Two sisters, two coasts, one blog

The Magic Island project


Okay, so it’s SuperBowl Sunday y’all. And you know what that means right?? Rock star parking at all the Home Depot parking lots across the nation! But seriously, if you are among the few who DON’T worship at the altar of Football then today really is the perfect day to get some projects done around the house. And for me it’s all about getting into the garden.

Here in Sacramento we’ve had a little taste of the “false Spring” of February this week, with temperatures in the mid 60’s and the return of the blessed, warming sun! I’ve written about this before; how the first hint of lovely weather brings out the mania in many a gardener. All those undone projects that we’ve been dreaming about as we stare longingly out of frosty windows begin to call to us with their siren song.

But wait! Even the home & garden insert in my weekend paper had a short article on practicing gardener’s restraint, and not getting too carried away with the idea of an early spring planting just yet. Mind the soil temperature. Got it. Go back to planning. Got it.

So boots on, notebook in hand, I set to inspect the garden and make some lists (my favorite thing to do!) to see which projects I can get a head-start on that don’t involve digging in soil.

Ah ha! The Magic Island. My pet project. So close to finished, I can almost smell it.

a glimpse out of the big window, day 1 of home ownership, circa 2009.

This is a central square bed in back yard measuring approximately 8′ x 10′. It is the first thing you see from our picture window which looks out into the garden and to me it sets the tone for the whole mood of the space. When we bought the house I found that what I had inherited in this bed was a bizarre over-grown mass of English ivy, acanthus, some straggly rosemary plants, a decrepit grape vine and a few other ugly things. But I immediately saw it for what it was. A perfect play garden on which my children could create their own world . I had visions of a water feature, sand pit, tropical looking plants and rocky cobble through-out, mimicking a hidden island for my little tribe of lost boys. I just had no idea how to get there, not sure how to make it a reality.

Without going in TOO much detail I’ll briefly outline the steps we took.

Now keep in mind it’s been over 4  years since we bought the house and started work on this idea, so while progress has been slow it has at least been happening. I think at last I can say we are in the final stages.

For starters, instead of trying to dig out the bevy of ugly, invasive plants that resided in this bed we aggressively cut back what we could, and then built up over the plants. Yes, I did use some of the dreaded plastic weed barrier (actually is was a old inflatable swimming pool laid over the unwanted plant growth so… that counts as  recycling my petroleum-based products & keeping them out of the landfill right??) but mostly we used the dirt which was displaced as we dug to shape the areas of the “island” and  bury the ivy etc under 2 plus feet of topsoil.

a closer look at the beastly plants...

a closer look at the beastly plants…

Next we dug out a long area in the front of the bed to serve as the sandbox/play beach. It worked well and looked good, but after a year of battling my cats for litter-box rights and wrestling with locating the water feature on the backside of the bed I did another ‘reshaping’ (I had a very young child still at the time and the little pond form we were using just emanated “drowning hazard” to me. I didn’t like that it was out of sight when they were playing near it) .

We cut the play beach in half, dug out part of it for the pond form to rest in, and built up a waterfall course that we would eventually concrete. Now the sand area and the water feature are right in front where I can easily supervise the kids play.

the large play 'beach', circa 2010.

the large play ‘beach’, circa 2010.

Let me just say here that building this water feature has had it’s own share of challenges and missteps which deserve their own post, but the BEST part of building it was letting my oldest son and his waldorf classmate ‘design’ the thing through their water play, creative problem solving and natural engineering ability. They saw it through a child’s eye and understood how the water would flow and what would happen intuitively in a way that my rational, planning adult’s mind could not so easily have seen. It was wonderful to watch and sparked a feeling in me that the magic of the play island was already beginning to happen.


After defining the waterway and the sand area, we continued to shape the island creating a pathway for the children to get around and over and through the play garden. Remember the whole goal of this area is to make it as child-friendly and play oriented as possible. While I am trying to cultivate a certain look to it (imagine a place with semi-ruins and remains, which a strange nature has now taken over), I want it to be a space for the children to actively use and be able to move around on.

With this is mind we collected large stumps from when our neighbors did some tree work, pieces of concrete slabs from when my dad busted up his patio, and anything else that we could to re-purpose as stepping stones. Building it up I have worked over time when the soil was most pliable (after the rains). Walking over the bed again and again stomping it down; digging and shaping the best places to put your feet, creating areas to sit and interact with the sand and water.

waterfall in progress and some early plantings, circa 2011.

waterfall in progress and some early plantings, circa 2011.


This approach, building up the play space on top of what was originally planted there instead of digging it out completely, has proved to keep most of the tenacious plants in check. They are not eradicated but rather used  to my advantage. The ivy (which is of the smaller more decorative variety) still creeps out here and there, but I like it. The Acanthus (Bear’s Breech) is  dominant in two areas but it adds to the tropical atmosphere with its big glossy leaves and it dies back in winter for some relief. And I have no qualms about cutting it back whenever or wherever I want, because I know I could never kill it, so I shape it as I need.

The day lilies have re-bloomed  in the last few years, a lovely light purple flower that echoes the water lily in the pond which occasionally gives forth a flower. Very tropical! Also growing in the garden around the play space are sedums and other succulents, lambs ear, iris, thyme, a yucca some others and an agave (which yes, are pokey to children but I think teach a healthy respect for being careful with plants!). 


succulents and seashells, my favorite combination…

So that’s it: the bones of it are all there already, just needs a little investment to add the last layer of hardscaping voila finish the magical little island will be real. I am getting excited to see it done! Here is what I wrote on my list of what it still needs:

  • Cocoa mulch – it’s my favorite topdressing for flower gardens. I’ll put it on to ‘finish’ the planters and pots throughout the play island. It smells divine (like chocolate) has a very natural look and decomposes slowly into the soil, building it up over time. Some people don’t like it because you do have to “freshen it up” after a  while and add more on top, but for me it’s a win/win – looks great and adds organic matter.
  • Cobble or River rock – I think I’ll need about a cubic foot on the island. I usually get my bulk landscaping materials from Hastie’s in Sacramento. You can order 2 different materials in one mini-dump truck and for 4 cubic feet, delivery is free. I usually plan my biggest projects simultaneously and order whenever I have the need to get enough. This spring I think I’ll get 1.5 feet of organic compost (mixed with a  1/2 foot of steer manure for extra nitrogen) to dig into all my garden beds, and 2 feet of the cobble to finish the island and any other areas round the property that can use cobble. I love it’s naturalizing look and to me it always adds an earthy touch to any garden bed.

almost perfect, circa Feb. 2013


But alas, all this planning and the sun has set on this football Sunday and I’ve haven’t got nothing done in the garden except reminiscing and daydreaming. But of course that is where everything starts isn’t it and every project has to begin with a dream.

I’m looking forward to the true spring when my family will again come outside to live most of our days in the backyard, gardening and playing. The water will be gurgling down through the little waterfall, the sun will be baking on the hot stones of the rocky mound, and hopefully my children their friends will be enjoying their play space. Lately, when I let my  pet rabbits out into the yard for free time, they gravitate to this spot, and hop right up onto it. And let me tell you, seeing a sweet young bunny frisking about a miniature tropical land – well that’s just about the best sign ever that the magical island project has come to fruition!

Did I mention that the magic island is presided over by Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion? This lovely statuette was given by me to my mother when I was about 8 years old. She came back to me after my mother passed away. The goddess is often shown " pouring a stream of healing water, the "Water of Life," ...(with which) devotees and all living things are blessed with physical and spiritual peace." (via

Did I mention that  island is presided over by Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion? This lovely statuette was given to my mother, by me,  when I was about 8 years old. She came back to me after my mother passed away. The goddess Quan Yin is often shown ” pouring a stream of healing water, the “Water of Life,”…..[with which] devotees and all living things are blessed with physical and spiritual peace.”            (via


12 Responses to “The Magic Island project”

  1. Aunt Diana

    A magical island indeed – and magical to have you back in my internet life. I salute all the magicians that made both happen!

    • ruchapowers

      Yay! I don’t know how it worked out, by I’m glad you got us again. God bless the interwebs.

  2. Jacquelyn Marie

    I love that Kwan Yin presides over your magical garden/island. I have to make the trek up to Sacramento one of these days to see it all. Much love, GMJ

  3. Sandra

    Pretty photos! But oh my gosh – now you are working me up about gardening. I like your list idea…I can handle writing lists for now. Something to do in the meantime!

    • ruchapowers

      Yes! Write lists! I’ll even put things on lists that are already almost done, just for the joy of crossing them off! I keep a garden journal with all these lists and sketches in it and it’s gratifying to look back at them and see how much of it I ultimately achieved… even if it took a few years.

  4. oami powers

    Your whole back yard is like a lush, verdant oasis so OF COURSE you should have a Magical Island. Do you ever wonder what the previous owner, with her tight & tidy beds of roses and ivy would think of it now? The thought makes me laugh!

    • ruchapowers

      Yes, I wonder too. I think of her with gratitude during grape and fig season when we are harvesting the fruits of her labors…but all those damn azaleas? Not so much. Thank you for the compliment of the lush and verdant variety. Right now it seems more like a hillbilly homestead – so much pruning and tidying work to do but I look back on photos as it has grown over the years and I’m encouraged to remember just how lovely the garden will be in it’s summer prime!

  5. spongeystef

    Pray for the well-being of the water. Talk to the water asking to see the healing of God in every droplet – Kuan Yin
    Thanx 4 keeping me close 2 u with this read….xo Stef

    • ruchapowers

      Beautiful quote! I learned my trick of making the most of what you’ve got from you Steffie dear, my gardening mentor.

  6. ursula

    looks fantastic rucha .. i went nuts that superbowl sunday making notes and doing some preliminary gardening. i just planted 3 quince in front and 2 crepe myrtle in back and the next day it snowed. everything pulled through thank the gods. i’ll check out the cocoa mulch sounds great.

  7. Plant Nerd | East Twin West Twin

    […] I finally got to order the load of garden materials I’ve been dreaming about since I wrote this piece about my unfinished garden projects. A dump-truck brought us a huge delivery of river rock plus 2 […]


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