Magical Garden Provides Repose and Joy

John and Gloria
John Ari Stepp and Gloria Jackson have turned their Mountain View Eichler home and garden into a magical place that provides them with a private retreat while entertaining neighbors who enjoy their playful front yard. Photos by Dave Weinstein

There is much to see in the front yard of John Ari Stepp and Gloria Jackson’s Eichler home in Mountain View. A large snake-like creature curls through branches, a protruding tongue startling passersby. Hearts dangle from trees. A multi-hued tiki grins.

An immense purple-flowered jacaranda looms overhead, and hundreds of other plants totally obscure the couple's home from the street.

Gong in garden
The garden contains several gongs, including one on the street that attracts music-making neighborhood kids and their parents.

But neighborhood children ignore the many distractions to hone in on one item – a small gong that they are allowed to bong – once, twice, three times. But that is all they allowed. Everything has its limits.

But how about the garden itself, which Gloria says represents “over 30 years of just determined gardening”?

“We have thousands and thousands of different varieties of plants,” she says: American maple and banyan trees, “about 30 different varieties of trees, and probably about the same for perennials,” John adds. “And then the annuals, maybe hundreds.”

Gazing balls, models of butterflies, lady bugs, and more occupy a sort of creature mound that John constructed in the home's side yard.

“I mean, we have plants from the snow country. We have plants from the tropics,” Gloria says. Gloria, a teacher, used to walk her students through the garden, map in hand. “We went around our garden, and we had plants from all over the world.”

And it’s not just plants. Early on John, a pioneering arborist who worked for decades caring for trees for Caltrans, and with his own tree service, wanted a serious garden with greenery, eschewing bright colors. When he and Gloria bought the house, the garden was barren.

“I'd say it started out as a Zen garden. I was after tranquility,” says John, who created the entire garden on his own, with occasional help – creating hardscape, bridges, mounds, rock landscapes, pools and water features, forests.

John opens one of the home's added skylights, which is another way of integrating inside with out. Flowered limbs growing over the house can be viewed through the skylights.

But Gloria began bringing in plastic toys, leprechauns, “all kinds of dragons and various balls,” she says. Oh, and many, many figurines of dogs and cats.

“I was opposed to it in the beginning,” John says. "I didn't want color in the garden. I wanted it to be more like a traditional Japanese-growing area. But I relented, really on my own, like I was planting more colorful things. But then she [Gloria] started bringing in tchotchkes.”

Goofy, no? As goofy as anything can be that requires John to spend three or four hours a day to tend the place.

But talking to the couple, who have previously lived in two other Eichlers – where they raised two daughters, before moving into their current home in 1988 in the Monta Loma tract – it soon becomes clear that their garden has a serious side as well.

Another creature that has taken up life in the front of the home is this spider.

John, after all, is a big-picture kind of guy, author of the 658-page book ‘Forest Primeval: A Tree Trimmer’s Guide to the Universe.’

There are political postings in the garden favoring the Black Lives Matter movement. “You know,” John says, “they're trying to take away people's right to vote. That's not right. Let your voice be heard.”

“All my work says America is for dreamers,” he says, referring to the young immigrants brought to this country as children who are benefitting from the "deferred action" program. “They’re trying to take DACA away,” he complains of the Republicans.

And locking up immigrants at the border? “It's not so nice when they started locking kids in cages, man.”

John grew up in the nearby mountain hamlet of Skylonda. His dad was a firefighter, then an arborist for Caltrans. John learned to build “from my dad's knee. I learned everything,” he says.

Enlisting in the Army at 18, John served in Vietnam and studied “Nike Hercules electronics, and became a Nike Hercules electronics specialist.”

The garden changes wherever you go on the property. Here, walkways provide passage.

Yes, after mustering out he could have pursued a career in electronics or defense, solid Silicon Valley careers. But John had another idea.

“I chose to try to save the world by planting trees.” He has advocated successfully for saving nearby trees that have been threatened by development, and advises neighbors on tree planting and care.

John and Gloria’s Eichler, with original mahogany walls, integrates well with the garden. Gloria has worked her own magic inside, painting murals on walls – and floors. Joyful cat figurines and stained glass add to the interior, and skylights and houseplants ease the distinction between inside and out.

The garden both grows with the times, and comments on the times.

“Over decades, the times became more and more dire for the country,” John says. “And the news just kept getting worse and worse. I found myself planting flowers,” and making their garden more bright.

“And eventually, after all this business with Trump and with the Covid and all this horrible stuff, I kept planting more and more flowers. So now it's turned into a combination English country garden and Japanese meditation garden.”


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