love that I’m creating.”

As a child growing up in New Jersey, Urdang dabbled in an art form surprisingly similar to her current proprietary process: She made note cards decorated with construction-paper flower cut-outs and sold each for one cent. Then, the summer before college, the budding artist-gone-entrepreneur earned spending money for school by selling carved leather belts, necklaces and bracelets.

Urdang said she values functionality. Silk-under-Glass pieces can serve as wall d�cor, or they can be put in easels or on coffee tables; the dishes can be used for jewelry, or the plates can serve their traditional purpose and be used as tableware. Each size fits a purpose, according to Urdang.

Urdang’s artistic method combines many different techniques and mediums. Photography takes her to Northern California to capture wildflowers, in an approach that she said is somewhere between the abstraction of micro-photographers, where one can barely identify the photographed object, and photography that is more realistic.

“There is enough of a flower so you get a response to the image being a particular flower, but it’s also a little bit abstract,” she said.

Urdang said she likes how her design looks on square glass because the bent glass gives the piece complexity. Silk comes through the glass and handles the light beautifully.

“Silk painting is an amazing art form,” Urdang said. “When you have a brush filled with dye and you touch it to the silk and it just permeates the silk and spreads, the luxuriousness of both the silk and the way the dyes interact with it is just amazing.”

Generally, silk painting requires a laborious process of using Gutta, a latex-based resist that blocks dye from reaching the fabric, but Urdang figured out an alternative method to imprint images onto silk.

Urdang’s custom designs usually include imposing photographs of families and loved ones using the Silk-under-Glass technique. Urdang said she sees this as photographing people’s memories.

“The work is dealing with people’s memories and preserving them in a unique way that will really make them stand out,” she said.

Urdang said she sees very clear links between her past career as a health care consultant and her present work as an artist. “I think I was inspired and was able to express a different part of myself and then share that with others,” she said. “There is something about creating something and then seeing another’s reaction that’s a totally different reward than those rewards that people are usually looking for.”


For more Home and Real Estate news, visit

What: San Francisco Flower and Garden Show

When: March 18-22, Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Where: San Mateo Event Center, 2495 S. Delaware St., San Mateo

Tickets: $13-20/day, with discounts for youth, students; children 5 and under free; tickets available at local nurseries or online.

Info: Visit

Nordstrom 'pepper-spray' theft suspect nabbed

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, August 27, 2009

Oakland police Wednesday afternoon arrested one of two suspected shoplifters who fled Stanford Shopping Center in a rental car about 7 p.m. Tuesday — after stealing a swimsuit and pepper spraying three Nordstrom security guards Monday evening.

Police worked with the rental-car company to locate the rental car, Palo Alto police Sgt. Dan Ryan said. He said Oakland officers found Shunaka Jackson, 32, with the car, along with the stolen swimsuit.

Ryan said officers also worked with a California state parole officer and Oakland police on the case. Jackson, an Oakland resident, was stopped by Oakland officers about 2 p.m. Tuesday at 92nd Street and Plymouth Avenue.

Jackson was booked into the Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose for robbery, being a parolee in possession of chemical spray and a parole hold.

The three security officers have recovered.

The use of pepper spray turned what would have been theft into robbery, Ryan said.

Jackson’s alleged accomplice, her 21-year-old cousin, has not yet been located, Ryan said. He said the women are believed to be part of a ring that steals merchandise then returns the items for cash.

At Filoli in Woodside: Bringing life to landscape sculpture

Published in the Almanac, February 19, 2009

DJ Garrity makes faces emerge from stone. “It’s almost as though you have a T-shirt and you’re pulling it over your face and the shape of the face is poking through the fabric suggesting features,” he said.

The haunting countenance that the 60-year-old sculptor spoke of comes to life as he carves faces into life-size slabs of marble, basalt, alabaster and limestone. What results in the stone appears to have emotion and gives the impression of gazing back at the spectator.

A self-proclaimed journeyman who explores abstract expression, Garrity takes his technique across the country in the form of lectures and workshops at botanical gardens and museums where he attempts to convey his approach to landscape sculpture. He will come to Filoli’s opening event Daffodil Daydreams on Feb. 27 for a lecture about how to incorporate sculpture into hardscape design.

Garrity’s lecture series offers natural approaches to landscape art through his artistic concept known as the “process aesthetic,” which he described as “the emergence of the human vestige from a block of raw stone.” A colossal example of this technique would be Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse memorials, he said.

This method offers a meaningful way that landscape sculpture can explore the boundaries between art and nature.

The artist’s lectures stem from work he formulated while serving as the Sculptor-In-Residence at Mount Rushmore National Memorial where he sculpted, taught classes and trained employees how to talk to visitors about sculpture.

Although Garrity received early encouragement from Ted Fagan, a sculptor from County Cork, Ireland, he is a self-taught sculptor who earlier carved figures and images in wood. He lived in western Massachusetts for 40 years, but now he lives in a small seaside village on the northwest coast of Oregon.

Garrity’s lecture is part of Filoli’s annual multi-day, kickoff program that highlights one of its plant collections. In the past couple of years camellias and magnolias have inspired the themes, but this year the program’s namesake comes from daffodils, the Narcissus Tazetta species in particular. This new species of daffodil was developed to be particularly well suited for the Bay Area climate by William Welch, known endearingly as “The Bulb Baron” by the Filoli community.

Thousands of Daffodils will be blooming on Daffodil Hill, around Filoli’s Visitor Center, and in a new garden area at Filoli where 25,000 more plants took root this year. There will be a talk by Lucy Tolmach, Filoli’s director of horticulture, who will discuss how her favorite varieties of daffodils can be used in beds and pots, and naturalized in gardens.

“Once you plant them you are done,” Tolmach said. “They are the easiest and hardiest of the garden flowers, giving you more with each passing year.”

Visitors to Daffodil Daydreams have the opportunity to learn more about sculpture and other garden art in an exhibit called Art in the Garden and through DJ Garrity’s lecture.

“DJ is a very knowledgeable yet a very down-to-earth person, an easy person to learn from,” Cathy Rampley, education program administrator at Filoli, said. “I thought Filoli should have him do a lecture where more people could benefit from his knowledge and experience.”

Garrity said he hoped that his lecture “Sculpture: The Soul of Hardscape” will get attendees to understand how dramatic sculpture can be when used in landscape and how easily people can bring it into their lifestyle. The lecture will also highlight a “green” approach to incorporating natural stone art into new or existing hardscape.

Filoli brought Garrity in last August to instruct a three-day workshop where attendees created their own sculptures from stone. He plans to return May 15-18 for a “Study with DJ Garrity: The Rhythms of Stone” workshop.

Garrity’s workshops tend to attract gardeners, the life-long learning community and people who want to work with stone but never thought it possible. He’ll be teaching how to carve faces into 45- to 50-pound blocks of limestone or alabaster. He tries to find stones that are local to the area in which he is conducting his workshops.

Garrity recalled an 82-year-old windsurfer and aspiring sculptor as a particularly inspiring student — as was one of the youngest students he has taught, a girl of about 14, who was having a difficult time for the first couple days of the workshop. “She couldn’t get the face to come through, but finally on last day it came through,” he said.

Once the girl got the expression she was striving for, Garrity remembered she said that she would never look at a stone anymore without seeing a face in it.

This is exactly what Garrity wanted her to take away: an imaginative enjoyment of sculpting process, and a realization that anyone can bring life to landscape sculpture.

What: Daffodil Daydreams
When: Feb. 27- March 1, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Where: Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside
Cost: Adults $12; students $5; children under 5 free
Info: 650-364-8300,

What: Sculpture: The Soul of Hardscape
When: Feb. 27, 3-4 p.m.
Where: Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside
Cost: $30 for members, $35 for non-members (includes entrance fee). Reservations required.
Info: To register contact Cathy Rampley at 650-364-8300.,

Driver found in Palo Alto pedestrian hit-and-run

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, August 27, 2009

A pedestrian/car collision with minor injuries has become a hit-and-run case when the car’s driver left the scene Wednesday, police reported.

Palo Alto police have discovered the identity of the driver of a dark Lexus sedan that hit a 16-year-old Palo Alto High School student on El Camino Real near Churchill Avenue and then drove off about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Palo Alto police Sgt. Dan Ryan said.

Police tracked down the identity of the driver by using partial plate numbers Wednesday night to find the woman who left the scene.

The student was running west across El Camino Real against a red light to catch a bus, cleared three northbound lanes, but was hit by a sedan in the far southbound lane, police spokeswoman Kara Salazar said. Witnesses reported the girl was hit and rolled against the car’s windshield, Salazar said.

She was examined at Stanford Hospital and suffered only minor injuries to her right elbow and left knee, police reported.

Ryan said the older woman driving the sedan stopped briefly to examine what happened, didn’t see anything and drove off.

The student wasn’t visible to the driver because of a bus obstructing the line of sight, Ryan said. Though the investigation found the incident to be the pedestrian’s fault, officials tracked the driver down at her home and have referred the case to the district attorney for possible hit-and-run charges, Ryan said.

Ryan said police used partial license plate numbers Wednesday night to locate the driver. The female student was running west across El Camino Real against a red light (apparently to catch the bus) and cleared three northbound lanes but was hit by the sedan in the far southbound lane, Salazar reported.

A zany garden in Palo Alto

Published in Palo Alto Weekly, April 22, 2009

Soon after Edgewood Garden was constructed, Andrea Testa-Vought’s young son used water and mud to plaster the garden’s low retaining walls. Testa-Vought said she would never forget when she walked into her backyard and found mud covering the newly constructed walls that form outdoor living nooks in her garden.

“I just let it go, and eventually about a year later it just melted off the wall,” Testa-Vought said, shrugging her shoulders. “You just can’t beat that kind of experience for a kid. It’s all about connecting with the outside.”

That was about 10 years ago. Today Testa-Vought’s son is a teenager and no longer plasters the garden walls with mud, but the hardscape elements of the family’s unusual garden on Edgewood Drive in Palo Alto continues to inspire people looking to enjoy time outdoors. The garden design is understated yet striking and acts like an extension of the home, an effect carefully thought out by Testa-Vought and landscape designer Bernard Trainor.

Edgewood Garden will open its doors on May 2 as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, where more than 300 private gardens around the country are showcased for self-guided tours. This year two of the gardens are in Palo Alto — both on Edgewood Drive — and a third is in a woodsy neighborhood in Atherton.

The Garden Conservancy chose Edgewood Garden because, as Trainor, one of the designer’s helping Open Days Program with recruitment said, “(The garden) is a peaceful family retreat that appears to be comfortable with the climate. It does not feel imported to me and this establishes a look and feeling that makes people feel grounded and at one with this place.”

Built in 1999, Edgewood Garden incorporates Mediterranean plants Testa-Vought calls “wacky.” Flora originating in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Central and South America and Africa decorate the half-acre plot in a zany way that is reminiscent of Doctor Seuss.

“I knew what I wanted as far as attracting the wildlife and it being true to the property,” Testa-Vought said. “I didn’t want to create New England in Palo Alto.”

Most of the garden is off the grid, but Testa-Vought said she hand waters some of the plants on a monthly basis. The garden has no grass, something Testa-Vought said her family has never missed. They have private walled areas, a bocce court and a pool instead.

“Plants are just the icing on the cake,” according to Trainor. “You need a good hardscape and a cohesive design to establish the ‘bones of the garden’ and set the stage for the plantings.”

Pulling off this approach, Testa-Vought said, goes back to a really professional design; the structure — the walls, the seating and even the big trees — serve as a foil for the plants. Since Trainor initially designed and built the backbone of the garden, Testa-Vought has been able to tailor the plantings as the garden evolves.

Trainor based the garden around the family’s lifestyle of eating outside, having friends over and sharing glasses of wine and celebrating the California environment. The garden has a bocce court made from compacted sand and oyster shells where Testa-Vought’s kids played when they were young. Now the court serves as a place to set up the ping-pong table and as a dance floor during parties. An outdoor dining area with various edible plants is where the family takes its dinners when weather permits.

A bubbling fountain is another key feature of a Mediterranean garden, and although this came about from an accident, it has become a prominent aspect of the garden. The birds love to feed from it too.

Plants have grown in to hug a Frank Morbillo sculpture near the long pool. Testa-Vought said she never expected to incorporate a sculpture into her garden, but she fell in love with it at a gallery in Berkeley. “It has becomes an anchor in the garden.”

Another impromptu feature of the garden is an arbor designed by Trainor that was supposed to guide grapes, but has ended up as a sculpture itself. “Now (the arbor) is more like art,” Testa-Vought said.

Trainor said the walls give the garden more “oomph.” The separation of space provides the garden with rooms. “There is so much more depth here, and most significantly is the light play. You don’t just have the plants but you have the movement of the shadows and the leaves and the walls give us that. They are sort of a canvas for the plants,” Testa-Vought said bending down to brush her hand across an acacia from Australia.

“He incorporated different ways for us to be outside and seek out places for us to go and think. … It’s a very restful place. It suits our family’s needs.”

About 20 years ago, amidst a drought, Testa-Vought and her husband bought a home in San Jose, and the couple was inspired to find a low-impact alternative to the unsustainable, water-thirsty gardening practices so common in California.

Xeriscaping was popular then, Testa-Vought noted, but the designs turned out to be quite ugly during the summer when everything turned brown. “I wanted to do something that didn’t need water, but gave a nice look,” Testa-Vought said.

As a young girl she took great pleasure in working in the garden with her grandfather, but hadn’t delved too far into gardening until she moved to Palo Alto and met Trainor.

Trainor’s early landscape design experiences in Australia and Europe lent him what he described as “extremely inquisitive eyes (to) observe the genius of the place, connect with the architecture and respond to the personality of each client.” His methodology also explores space and light in the garden.

Trainor said his design for Edgewood garden was different from any project he had worked on at the time because it went beyond the water-guzzling lawn model that is an epidemic in the United States. “Andrea gardens appropriately to this region (through plant selection and using fewer resources). So many others bring the ‘baggage’ from other places that are mostly not in tune with this climate,” Trainor said.

Although it’s not necessary for her type of garden, Testa-Vought said she spends considerable time�puttering around her backyard. “It’s my passion,” she said.

Testa-Vought said she hopes people can leave her garden “with some tiny taste of what they can do without having to buy something and adding gallons of water each day, to give people an idea that there are other ways and other plants.”

What: The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program self-guided tour
When: Saturday, May 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Two gardens in Palo Alto and one in Atherton
Tickets: $5 admission to each garden; children under 12 free
Info: Begin at 1474 Edgewood Drive, Palo Alto, for directions to other gardens. No reservations required. Visit

Palo Alto Orchards: Where neighbors really know each other

Published April 28, 2009 in Palo Alto Weekly

A mother and her daughters sell Girl Scout cookies to their neighbors, walking door-to-door through several cul-de-sac streets that make up Palo Alto Orchards. This is the second generation the neighborhood has seen grow up and most of the cookie-cutter tract houses that were built after World War II have been remodeled to contemporary aesthetics.

Darcy Huston, the mother who accompanies her Girl Scouts, moved to Palo Alto Orchards five years ago with her husband to raise three girls. The Hustons came for the stellar public schools and for the neighborhood’s sense of community; they wanted to be able to sell cookies to neighbors they actually know.

The Huston girls can play in the streets during the summer, and ride bikes around the neighborhood with their parents, but their mom Darcy worries about them walking to school alone because Palo Alto Orchards is wedged between bustling Arastradero Road and El Camino Real.

Henry Lum, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards, has been working diligently to convince the city to put in a crosswalk on Arastradero Road to provide a safe way to connect Palo Alto Orchards to nearby Juana Briones Park.

“I understand the City of Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Department has included this request into their future traffic-calming plans for the Arastradero corridor,” John Spiller, neighborhood association president, said.

Misao Sakamoto and her late husband also raised three children in Palo Alto Orchards, but they did so during a simpler time when parents could rest easily when their children walked to school.

“When my children were little, the mothers sat out in the yard watching the children playing in the street while the fathers went to work. The children were outside playing with each other and walking to school together,” Sakamoto said. “The mothers too had a chance to socialize with each other because unlike today’s mothers, we were not working. It was a very peaceful type of living.”

The Sakamotos moved to Palo Alto Orchards fresh out of UC Berkeley student housing, where they lived while Calvin Sakamoto was a student. The community was still surrounded by walnut orchards then. The Sakamotos joined many former GIs who came to raise their children in one-story homes priced under $10,000 on streets with names such as Suzanne and Lorabelle, after the original developers McKellar and Kelly’s wives.

“This was a very nice place to raise children and it still is, but lifestyle has changed. I don’t see as many kids outside on the street,” Sakamoto said.

Half a century later, young professionals starting families jump at opportunities to live in Palo Alto Orchards. “As soon as a house goes on the market, somebody with kids moves in inevitably because they want to be in the school district,” Huston said of Palo Alto Orchard’s evolving demographic. “Older folks are moving out and new families are moving in.”

Sakamoto values neighborhood interaction and for three years she has invited neighborhood children, their parents and their grandparents to gather around the piano in her family room for Christmas music recitals. Pianists and violinists of all skill level, a single clarinet player and a bassoon soloist bring their instruments and a platter of goodies to her house, and the hostess said they are all very willing to perform and participate.

Sakamoto has seen many neighborhood families grow up. “I love to see the projects of these little children, their aspirations and their accomplishments. I value those relationships where there’s mutual dependencies.”

CHILDCARE AND PRESCHOOLS: Palo Alto Montessori School, 575 Arastradero Road; Young Life Christian Pre-School, 687 Arastradero Road
FIRE STATION: No. 5, 600 Arastradero Road
LIBRARY: Mitchell Park branch, 3700 Middlefield Road
PARKS: Juana Briones Park, 609 Maybell Ave.; Terman Park, 655 Arastradero Road
POST OFFICE: Cambridge, 265 Cambridge Ave.
PRIVATE SCHOOL: Bowman International School, 4000 Terman Road
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Juana Briones Elementary School, Terman Middle School, Gunn High School
SHOPPING: El Camino Real, San Antonio Shopping Center

Condo market bottoming out?

Published April 24, 2009 Spring Real Estate edition of Palo Alto Weekly

John King, a broker associate with Alhouse King Residential in Palo Alto, wants to be honest about local condo markets.

“We all want it to be a rosy picture, but the reality is that right now our communities are experiencing the difficulties the rest of the nation has been facing,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View and Los Altos aren’t terrific areas where people will always want to live, he added, describing the local real estate market as “last to fall, but first to rise.”

While projections for this year’s closing sales paint a dismal picture, realistically priced units are likely to push the market back on track, he said.

Unsold condo listings are at the highest level since September 2002 when the market bottomed out from the dot-com bust. In 2006, there were about 830 townhomes and condos sold in the cities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Los Altos and Mountain View. By 2008, that number had dropped to about 520.

Based on the 50 units sold in the first quarter of this fiscal year, King estimates condo sales for 2009 at around 300, or about one-third fewer sales than last year.

The reality is that the condo market in these seemingly untouchable communities is along for this economy’s bumpy ride. But the good news is the bottom is beginning to show. Appropriately priced properties are beginning to sell at around their 2004 price levels.

Read the story in its entirety at Mountain View Voice