Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Thank You, Jenny Fleming

By Ron Sullivan
Friday April 04, 2008

I owe a personal debt to Jenny Fleming, and so do you. Mine is perhaps more specific: Jenny was one of a group of people who saved my sanity after I crashed and burned out of nursing.  

It was purely an accidental group and I have no reason to believe they knew they were doing anything of the sort, but I managed to conjure them by enrolling in the Hort Department up at Merritt College and, waiting for the semester to start, joining the Tuesday propagation sessions that California Native Plant Society volunteers had there.  

A good handful of sweet gray-haired old ladies with razor-sharp minds (and tongues, when the occasion warranted) seemed to be the core of that group, and Jenny, with her aristocratic bearing and the look of eagles, was one of them. I heard about her legendary garden, and toured it during a Merritt California native plants class. It was astonishing. 

I worked as a gardener while taking those classes, and in due course Jenny hired me for a short term of maintenance there. Fellow students had passed on some combination of warning and promise about this, as quite a few of them had done similar stints. They were right.  

A few days of clinging with my toes to that amazingly vertical space, one foot on a rock upslope and one downslope and the rest of me wobbling between, prying weeds and planting seedlings and not daring to slip to my death for fear of crushing some botanical treasure I prized more than my own bones, rendered me as strong and limber as I’ve ever been in my life.  

It was worth the gymnastics of course, for the chance to learn, to work beside Jenny and enjoy her company with those marvelous plants in that marvelous place. It’s hitched in true John Muir fashion to the Tilden Park Botanic Garden, the California Native Plant Society, and our remaining wild places. Like those wild places, it rewards every moment of attention with beauty and learning. Like CNPS and the Tilden garden, it protects and propagates plant species that are under threat in their home ranges. Jenny was one of the people who founded CNPS after a successful campaign to keep the Tilden garden intact and working where it is.  

Jenny has passed on but her and Scott’s garden lives as one of her several interwoven legacies. It’s a plant collector’s paradise: thriving specimens in a beautiful, well-organized, integrated space, everyone looking right at home. Don’t take my word for it: the garden’s on this year’s free “Bringing Back the Natives Garden” Tour. Reserve your tour now, and get to the Flemings’ early; parking is a challenge there.  

Local CNPS members have (I hope) already seen the invitation to a memorial for Jenny hosted by her family on Saturday, April 5. If your Bay Leaf has been delayed or gone missing, I suggest emailing India Fleming-Farris: farris@dcn.org or calling (530) 758-4210; the invitation directs responses there.  


California Native Plant Society 


2707 K Street, Suite 1  

Sacramento, CA 95816-5113 

(916) 447-2677, Mon–Fri, 9 a.m.–5p.m.) 

East Bay Chapter 



Bringing Back the Natives  

Free Garden Tour 


See the site for promising, modestly priced Select Tours! 



(510) 236-9558, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 


An interview with Jenny Fleming: 

http://www.sfgate.com/ cgibin/