In the garden of John and Ann Morris, the hills have eyes. So do many trees and bushes. What would you expect in a Troll Knoll?
Hundreds of unblinking eyes dot tree trunks in their Funny Face Forest. Guarded by rust-colored dragons, large glowing eyes stare out from grassy mounds. Along a walkway amid Romanesque “ruins,” bright white eyes transform ordinary shrubs into mammoth geckos or smiling bears.
That’s not counting all the watchful eyes of Greek gods, giant ants and wandering dinosaurs.
Some creatures are immediately recognizable. Others take a moment to put the eyes with the face.
Any pair of found round things – headlights, balls, rocks – can become peepers if put in the right place, John Morris notes. They don’t even have to be round. Strategically positioned windows create faces on every building, too.
“Kids see (the faces) right away,” he says with a knowing wink. “Adults take longer to get the idea.”
That sense of whimsy powers Troll Knoll, a 20-acre Penn Valley retreat created by the couple for their own enjoyment. They occasionally open their private wonderland to visitors, too.
“By my count, we’ve had 60,000 guests see the garden,” Morris says with his soft Mississippi drawl. “Lots of them come back again and again. You can’t see the whole place in one day. I have a lot of fun taking people through.”
Now, their magical garden is the subject of a new book, “Troll Knoll: A Garden Like No Other,” (Xlibris, 260 pages, $40; $9.99 e-book), with scores of photos by Morris and text by former Sacramento Bee garden writer Dick Tracy.
“The garden is an intentional thing,” says Morris, who shot more than 157,000 photos of the garden for his book. “I keep working on it.”
Tracy says he “was blown away by the garden” when he first saw it in 2004. “I told John, you have to write a book!”
Morris preferred to take photos, so Tracy eventually did the writing. They worked together for five years, meeting every Wednesday, until the book was finished.
Morris hopes the book inspires other gardeners to have more fun.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people knew they could do this themselves?” he says. “It all comes down to the details. That’s what brings out the magic.”
Imagination and love fill this Sierra foothill oasis. With his ready sense of humor, Morris serves as the resident troll. Wearing a top hat, he greets guests and waves a wooden staff topped by a carved dog’s head in honor of his beloved boxers Plato and Poppy.
“I grumble,” he explains. “I can live under a bridge. I’m a card-carrying troll.”
A retired lawyer with medical degrees, Morris made this garden his passion. He and his wife do just about all the work themselves.
“My doctors told me I had only six months to live,” he recalls. “I was 46, but under so much stress and pressure. So I quit my job.”
Morris, now 72, never regretted that decision. “Some people have a home with a garden,” he says. “We have a garden with a home. A garden is a sanctuary, and that’s what this is: our sanctuary.”
That peace comes with a healthy sense of humor. So far, Morris has created 119 garden vignettes, “conceptual metaphors” and three-dimensional puns. Knitting together so many divergent themes, Troll Knoll has its own mythology, peopled by Morris with Far Western Rinkydinks and Wackerbacks. For clueless grown-ups, he posted explanations.
Wooden fish gliding down a hillside? That’s a “salmon run.” A vineyard spirals into an “amazing grapes” maze. In their own “ghost town,” skeletons work the “graveyard shift.”
“I’m trying to get things to balance and at the same time, make a joke,” he says. “If a garden can’t be fun, it’s not really a garden. I’ve had a lot of fun creating this.”
The couple started their garden with a blackened canvas. This swath of Penn Valley was devastated in 1988 by the 49er Fire, which torched 33,700 acres and 148 homes. Their home site was part of the burn area.
“All that was here were five straggly oak trees that somehow survived,” says John Morris, who bought the property in 1991. “Everything else, we planted.”
A grove of 50-foot redwoods began as 6-foot transplants. “I thought one day they’ll get tall enough to hide the power lines,” Ann Morris says. “Look at them now.”
When they first saw the site, she liked the view – a sweeping 360-degree vista from the Sierra to the Siskiyou – and that was enough.
But there weren’t a lot of things out here to do, she recalls. Her husband took care of that.
“I was retired, left home alone while my lady was at work,” he says. “I needed to exercise. I kept busy.”
A Lodi, Calif., native, Ann Morris met her future husband while both studied at Harvard University. They married in 1972 and spent years working in his native Mississippi and France while also traveling extensively. It took a few decades to persuade her husband to move to Northern California.
“I knew I always wanted to come back to California,” she says.
A longtime financial officer at health institutions, she still was commuting to Sacramento when they first moved into their hilltop house.
While she worked each day, he created “destinations” and framed vistas to entertain her as well as himself.
“That’s what elevates a garden from just plants to something special,” John Morris says. “They have points of interest, distinct places to see. They have destinations within the garden.”
To help his wife “unwind” after she got home, John Morris created the “High Heel Walk,” a scent-filled path that winds down the hill past hundreds of rose bushes, rosemary and lavender. It leads to a dramatic fountain surrounding the Three Graces, one of many Greek- and Roman-inspired statues.
“This walk is concrete so Ann wouldn’t have to change out of her business attire,” he explains. “We could take a couple of glasses of wine and stroll down to a patio. The Three Graces? That’s Ann – beauty, mirth and elegance. She inspires me to do everything.”
Ann Morris is used to her husband’s flowery devotion. “We both enjoy the garden,” she says. “This is where we spend our time.”
Eventually, his “destinations” got bigger and more elaborate. The biggest represents a whole 1800s foothill mining town with several full-size buildings.
“I thought there’s a Marysville and a Susanville, there ought to be an Annsville, so I built one,” John Morris says as he surveyed his pioneer main street. “It’s another tribute to my wife.”
Outfitted with vintage decorations such as antique carriages and mining equipment, each building has its own purpose (and faces). The “library” houses his collection of garden books. The “hotel” serves as guest cottage. Guarded by the skeleton crew, “2 Dog Mine” holds their wine cellar. Street lights and thousands of LEDs illuminate the town at night.
But it’s only one stop on the Troll Knoll loop. Almost three miles of paved paths lead to many destinations. There’s a nine-hole golf course (no grass, all sand traps) and a lawn mower racetrack. A flock of plastic flamingos nests at Pinky’s Trailer Park featuring three vintage Airstream trailers.
Eight ponds, a towering flume, a series of man-made streams and dozens of fountains flow with recycled water. Cottages, pavilions and patios offer places to rest, listen and admire all the details layered into the landscape.
Humongous tomatoes, corn and eggplant – all cast in concrete and weighing hundreds of pounds – lead the way to the vegetable garden. “I got tired of everybody else having bigger vegetables than me,” John Morris explains.
In a citrus orchard, metallic “guard pigs” sprout wings – because anything can happen when pigs fly.
“I’m not supposed to be able to grow oranges up here,” he notes with a broad smile. “I’ve got 42 citrus trees plus a lot of other fruit.”
That’s in addition to 3,500 roses, 1,700 ornamental trees and hundreds of shrubs, many of them propagated from seed or cuttings by his wife.
“She’s the one who really has the green thumb,” he says.
There’s still romance among their “ruins,” Ann Morris adds. There’s no place they’d rather be.
“The sunsets are really incredible,” she says. “You look out to the west and it’s just beautiful.”
After dark, the twinkling lights of Annsville appear, adding sparkle to their private paradise.
“You’ve really got to see the space ships,” John Morris says. “They’re right behind the trailer park. They look best at night.”
Of course, they have eyes, too.
Want to visit?
Ask about a visit to Troll Knoll near Sacramento, Calif., buy searching online for Troll Knoll and sending an email.