Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Community Interest” November 2007.
Martha Walker Garden
By Louisa Huffstader
At the eastern end of Imola Avenue in Napa, the wilderness begins—Skyline Wilderness Park, where hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers scale the rugged heights overlooking the valley.
The park is a haven for wildlife, with no dogs allowed; instead, families of deer and flocks of wild turkeys feed just off the paths and fast-moving lizards scuttle among the rocks. Wild pigs and mountain lions have occasionally been spotted farther away from the trails.
Skyline is also home to two and a half acres of serenity known as the Martha Walker Native Habitat Garden, founded in 1985 by the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Here, visitors can stroll paths shaded by oaks and redwoods and lined with hundreds of native plants, from dainty wildflowers to the stately bay laurel.
The wheelchair-friendly garden is located directly north of the Skyline Park Social Hall. Surfaced paths and an adjacent handicapped-parking area make it easily accessible to any park visitor.
It’s one of the most peaceful public places in Napa—yet garden curator Terry Chappell says, “Lots of people who live within a mile of here don’t know this place exists.”
From a simple bench to a bird sanctuary
The garden began as a simple tribute to passionate Napa gardener and naturalist Martha Walker, who hosted a gardening show on KVON, wrote the column “Let’s Go into the Garden” for the Napa Register and taught both gardening and Esperanto at Napa Valley College.
Walker was also an environmentalist, joining the Sierra Club and the Napa-Solano Audubon Society and helping to found the Napa chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
When Walker died in 1983, the chapter placed a memorial bench in Skyline Park. Today, that bench is one of many in the enclosure that now bears Walker’s name.
For years, curator Ralph Ingols tended the pesticide-free garden. He’s still a familiar presence at the park. Co-curator Terry Chappell, who started as a volunteer, stepped up to the top job when age made it difficult for Ingols to keep up with the work.
There’s plenty to do. As the garden expanded over the years from a single bench to a two-and-a-half-acre plantation, the maintenance challenges have grown as well—even native plants need water and attention.
With the help of volunteers, Chappell tends nearly 200 species, many propagated nearby at the California Native Plant Society growing grounds in Skyline; the Napa-Solano Audubon Society donated bird-attracting fruit trees and shrubs.
“Before they started the garden, there were 25 species of birds noted in the park,” Chappell says. Today, well over 100 avian species call Skyline home, many of them nesting in the Martha Walker garden.
An Eden for birds, it’s also a heaven for birdwatchers: Clownish acorn woodpeckers squawk and squabble in the oaks as jewel-toned hummingbirds hover and swoop for nectar from bright blossoms. This month, you’re likely to hear the descending whistle of the golden-crowned sparrow and perhaps the delicate song of the Western bluebird.
But you don’t have to be a birder to appreciate the sanctuary of the Martha Walker Native Habitat Garden. Chappell sees regular visitors who come to read or simply meditate in quiet refuge.
“They just say it’s a peaceful place,” he says.
Visiting the garden is free with admission to Skyline Wilderness Park, which is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For more information, visit http://www.ncfaa.com/skyline/garden.htm or call 707-253-2665.