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California's 'Toad Hall' a dream world

Chinese garden latest addition to truly international property

Most travellers bring home souvenirs.

In their globetrotting, John and Peg Poswall collect ideas, then transplant them to their home and gardens.

"We see something we like and we think, 'We could do that,' " said John Poswall, as he surveyed the view from his turret. "And we do."

That's why their home - nicknamed Toad Hall - looks like a castle complete with a 40-foot circular stone tower. Inside the tower is a circular library, packed with thousands of books.

With a nod to Poswall's native England, the house has its own Stonehenge, overlooking a well-stocked five-acre pond. Nearby are massive Chinese gates, the entrance to his newest creation.

"When I bought this property, I wanted a view and a pond," he said. "I got both."

Their view now includes bits of Europe, Mexico and Asia, woven together with whimsy on 50 oak-studded acres in the hills outside Lincoln, California.

Poswall calls his creations the Gardens of Springhill. So far, he has 18 gardens, all pulled from far-flung inspirations.

"They're not meant to be faithful reproductions or replicas, but were inspired by these other places," he said.

Most of the work Poswall did himself, often starting without a plan on paper, but just an idea. The gardens fit together in a colourful and surprising patchwork.

"In the evening, Peg and I sit out here on the deck and say, 'Can you believe we have this?' " Poswall said.

Among Sacramento's best-known attorneys as well as a novelist, Poswall created his own retreat full of fun and memories. Peg Tomlinson Poswall is a renowned food expert, writer and former restaurateur. Together, they love to entertain.

"We like putting people around a table, talking and having a good time," said Peg, while stirring a large pan of tomatillo sauce for a taco party.

Her well-equipped professional kitchen could host a cooking show. The fourth Sunday of each month, she and John get together with fellow foodies for a themed dinner, she explained.

"You'd think it would be nice and relaxed, but we're all serious foodies," Peg said. "It's a throwdown."

The couple's energy is legendary and contagious.

"Peg and John constitute an impact couple," said friend Mike Dunne, The Sacramento Bee's former food editor. "They get an idea, develop a vision, and then see it through to completion, whether it be a book, garden, restaurant, dinner party or whatever.

"I'm not sure where all their gumption comes from, but I've been struck by their persistently upbeat attitude," Dunne added. "They like to laugh."

Besides travelling and working on myriad projects, the Poswalls are both active fundraisers for local charities.

"[They're] the Central Valley's true Renaissance couple," said author John Lescroart, another longtime friend. "John and Peg continually push the envelope in what constitutes the good life and how to live it graciously and meaningfully.

"Their home and gardens somehow manage to be as welcoming as they are inspiring," Lescroart added. "The circular turret library alone is worth the visit.

"And the garden is simply stunning - a tribute to the couple's vision and imagination," he said. "It is perhaps the most impressive private garden planted anywhere in California in the past decade - or more."

While Peg keeps cooking, John is finishing his third novel and, of course, gardening.

The son of an Indian father and British mother, he moved from England to Marysville, California, when he was 10 years old. Growing up, he picked fruit along with his parents.

Poswall bought the property about 20 years ago after he was diagnosed with leukemia. His cancer remains in remission.

His gardens are a return to nature.

The latest addition to their wonderland is a spectacular cross-cultural Asian blend named Yu Shan Hua Yuan, the Garden of Mountain Happiness. More than 300 friends and fellow garden lovers recently celebrated its dedication.

"It was two years in the making," Poswall said. "But of course, it's not done."

That garden started with a gift from friend Darrell Corti - a 1772 first edition of Dissertation on Oriental Gardening by English architect Sir William Chambers.

That prompted Poswall's imagination and travel plans. He and Peg travelled to Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, China's city of gardens. They found just the right glazed roof tile for the garden's structures and plenty of other ideas.

Estimated at 50 tonnes, that massive stone serves as a focal point inside equally massive gates, modelled after the entrance door to the back garden of the Imperial City.

A natural stream winds through the garden, connecting bridges, groves and a hidden garden.

China is just one stop on the Poswalls' world tour.

An Italian garden - complete with bocce court - traces its roots to a vacation in Tuscany.

Grapevines cover a large arbour over a 17-foot dining table made from a single plank of rough-hewn redwood.

A trip to Palermo inspired the Sicilian garden that traverses a 400-foot walkway, lined with cypress, fountains and statuary.

Each garden has its own personality. Most are dedicated to family or friends.