From the street, the home looks inviting – with a well-maintained front yard – but it is what you find out the back door that transports you to a place of peace and serenity.
Hidden away, tucked between the Stanislaus River and the street named River Bluff in Oakdale, longtime retired educator Gary Jones has crafted a unique garden retreat.
“I’ve lived here since 2015,” Jones, who moved to Oakdale from Turlock, said about settling in the River Bluff Drive home.
He grew up in the Valley and his career included several years as the assistant superintendent with the Hughson Unified School District as well as part time work teaching at both Modesto Junior College and Stanislaus State.
“It has been two years now that I’ve been completely retired,” Jones said.
And he has spent much of that time turning his backyard, which slopes down from the back porch toward a bluff overlooking the Stanislaus River, into a peaceful garden setting that includes a seating area, work shed, a chicken coop, water fountain … and plans for more.
His sister, Bonnie Jones-Lee, also is an avid gardener with a home along the river and the two were both enrolled in the Master Gardener program offered through the University of California at Davis. The program is overseen in Stanislaus County by Anne Schellman. They were graduates of the first class, which underwent the extensive training from January through June in 2019.
There is a new class for Master Gardeners planned in January 2022 and applications are being taken now; both highly recommend the class, noting that the training is beneficial in many ways. From learning about trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables and insects, the two said the class is a great hands-on experience and teaches the way to approach gardening for the best chance at success in the Central Valley.
Happy to promote the UC Davis-based training, Jones said he and his sister have staffed booths at the Oakdale and Modesto farmer’s markets to provide information about the Master Gardener program.
For Jones, the backyard garden gem wasn’t formally sketched out. Much like a garden, it took root and grew from there.
“It just kind of happened,” agreed Jones. “My first thing was I needed to do something to get down (the backyard slope), so we put the stairs in first.”
The back porch runs the length of the house, leading to the stairs. Fashioned with railroad ties, the stairs take you down to a couple of different terraced levels of garden greenery. The railroad ties, Jones said, were purchased both at Conlin Supply in Oakdale and at Modesto Feed.
His brother-in-law Alvin Lee put together a garden shed so there was plenty of room for Jones to work. Known as a cord house because the shed is roughly the size that would fit a cord of wood inside, there are cedar rounds incorporated into the design. The rounds are cut from wood that was reclaimed from burned out trees on property that Jones has in the Sierras. The door is also unique; in its previous life it was a classroom door at Magnolia Elementary School in Oakdale.
“That inspired me to get things going and I just kept adding stuff,” Jones noted of having the cord house/garden shed with his tools nearby. “It’s just so peaceful … I spend a minimum of an hour and a half out here every day … being retired, I’m able to do that.”
Close enough to the river to enjoy a cooling breeze, Jones also said the backyard affords him a view of a variety of wildlife, from foxes to deer to plenty of raccoons.
The garden features a number of flowers, trees and just outside the gate are berry bushes with berries ripe for the picking. A recent add-on was the chicken coop, with some young Rhode Island Red chicks that should be providing eggs by this fall.
Both Jones and his sister said the interest in gardening was instilled by their grandmother, as well as a great aunt and uncle who were farmers in Northern California.
“We spent a lot of time there,” Jones said of the farm. “And our other sister is also a gardener.”
That sister, Karen Bonzi, lives in Turlock.
“We need more gardens, it’s a way to provide plants for the insects and birds, and there are plants that can be put in that are water wise and sustainable,” added Bonnie.
Jones does not use pesticides in his garden, preferring to go the organic route.
The Oakdale Garden Club Fall Tour, being planned for Oct. 9, will include a stop at the River Bluff home of Jones. He plans to stay busy until then to make sure the garden is ready for its day on display. He is also part of a group working with the City of Oakdale to establish a community garden that would feature vegetables as well as flowers. While there is a lot of paperwork to do in connection with that effort, Jones said he hopes eventually the idea will come to fruition.
For now, however, he enjoys the time spent tending to all that grows outside his own back door.
“Typically, there’s always something blooming out here,” Jones summarized. “It’s like my little paradise.”