Remembering My Brother

Harland Hand [1922-1998], inspired by the principles of fine art and rock formations in the High Sierra, designed this hillside garden with breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay.

Using concrete, curving lines and dramatic color combinations, Hand created an emotionally evocative space that houses an extraordinary plant collection.

Remembering My Brother Harland Hand by Lou Schley

Lou ca. 1939 in Harland Hand's first garden

My brother Harland Hand was born in 1922 in southern Minnesota in an amusement park owned by his parents. I will tell you about the location, situation and timing because I believe all of these things played a role in the development of Harland's talents, skills and ultimately his successful vocation in garden design.

Our Dad. Ernest Hand, in 1893 at age 17 began his summer resort/amusement park business on the lakeshore in the far corner of Grandfather's farm. By the time Harland arrived on the scene, Hand's Park consisted of a dance pavilion, a baseball park, swimming beach with rides and slides, fishing boats, a 10 bedroom family home/country inn with public dining room, picnic and camp grounds. Hand's Park had frontage on both South Silver Lake and North Silver Lake (please note the names of the lakes)

In the early 1900s the amusement park business was booming in the nation and despite its very rural location, business was booming at Hand's Park as well. Hundreds and even thousands of people came to see baseball games, dance, fish, enjoy the beach, and see the wide array of weekly entertainment. Our Dad was a true entrepreneur, great promoter and consistent advertiser in the local newspapers. Dad was always thinking of and looking for new ideas and tried many of them--some were successful, some were not, some were just ahead of their time. His audacity and tenacity had to be admired. The Park continued to survive in the family for over 80 years, through good times and tough times like the Depression, the devastating tornado of 1936, W.W. I and II, the polio epidemic of the 1940s, and the changing trends in entertainment. Changes and adjustments were made accordingly but Dad's motto was "Keep on Keeping On" and Mom's favorite quotation was "Where there is a will there is a way". She used that on us kids quite often when we thought a task too hard.  

Most employees were relatives, friends and neighbors but this was the family business and every family member was expected to work, doing whatever his or her size and capability could handle. Age and what sex we were didn't seem to make much difference, there was always something we could do. Harland said he could make change at age 6 and so could I. As we grew up we had to help take care of customers at the refreshment stands, wait on tables, manage the beach, lifeguard, help prepare food, tend bar (we didn't serve alcohol), get bait for and rent boats to fisherman, always run errands, and do anything needed, at any time, for anybody. But our parents also assigned jobs according to our personal talents and interests and we learned skills as necessary.

Harland's bent toward art and his interest in flowers and plants were obvious at a very early age. At age 8 he made his first garden in the backyard using wild flowers. Each Spring we went across the Lake to "the woods" to look at and pick some wild flowers-- blood root, anemones, sweet rocket, trilliums, violets Dutchman’s breeches and jack in the pulpits. "The woods" was an inspiring place to Harland and he loved to go there.  

At age 10 Harland started his first major rock garden. He was a member of the local 4-H Club along with most other rural kids at that time. 4-H Clubs were wonderful for teaching young people basic skills for homemaking and farming--sewing, baking, canning, raising livestock, conservation, gardening and even public presentation and speaking. Each year members were required to choose a special project to accomplish. The results of their efforts competed at the County Fair and the winners competed at State level. Our sister Fran decided to raise a calf (for which she won a blue ribbon). Harland decided to build a garden which he envisioned in the ravine that ran down the lake bank beside the house.  

I doubt if Harland, at that point, at the age of ten, realized the enormity of the task he was undertaking to fulfill his vision of a beautiful flower garden in that unsightly area. The ravine was gradually being filled in with ashes from the old stoves, garbage and debris. At some later date, I assume our Dad intended to cover the area with dirt and grass. But to build the garden, Harland had to first remove the garbage and debris, move the soil around to contour the land and bring rocks up from the lake shore to terrace the area for flower beds before he could even start to plant a garden. I assume that a couple of Park employees helped him move dirt and rocks with a horse and "stoneboat" and equipment earlier used to build the baseball field. Building the garden was a long process throughout his teen years. At age 12 he won the State Golden Walgreen Award for his project.  

Harland and Uncle Louie, who was a carpenter and mason, built a lily pool at the top of the hill and another at the bottom of the garden. The top pool was made of concrete and field stones with a shallow ledge on one side for marsh plants. The rest of the pool was deeper for water lilies and goldfish. Frogs were also frequent inhabitants. He planted a weeping willow on one side so it gracefully reflected in the water.

The pool at the bottom of the garden was rectangular with a semicircle bay in the center on one side. Uncle Ellery, a carpenter and blacksmith, built an arch across the length of the pool with a birdhouse at the center top. The archway provided a trellis for vines. The shape of the pool echoed the shape of the arch and bird house.

When Harland was about 18 and I was about 5, we took the old truck and drove 60 miles to Mankato to get more flagstone so he could complete permanent paths and steps by cementing the rocks in place. The paths were relatively straight in order to transport people who were in a hurry from one area to another without the temptation to cut across the flower beds. However, the steps were different lengths as they proceeded down the hill. Some were long and leisurely; some were short and steep so one had to slow down and look down. Perhaps these differences were of necessity due to the lay of the land but I think Harland purposely designed them that way. If one walked quickly, they seemed to have a certain cadence or rhythm. As a young person, I went up and down the steps so many times from the house to the beach, that I can still almost remember the beat.  

I shall always remember the wonderful fragrances as I walked through-- peonies, phlox, regal lilies and roses. As a little girl, I loved to sit by the lily pool on a sunny summer day and listen to the birds, watch the butterflies, and smell the flowers.

And the flowers--the flowers! I have no idea how many kinds there were. There were wild flowers, bulbs, perennials, shrubs and annuals in so many different colors and varieties. Harland used money he earned working at the Park and at the local flower shop after school to purchase plants. Of course our Mother and Aunt Mary contributed to the cause and helped with the upkeep. They ordered plants from the seed catalogs and relatives and friends who knew about his passion shared their plants with him. When completed the garden was approximately 165 feet long and varied in width from about 48 feet at the top of the hill to about 24 feet at the bottom of the lake bank.

The marriage of Harland's artistic talent and his love for plants was already evident in this garden. The plants were mixed together throughout the garden in various colors, shapes and sizes. In this garden, however, he would have to confess that he followed the garden rules of order and conformity a little bit. There was a "bed of roses," one "row" of sedum and a "border" hedge on one side--words never to be used again to describe Harland's gardens. The rest of the garden was a naturalized mixture of many varieties and colors organized so they all looked like they always happily lived together.  

This was farm country where all crops and vegetables were in orderly rows. Of course this was a necessity for farmers so they could keep fields and gardens free of weeds and be able to drive equipment in the field without crushing the productive crops. Flowers were allowed to be planted in one row next to the vegetables or a variety of flowers and shrubs were planted around the house to hide the concrete foundation. 

Also this was the era that included the Great Depression and buying flowers was considered an unnecessary luxury for most people. But this was a Park and parks were supposed to be beautiful with flowers so what a perfect place for Harland to be born. He could totally exploit his passion without criticism.  

Many Park customers walked through the garden. Mom made sure most customers knew about her son and the garden and escorted many through it herself. The question was, How would people from the land-of-order and beds, borders and rows react to this huge, rather odd flower garden with such a mixture of plants? The answer was--They loved it and lavished compliments on Harland and they were intrigued by the accomplishment of such a young man.  

Harland loved to draw and paint so he took art classes in high school and college. He made large oil paintings which Uncle Ellery framed and hung on the walls to decorate the dance hall/supper club. He liked to paint with watercolors and sometimes took me with him to paint landscapes near our home. During the War while he was in Europe, he painted watercolor pictures of villages and the countryside.  

As a teenager, one of Harland's jobs at home (besides waiting tables and tending bar) was to make floral arrangements for the tables for the large banquets held in the dance hall/supper club. He used flowers from his garden, wildflowers and weeds in very artistic arrangements. One group of businesspeople picked the bouquets apart and took the flowers home. None of the other people ever did that. Harland was upset. But the next time this group had a banquet, Harland again made very lovely arrangements, however, this time he used thistles found in the road ditches. No one bothered the arrangements again.  

Harland started college at the University of Minnesota but was drafted into the Army during WW II. While he was away, Mother and Aunt Mary took care of the garden and they continued to take care of it after he moved to California to attend U.C. Berkeley. When Harland moved to California, he drove through the most impressive area he had ever encountered--the glacial washes of the High Sierra near Carson Pass. Ironically, this area included a small pristine lake named Silver Lake (the same name as the lakes of his childhood). This area became Harland's greatest inspiration for his future gardens.  

When he purchased the home on the hill overlooking San Francisco Bay he wanted to build a garden that looked somewhat like that awesome place in the High Sierra. But it was financially impossible at that time, if not physically impossible to transport enough gray granite from that area to El Cerrito. But Harland had a passion and he had already accomplished one monumental task of building a garden on a hillside. Here again he envisioned a beautiful flower garden on a difficult site. But this site was larger and had 49 Eucalyptus trees to remove, soil had to be contoured and rocks dug up and moved. But he thought concrete could be used to look somewhat like the boulders and slabs in the Sierra. So using the skills he learned from Uncle Louie working with concrete and his own artistic knowledge, talent and skills he began mixing concrete and building and sculpting paths, steps and natural looking benches. Again, I doubt if at that point, Harland totally realized the magnitude of this endeavor and the tons and tons of concrete, and the number of working hours required to complete the whole hillside lot. But he was already prepared for the work that would be needed: he did it before, he could do it again and Mom's quotation probably still rang in his ear: "Where there is a will, there is a way." This time he did not follow any rules of order and conformity, he followed his own theories and ideas. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley majoring in art and science. The theories of San Francisco abstract expressionism gave him new insight to manipulate space, provoke emotional impact and refine his design ideas. In the garden overlooking San Francisco Bay and in gardens he designed for others later, he tried to incorporate his ideas and theories about art into every aspect and area of the gardens. Harland's challenge to plant enthusiasts was to be creative and produce gardens as their own works of fine art. And his challenge to artists was to consider working with a living medium and a dirt canvas to compose awesome gardens. Underneath all his ideas and theories was his belief that plants should be the residents, stars, and governors of the gardens, because, simply put in his favorite definition, "A garden is a place for plants."