Saturday, August 30, 2014


It is with great sadness that we announce the loss of the great oak at the southeast corner of Comstock House.

(RIGHT: The oak in its winter glory, February, 2010)

It was as fine a Valley Oak as seen anywhere, its majestic canopy three stories high and seemingly sculpted to perfection. A landscape painter might say it was even too perfect; a stout and straight trunk held up a crown that displayed its symmetric arch when anyone viewed it from any angle.

We knew it was old, but still astonished to learn it was probably 200 and maybe older. It was here before Santa Rosa, before California. It was here before the Bitakomtara/Gualomi Pomo were taken away to the Spanish missions in San Rafael and Sonoma; as it was always a prolific acorn producer, it may have been a named tree cherished by a family in their community.

The oak was directly on the property line, and the first sign of trouble came August 17, 2014 when a large branch fell on the neighbor's side, narrowly avoiding considerable harm to their building and a car parked in the shade. Then on August 24 came the 6.1 earthquake; a few hours later, an enormous branch on their side fell and crushed the same car.

There was no doubt the tree was badly injured. No large branches were left facing south; as the Comstock House canopy was unchanged, from the side it looked as if the tree had been sliced in half. The giant branch had left a wound on the trunk exposing dark heartwood. Could the tree survive, in this condition?

In the following days we consulted six arborists including Bruce Hagen, who probably knows more about California oaks than anyone. Good news: There were no signs of disease. Bad news: The tree was only in fair-to-good condition before the branches began falling, with less foliage than normal. One expert believed he could see through binoculars other fractured branches ready to fall.

Most arborists thought the tree was beyond hope; two believed it could be saved, but only through the most extraordinary measures: It would have to be brought down significantly in height and much of the remaining limbs aggressively cut back. Even pruned by the most skilled hands it would never again look right - in fact, it would look as if the tree had been butchered. And while the oak might have survived another fifty years, the sizable gash left by the last fallen branch would take ages to heal, leaving it at constant risk of disease. In the end there were no excuses left to justify saving it, given the ongoing risk it posed to everyone. Thus with great emotion, we all agreed to cut it down.

We don't know what we will plant in its stead. In the meantime, the heritage roses along the fence line will now be getting lots more light, so they should prosper. A small bit of hopeful news.

A last look at a very, very old friend

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


A small group of local artists recently toured Comstock House and sketched and/or painted the house and garden. Here we see a lovely view painted by Milagros Owen. I can feel the warmth of a late spring day looking at it.

UPDATE: Richard Sheppard, another member of the group, has posted his artwork and commentary about their visit on his blog.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


One of the wonderful things about the grounds are the magnificent mature trees. The oaks are majestic, but the ginko is glorious. In the summer the leaves are a yellow-green that whisper when the wind blows. In the fall, they turn a golden yellow that in the setting sun will glow with an inner light. As they fall, the leaves create a golden carpet. I understand that Helen Comstock was also fond of this golden carpet. Perhaps women named Helen (or Hellen, as my middle name is spelled) like this? The name means "sun ray"... and this seems so apropos.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It sounds like on would be putting too much seed to start a lawn, but the practice of "overseeding" is to scatter new grass seed on an old lawn. I forgot to do it last fall. But this fall, I am spreading 50 pounds of "Bonzai Dwarf Fescue" on the entire lawn. Actually, it is a tall fescue variety that is supposed to be slower growing. Given how much work it is to mow the lawn, slower is better!

In the past, I have put out a mixture of varieties, feeling that a monoculture is never a good idea. In fact, I don't even like a purely grass based lawn, preferring to have a mixture of grass, clover, and an occasional lawn flower. But this year I decided to try to bring the lawn closer to a monoculture in just one respect... that there should be some similarity in the various areas of the lawn. Frankly, the lawn looks patchy, have fine grass in one place and course grass in another. I want a bit more fine grass, and less course grass. Hopefully, the fescue seed will manage that.

Of course, I still want the occasional lawn flower. Dandelion is fine as an "occasional" lawn flower... but it tends to take over if the lawn is not lush. My favorite lawn flower is the english daisy. Three years ago, when we first bought the house, I scatter some bellis seeds. Today, those seeds have developed into a nice sprinkling of largish daisy flowers. The lawn came with a copious supply of violets, which I encourage.

I've been debating in my mind whether to plant snow crocus bulbs in the lawn. The idea is that since they bloom very early here in warm California, that they can bloom and fade before I need to start the spring mowing... but if the foliage doesn't lie low enough, it too will be mown down, hurting next year's bloom. I could always replant more bulbs each fall, but I'm loath to do that, being both lazy and penny-pinching. Perhaps I should just try a couple hundred and wait a couple years to see how they do?

Speaking of mowing. I deliberately mow the lawn the same direction each time, against modern advice, to deliberately induce that striped look that characterized the Edwardian, machine mown lawn, in contrast to the Victorian lawn that was mown by sheep! I liken the look to the green and white striped awnings also popular with the Edwardians.

Monday, July 27, 2009



During this past winter, the garden beds in front of the house were nearly bare, save for the lycoris leaves. I used the time to plant bulbs and seeds that would be in bloom this spring and summer. That work paid off handsomely.

This spring the roses are stronger and the lilies are taller. As my gardening efforts so far are merely experiments in which seeds and bulbs will thrive, my future gardening will be much more ambitious.

Friday, June 20, 2008


The lilies I planted in the new beds and at the corner of the house are starting to bloom. I planted tiger, trumpet, oriental, and asiatic lilies. This is just the beginning. I plan to put in more next year. If the gardening budget were unlimited, I would plant thousands of bulbs in the garden. Of course, I will try propagating them myself. Some lilies, like the tiger, will grow bulblets on the stems. I will plant those out. I've already scaled one bulb that arrived smashed. I may try scaling some healthy bulbs next year. So far, I planted the less showy types, more in keeping with an old fashioned Edwardian garden. Last year, the corner of the house was purfumed by the orientals in mid-summer. I'm unsure how they will fair this year, as the guys working on the porch trampled them!