Modern Gardening: Rooted in Chinese Culture

Chi-minded gardening dynamo turns her Davis Streng home into a tranquil healing haven

huei youngIn Davis a hard-working woman in a broad-brimmed red hat has transformed her Streng home into a tranquil space for meditation and healing—if lipstick-red couches can be considered tranquil. Now, Huei Young plans to similarly transform her other home, an Eichler in Palo Alto.

With their open plans and walls of window that open to the outdoors, both houses make ideal canvasses for Huei's personal though very community-oriented designs. She hasn't been working on her Streng home for 15 years simply to create something beautiful. Her goal is deeper—to provide family and friends with health and prosperity through feng shui, by harnessing the power of chi, that vital energy force that scientists are unable to detect but that she feels so strongly.

"Everybody who comes to my home," Huei declares, "it's a benefit to them." Many agree, including Stephen Chroniak, who experienced the benefits after his first hour in her garden. "I was totally in awe of the sense of peace," he says. "There was an almost tangible sense of peace flowing from the garden into the house."

A visit to Huei's garden suggests the degree to which Streng and Eichler homes can be transformed by a personal vision rooted in Chinese culture without compromising their modern Californian aesthetic. It can also provide practical tips about gardening large in a small space—not to mention spiritual inspiration. "Everything has a reason," Huei says of her décor both inside and out. "It looks simple, but it's very complex."

Huei's aesthetic is far from strictly 'modern'—her sense of design is intensely personal, owing more to Chinese philosophy than to the tenets of European modernism or Frank Lloyd Wright. But the way she has transformed two modern California homes suggests just how resilient, and how very Asian, such homes really are.

inside huei's home

Huei, as everyone calls her, remembers what an architect friend advised her 15 years ago, when she thought about remodeling her Streng house. "Huei," he said, "go for it."Huei, 59, is a dynamo of a woman, a horticulturalist, self-taught interior designer, cook, and mini-real estate magnate who is hampered not at all by a thick accent. She has won fame in Davis, which is opened to the public on garden tours to benefit Davis Community Meals, STEAC (Short Term Emergency Aid Committee), the Davis Arboretum, and the nonprofit Pence Gallery. She also opens the garden for private tours by arrangement, also to benefit these causes.

"She saw her garden as not only something she would enjoy, but as something that had a wider connection to the community," Chroniak says. The garden was also the lead garden in the recent book 'Great Gardens in Small Spaces: California Havens.' "Such a small yard," Huei brags. "I make it so big."

When Huei and Frank Young, her husband of 36 years, moved into their new Streng home in 1980, the backyard was bare. They added a lawn and a few trees. Huei was too busy raising a pair of boys, Jesse, now 28, and Cliff, 26, to spend much time in the yard. It wasn't until 1990 that she really turned her attention to the house.

Today her garden is an ever-changing paradise that wraps around the house and seems to come inside. Huei has opened up the already relatively open Streng design with new windows and sliding glass doors. "The main thing is the flow, just like my house," she says. "When you flow well, that means you're full of energy."

Huei spends five hours most mornings in her garden—this is after jogging with her friend Judith Blum—weeding, clipping, watering, planting, and often meditating. "Huei can meditate while busy," Blum says. "Jung used to say that tilling the garden is like tilling the soul." When Huei works in the garden she often thinks of her late father, a calligrapher and pilot in Taiwan, who loved to garden but didn't have enough room. He and Huei's mother passed their love of plants onto their daughter. "This was in his dream," she says of her garden. "I fulfilled his dreams."

Her garden is ever-changing, but the theme remains the same. Visitors enter along the side, beneath a freeform trellis and a parade of red Chinese lanterns providing a sense of pageantry and prosperity. Bamboo poles in diamond patterns in the wisteria also provide a sense of peace. Australian ferns add lovely scents that drift into the front bedroom. The mirrors that are everywhere in the garden and the home, she says, enhance the energy flow by reflecting chi.