Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 3, 2013

Katsy Swan

The Midpeninsula's garden designer

by Elena Kadvany

Katsy Swan traces her love of flower arranging and gardening back to her years at the University of Kentucky, where botany was her favorite class and she turned down a date with a long lusted-after boy to gather wild bittersweet flowers with her father.

"My mother said, 'You have to be kidding! You've wanted to see this guy for months and now here you are saying no,' Swan recalled. "I said, 'I know. But this is more important.'"

Swan, one of this year's six Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement honorees, has left her mark on the Midpeninsula garden scene, both public and private. She has designed the Stanford Hospital gardens and taken on many private projects.

Swan left her hometown of Lexington, Ky., after graduating from college in 1956 to teach school in Coronado, Calif., where she met her husband, Ben. After moving to Swarthmore, Pa., so he could finish his degree at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, the two moved back to California. They have lived in the same Palo Alto home for 48 years.

While raising her three children, who all attended Palo Alto High School, Swan volunteered for the Palo Alto PTA. She also started doing flower arranging as a volunteer activity for the Committee for Art at Stanford, creating flower displays for the The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts (formerly known as the Stanford University Museum of Art), the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery and various fundraisers in the area.

But she got her big break arranging flowers and revamping the gardens at the official Stanford presidential home, Hoover House.

"The gardens at Hoover House are seen by so many people because that's where they entertain all of their donors," Swan said. "So the donors wanted to know who did their flowers and who did their garden."

This exposure helped Swan develop a wealthy clientele throughout the Bay Area, for whom she went to the flower market at 4 a.m. to purchase and condition flowers and then to their houses to decorate and plant.

But she soon realized that many projects needed more than just a garden re-do.

"I'd get there (to a client's house), and the driveway would be in the wrong place or the deck was in the wrong place, and I would recommend a landscape architect. So I called a landscape architect friend two or three times, and by the third time he said, 'You need to go get your landscape architecture degree.'"

She started taking night classes at the University of California Berkeley in between tending to Hoover House and other clients' gardens.

Hoover House was also the catalyst for Swan's involvement in the Stanford Hospital gardens project. Helen Bing, a major Stanford donor who often had dinner at the house, was serving on an art committee at the hospital at the time.

"(Bing) walked in to go to her first meeting and saw that the landscaping was terrible. She called me and said, 'If my husband Peter says yes, will you come re-landscape this hospital? It's a mess.'"

That was 1989. Every year since, Swan has worked on re-landscaping some portion of the gardens, projects that are completely paid for with donations from Bing. Most recently, Swan worked on the main entry way to the new hospital.

"It's probably the most rewarding thing that I do," Swan said about the hospital gardens. "You do a lot of beautiful private gardens. I do gardens in Hillsborough and Woodside and all over the Bay Area. But those people, I think because they're wealthy, they don't see them as much."

She also designed the UCSF Cancer Center courtyard garden and the Earth Sciences Courtyard at Stanford.

But Swan's gardening expertise is not just for the wealthy. She also volunteers at local nonprofit Gamble Garden and the Palo Alto Garden Club, giving lectures and teaching gardening classes.

"They (participants) have access to me without hiring me," she said. "If they just want ideas, they can come to my classes."

Swan has also raised money for Gamble Garden for the past 10 years by taking donation-based tours to famous gardens in England, Wales, Scotland, Italy and France.

She continues to design and landscape, with no plans to slow down anytime soon.

"All my other friends are traveling and playing bridge and going for walks and things like that, and I don't ever envy them. That's how I know I'm doing what I want to do. I just love what I do. It's all a challenge."

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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