Garden Genius

He works in a most unusual way

By Duffy Kelly
May 2018

Somewhere between the plant kingdom and the world of Homo sapiens resides a very rare specimen: Sacramento landscape architect Donovan Lee. 

This eccentric, nearly nocturnal plant genius-slash-artist is a man for the ages. The Michelangelo of the residential garden may not be too far off a description. 

Over the past 40 years, this UC Berkeley-trained landscape architect has designed more than 2,000 residential gardens in the Sacramento area, hand-drawing intricate, beautiful plans that include all types and styles of plants and hardscapes. His home office is lined with his works of art. Plans are rolled up and piled high along the walls. His closets are filled with drawings so detailed that some show pets lounging in the backyard, even etched glassware and elaborate utensils on the patio dining tables.

Some plans are painted and ablaze in color. Hundreds more are simply filed away not by the homeowner’s name or address but in the order they were created. Files are stuffed with sketches organized chronologically so that Donovan Lee can easily put a finger on a specific plan simply by remembering the day he drew it. Never mind it may have been 35 years ago. He can find it in a snap. He has a mind that puts the computer to shame. He’s a low-tech lover of the arts who prefers everything the old-fashioned way. Case in point? Records show he used a cellphone exactly one time last year.

“People talk about missing craftsmanship. That’s why they collect older things. Maybe I am like an ancient dinosaur,” he says. “Maybe drawing with my hands is harder work than using a machine to do the drawing. But I would rather work with my hands. Do people cook with machines? What’s more valuable? Something made by hand or by machine?”

Donovan Lee is a second-generation Sacramentan. Both his parents are of Chinese descent. “My mother grew up poor on 5th and P streets,” he says.
“There were rats in the house, no air conditioning, no college. I was the first generation to go to college—very fortunate to be born when I was. With racial discrimination, the Chinese could not buy a house in South Land Park until it opened up in the 1960s.” That’s when the family bought the South Land Park home where his 93-year-old mother still lives. His father has since passed away. (Lee bought a house not far from his childhood home.) 

He credits his mother’s love of plants for his passion. “South Land Park landscapes at that time were thrown together,” he explains. “But she cared for plants, and while she was taking me to McClatchy High School, driving through neighborhoods, I would see these very nice yards in Old Land Park. They looked so cheerful and beautiful.” 

After graduating from Cal, Lee moved home and started working part time, drawing backyard designs for a swimming pool company. He made $5 a drawing and was paid an extra $5 if the customer bought the pool project.

His parents’ government jobs did not interest him. He wanted something different. “My father worked for the post office and my mother for the DMV,” Lee says. “I liked that idea of security, but I needed more adventure and wanted to meet more people. 

“Sometimes I would stay up all night drawing a plan. Sometimes I never got paid a penny for a job I did. But money wasn’t my motivation. I wanted to make the world a better place. That’s what I put on my Berkeley application, and that hasn’t changed. I like people, nature, art and psychology. What I do combines all those things.” 

Soon, the homeowners who saw his backyard swimming pool drawings began referring him to friends and neighbors. “It was all word of mouth. I have never advertised,” he says. One referral led to another, and his business grew from Sacramento to the foothills and the Bay Area.

“I wondered at one time, how will I make money? I have no vacation leave, no sick leave, no retirement benefits, but I don’t worry about it. I never worry about paying the bills because I am frugal and I manage my money wisely and, yes, you can succeed in America by working hard.” 

Frugal and quirky, humble and a self-described introvert, Donovan Lee has a style that puts him in the “artist” category. This slight man, all of 123 pounds, loves leftovers and eats the same thing every single day, only changing his lunch selection once a year. In winter, it’s tuna. In summer (because the heat might spoil the tuna), he switches to cold canned spaghetti. “Tomato sauce is good for you,” he says. Why doesn’t he heat the spaghetti? It takes too much time away from creating. Breakfast is always the same: cereal, banana and toast. For his 2 a.m. dinner, he eats the same meat nine nights in a row. (His record is 14 nights, but only because the meat he’d cooked didn’t spoil.) He loves black olives and Lay’s potato chips, which he eats 365 days a year, 366 in leap years. These habits, he says, save time and spare his creative mind from having to come up with new recipes. “I’d rather think about plants,” he says. He sets aside 90 minutes each day for reading the magazines and newspapers he’s subscribed to for more than 30 years.

About 15 years ago, the waiting list for his full-scale design work was a year long and growing. But in about 2008, he came up with an idea: How about spending one entire day on a single project, not leaving the job site until the plans were complete? That would mean interviewing homeowners about their tastes and goals, surveying the site and drawing the whole thing right on the spot. This would become his new business model.

“It’s economical at $65 per hour for the homeowner, and since I’m frugal, I like working with frugal people,” he says. Donovan Lee shows up in the morning with his colored pens and pencils, tape measures, sketch pad, lawn chair and ice chest packed with tuna or canned spaghetti and doesn’t leave the location until very late at night, if not early the next morning. Only occasionally does he come back a second day. “Usually one of the homeowners goes to bed, and the other waits up on the couch until I’m done,” he says. “My record is after 2 a.m.”

More than just a designer, Lee is a plant man who knows as much as anyone about plants. He shows homeowners photo albums of plants and gauges their reaction to colors and garden styles before choosing what would work best for his clients.

“I don’t want to weaken marriages,” he says. “I want to strengthen them.”
Often, a husband and wife want different things, Lee says. “So I have to take what he likes and what she likes and blend that with what I know works and stay away from anything that might offend either party. The end product is a design that’s really a fusion of three different minds.” 

Lee has been known to show up during the planting process and measure how far apart the plants are planted. According to installers Mike and Alex Anicich of Anicich Landscape, Lee will come back years later, point to a plant and say, “I didn’t call for that there. It needs to be moved two inches over.” 

In the past 12 years, Lee has not raised his rates. Asked if he might raise them by even a few dollars, he said, “No way.”

 

Donovan Lee can be reached at (916) 452-5413.

 

Duffy Kelly can be reached at dk@insidepublications.com.

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