I have a little garden. It is the most closely watched patch of earth in my experience. My attention is born on an interest in obsession and in horticulture. When I go out with a cup of coffee or a book, I find myself on my hands and knees in no time, weeding, or just looking at the progress of some slow-growing miniature ivy, or an orchid stalk, or a delirium tremens of ants. Where there are ants there is trouble.
Jean Genet wrote, “The most beautiful flower in the garden was the gardener.” It was with affection for the gardener that I decided to visit some San Diego gardens in early March. The gardens I chose are at least occasionally open to the public as parts of tours led by the San Diego Floral Association.
SALLY LONG Sally is a petite woman with a sense of order about her. Perhaps she’s in her late 40s. Her speech is precise, and her garden, which contains 280 roses, conveys an impression of order. It is a rose garden, and Sally is a rose person.
Sally collects rose sculptures and artifacts, paints roses, speaks about them at garden clubs, judges rose shows. She belongs to ten rose societies, and she writes a bulletin out of the East County Rose Society.
Sally’s been judging for ten years. She travels as far away as New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her friends are rose people. Going out to dinner is a rose experience. How does her husband Jim deal with this? “He’s not a rose person, but he’s such a nice guy they include him in everything.”
Sally and Jim live in East San Diego, in a new development that floats in comfort and shelter above the every-street-is-the-street-to-the-airport banality. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m going into the Twilight Zone, coming up from the hectic street to the gate, then everybody waves and children play and everybody goes slow.” Her neighbors are teachers, policemen, and firemen, and they have an unusual camaraderie. They throw parties together, for example. Sally colonizes their gardens. Across the street grow 60 of her roses, and they extend down the block.
I visit Sally’s garden in March, an attractive time, I think, when the bones of the garden are visible along with the sculptural shapes of the pruned roses and the textures and colors of their leaves. As opposed to some, I don’t think roses are ugly unless they are blooming. Still, I can see that a month or two will transform her garden into masses of blooms, level on level of them.
We sit on her porch, drinking tangerine juice. Her garden is composed of a variety of plantings that flow into each other around a lawn. There are no square lines. Sally was full of demurs, a defining characteristic of the obsessed gardener — I’m redoing that corner, I’m planning a bridge, etc.
The San Diego climate will accommodate most anything, and there is no time-honored vernacular here, like the cottage garden in England or formal garden in France. Since you can choose anything, why roses?
Sally is stumped. “I think they chose me,” she says in a wondering voice. It’s a satisfying answer. I have come to the right place. Dante, that fanatical lover, said what we love chooses us, not the other way around, and he added that we are named by that love.
Sally continues, “Their blooms are good for cutting, good for gifts, and they bloom a long time. They are forgiving, they rarely die, they are all different; there’s a beginning, middle, and end — if you are having a bad year, you cut them down and start over. You get a lot from roses.”
When I was a child in the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley, I had a garden. There was a hopelessness about my garden because everything in sight was landscaped so brutally—a patch of sad dichondra with a yucca dropped in the middle. My little garden was not much to hurl at the great void that seemed to prosper in my neighbors’ yards.
Do you ever have that feeling?
Sally applies my question about loss of meaning to her pressing issue. “Yes, when this gets out of control, I feel like I can’t even get started. That’s why I broke it up into individual gardens. Sometimes I’ll do it in order.”
Sally studies in a graduate program in educational technology — her specialty is computers — and she develops books for publishing companies. What is the common thread behind these activities? “Computers. Because few people in gardening clubs know about them, and I love computers. My newsletter is done on PageMaker. I even computerize my lists of garden tasks.”
That brings us back to the neatness of her garden, though I’m sure some of the roses have different ideas. “I get rid of them. I don’t like a rose that’s not orderly. That’s why old roses and I don’t get along.”
I’m the opposite, I like the roses that fall every which way. Sally also prefers a disorganized look, a cottage garden look, but not in her own back yard. In the poetry of Sally’s obsession, the desire for control contends with the excesses of massed blooms and fragrance — spicy, lemony, fruity, perfumy, heady. She’s aware of this contradiction. “I don’t want something growing across my path. I’ll whack it off.” She’s looking at me levelly, and I laugh with anxiety.
Her yard is a third of an acre, not huge. It’s fill. The whole area is DG — decomposed granite. It’s not a clay soil, it’s nothing, so she had to do lots of amending.
“We brought 100 roses from our previous home in the middle of summer and didn’t lose one. They were in black pots, and we watered twice a day for six months.” It’s a fallacy that roses can only be moved in their dormant season. Jim moved them — obliging husband.
Roses are not good companion plants, so Sally removed two trees whose roots were hairnets that soaked up water. She wanted to maximize her space, so there is little lawn — it drinks too much — but she likes roses next to grass. “Jim loves his lawn.”
In the classic picture, the rose grower emits a witch’s cauldron of sprays and chemicals. Sally will use a tablespoon of baking soda and a little vinegar in a gallon of water to change the pH on the leaf so mildew won’t get started. One criterion for living in her garden is, “You better not get a lot of mildew, and you better not be real pest-prone — I will get rid of you. That rose out there in that pot — Brandenburg Gate — has mildew and rust as we speak. This may be a dream rose and one that’s winning on the show tables around the country, but it’s probably not going to stay here for very long.”
She can see I’m enjoying her ferocity. “And if one is not performing, I go out into the garden and talk to it — I tell it that I have a hit list, and you are really close.”
What about roses and water? They have their garden on a drip, which is controversial. The diehard rose growers don’t use it because roses’ roots are cone-shaped, they grow out, and the drip coaxes them deeper. But during the drought Sally cut to watering twice a week and didn’t lose one.
What is the style of her garden? “I put in so many fair gardens, that I like tiny gardens — and that’s what I’ve done, put in a lot of tiny fair gardens.” She points around the yard to her Canadian garden, her purple garden. She shows me fragment roses. A reading area. A garden of things she doesn’t love that bloom incredibly. “Not just rows and rows of roses, but someplace to sit down and look at a waterfall. Each tiny garden has its accent and difference. California Hodgepodge, a time-tested style.”
There’s not much garden architecture because Jim is not very handy. She points to an arbor in loving disparagement. “That’s his best work. It’s not too bad, is it? He tries really hard.”
If someone were going to get started, just a toe in the water? “If you told me I could only have one rose, I’d grow Margaret Merril, an English floribunda, semi-double, pure white, and one of the most fragrant roses in the garden. You bring one of those to someone and he says ‘I can’t believe the smell. It’s what I think a rose should smell like.’ And Sexy Rexy. A spectacular floribunda. It never gets anything, and I have to use stakes to hold up the blooms.”
Sally is a bit of an oddity, because the average age of most people in rose clubs is about 60. “And it’s a man’s hobby — showing roses is male. If it’s not a man, it’s a team. It takes a lot of physical labor.” They are competitive; Sally often wins contests though her garden is small. Some contain five, six, or seven hundred roses.
She laughs. “It’s compulsive. And a bloom is fragile.” She says one New Yorker competing in California made a trial run to see what the rose conditions were like on the plane. He even bought the seat next to him to put his roses on.
What is Sally’s most compulsive moment? She points to her garden. “You’re looking at it.” She is clearly pleased. It’s her orderly and lavish world in which every rose has a label. We look at Elizabeth Taylor.
Liz Taylor will spread all the way out to here — a full-figured gal. Thorny. Yellow canes. Pink flowers. Long-stemmed and always in bloom.
TORZESKI I’m driving in East County. The distance still holds some of the spare beauty of the desert, with shed-style buildings under a blaring sun. Old ranch houses. There were probably horses here not long ago. Then I turn down a street that ends in a court and meet a Tahitian paradise of palms — an almost comic Never-Never Land of tropical splendor. Two peacocks stroll out and a parrot squawks. Where’s Peter Pan?
Torzeski is 50. He’s short, wiry, youthful, energetic as a spring. He’s a professional painter and something of a Capability Brown when it comes to landscape — at once grand and sensitive. Like that 18th-century optimist, Torzeski excels at moving trees.
He gestures — “This is an obvious obsession.” Torzeski, his pretty, supportive wife, and I talk in a greenhouse that covers his entire back yard.
“We’re going to raise the roof to about 25 feet,” he says, as though that were a snap. The greenhouse is 2200 square feet, a covered patio is about 1500 square feet, a gallery area is 1200 square feet — 4900 square feet of roof. The greenhouse contains a gorgeous waterfall and tiers of palms, cycads, ferns, bromeliads, and an occasional begonia. An extraordinary sight, it would be a welcome addition to any public botanical garden.
“I grew up very rough, very poor — farm background — Minnesota till the fourth grade, then San Diego. I never knew the difference between a tree, a bush.... Everything was survival, survival, survival. I went to all-black schools, joined a street gang. Never got into want — was always into need.”
And the development of his lyrical soul? “Even as a kid I pinstriped motorcycles, did character drawings, cartoons. I could draw and paint. I was incarcerated. I had to get out of that environment. I moved over to Adams Avenue into arts and antiques on Antique Row —- learning restorations —-I even learned how to speak. That slang had to go.”
Torzeski is a genius at transformation. Every artist is transformed by the exploration of his own vision, but Torzeski takes the cake. When he moved into the court he was Mr. Disco — without a knowledge of plants. A 25-year-old bachelor in a middle-class neighborhood. “I would never have qualified for a loan. I traded art for the house. Weeds five and six feet tall grew where we are sitting — an old Thunderbird that had gotten in an accident.
“Then I took off on a gangbuster. I was hyperactive — still am. If I didn’t have direction, I’d be in trouble. I got to know everybody there was to know — who all the movers were and deals after deals after deals.
“I traded art for a nursery that was going out of business — for all the pines I could carry away. The house looked like a Swiss chalet. It was a nightmare of needles.
“Here’s this deal — ” He points to his waterfall. “I saw the stone on the side of the road by a quarry. It was throwaway. I created a byproduct for them and ended up building the waterfall at Quail Botanical Gardens out of this stuff. It was my dream to build one.
“I’d been backpacking all over the Sierras. I’ve seen hundreds of waterfalls. So as an artist I approached the county. Since then I built countless other waterfalls — the L.A. Arboretum at Mea-dowbrook and countless private ones. This is the first.
“They have to make music. You have to have a little treble, a little bass, a little tenor— otherwise it’s just a urinal. See, close your eyes and cup your ears. Gruntle sounds echo out from underneath the overhang, and other areas spit and cause the treble, the higher notes.
“I was at that time the president of the American Begonia Society. How do you learn? You join clubs. And then you become the president. Then I went to bromeliads. I got to know all the growers. I spent every dime — I paid for it with my art.”
Torzeski’s own palm garden materialized in one day, and he relishes this sleight of hand. We are talking about a lot of big palms. He traded his work on the Quail Gardens’ waterfall for the craning. “I could see it in Technicolor in my head. I got in with a backhoe one Saturday morning and my entire landscape was gone. Three feet deep. Then nine-foot holes — t filled them with pea gravel.
“The next weekend here comes semitruck after semitruck with all the specimen palms I had located and dug up all over the city. We went from place to place with semis full of soil and huge cranes, yanking all these palms out of the ground. Some yards we had to re-landscape. So we’re lined up down the street. You can still see the holes where the crane sat. And we drop them into holes. Instant landscape.”
Torzeski’s paintings are meticulous and grand images of the West, influenced by the Hudson River School painters. “We have shows here in November. About 1500 people come on a weekend.
“People came here to my art shows and saw what I did with the yard. They said, what can he do for me? So I started from the top.” He’s designing palm gardens for other folks. I wish he would design one for me. “I treat it as a hobby but it got really big-time. The project we’ll see later has a half million dollars in it.”
A poetry of time. Why palms and cycads? Reasons explode like fireworks. “They’re permanent. The begonias are like a candy fix. The bromeliads are the same. Temporary plants. But palms and cycads can be generations old. Cycads were here with the dinosaurs — the oldest living plants. They are the first sexual division in plants. Candy is cheap — beautiful begonias. The most sophisticated gardens are the slowest growing. They have spaghetti roots — go around pipes and don’t tear them up. They grow with you. You can have them for the rest of your life, instead of the blowup landscape most architects design. Five years and it needs redoing.
“It’s like the oriental attitudes of mind, body, and environment unified into one. I’m totally independent, strong. So everything around me is peace oriented.”
He shows me a jubaea — thick trunk and feathery leaves. “This jubaea spectabilis is 85 years old. I’ll enjoy it the rest of my life. And it will be worth a fortune. You spend $350 for a tree and it’s worth $20,000 later? Excuse me? You can’t see a value in that? They are ancient, long-lived, enduring.”
Torzeski is a brilliant talker. He pitches the energy of a story high and plays all parts. Where did he find the palms? “Drive — drive and look. I can spot a species from a little frond sticking over the back fence. I knock on the door. ‘Hi, how ya doing? Listen, if you’re crazy enough to let me, I’m crazy enough to do it. If you’d like that palm removed, I’ll do it for nothing.’ You start there, don’t offer to pay. Then, ‘What do you want for it? I’m just a guy doing a little landscaping.’ I trade my paintings for most of it. As an artist, a friendly neighbor. Nice swap.”
How did he convince his neighbors to raise a jungle around their houses? In terms of redefining a yard, I’ve never seen or imagined anything like it. Torzeski has convinced his neighbors to tear down their fences and property lines and join forces in a landscape of palms and cycads that almost hides their homes. This garden puts a new spin on the term “gift to the street.”
Torzeski points across the court to a house that is boldly scaped with palms. “I walked across the street. ‘Why don’t you let me introduce you to the palms?’ ‘I don’t like palms.’ ‘I can appreciate that, ’cause I don’t like them.’ ‘How can you say that when —’“Yeah, but there’s about 1500 species. The most common ones that you see around town, I don’t like either. But let me give you an introduction to the really fine palms. When you go on vacation, you go where the palms are, right? Why not bring Tahiti to your home?’ Offer an introduction. Don’t beat him up, go slow, get him involved.
“The neighbors saw that one of their own could do it too. At our Neighborhood Watch, the crime program, I said, ‘Tell you what, I’ll donate all my expertise, labor. If we all team up, I’ll locate the trees. They’re free to you if they’re free to me. If I have to pay $300, you have to pay $300, but they’re worth a fortune.’ We have trees totaling $100,000 to $150,000 on the street. I even wound up buying a 15-ton crane to move them. We sold it when we were done.
“The idea was to get people from all different walks of life to agree to revamp a neighborhood that was going down, stabilize it and unify it and see it go on an upswing. I created that master plan in their heads. There’s no qualms about somebody walking across the street and enjoying his neighbor’s deck or pool. A tree swings over a yard, we don’t know who this tree belongs to.”
He becomes expansive in his enthusiasm. “I made sense to them — and it was cheap, and they were proud. You put pride into it. ‘This is a private cul-de-sac,’ I said. ‘Let’s create something worth big bucks in illusion and prestige. Let’s make the place upscale so we’d want to stay here.’ ”
Each neighbor’s yard is fantastic on its own. One is almost entirely a lagoon, shielded from the street by a wall of palms. But most extraordinary is that each garden extends the other. On a street with very small yards, each house has privacy and a dramatically increased sense of scale. Each garden amplifies the others.
This garden is 11 years old. It’s a phenomenally sophisticated look for such a young garden. “Some of the cycads no longer exist in the wild. They’re trades from other palm lovers. You can go all over the world and never step outside the International Palm Society. You’d stay with them. They’d be so glad to have you they couldn’t stand it. They’ll roll out the red carpet for you. I gave a speech to them on moving large specimens, my forte, especially rare specimens. After you move enough of them you get to be an expert.”
Torzeski has created a micro environment. The canopy is so dense and high his lot doesn’t frost. He points to triangle-trunked palms from Madagascar and a hyphenes — blue-gray and branching — from India. “The sable we dug out of a collector’s yard. Phoenix roebellenii, a pygmy date palm. All these cycads were given to us by people in our travels. They’re worth about 120 bucks a foot. The jubaea comes from Rancho Santa Fe, so it went from a rich neighborhood to a regular neighborhood — $5500 out of my pocket into the tree lawn of my neighbors. Worth ten to fifteen thousand bucks.”
There are the silvery-white royal palms —; you see them in Florida, in Venezuela. Silvery white. Cycads from Mexico, Japan, the Middle East. He likes them hanging over the street.
“Ground cover is everyone’s nightmare, so I eliminate it. I plant low-growing permanent things like cycads and bromeliads, then the tall, and let the architecture and hardscape fill in the difference.”
Does he want every palm? “Art is first. To use even a common tree, properly stated, properly placed to make a spectacular statement. If not, you might as well own a nursery and grow it in rows. You want texture, height, different growth dimensions; you put a fan palm properly with a certain pinnate palm, and then a blue Mexican fan against a dark green.”
These interviews are rather like hitchhiking in someone else’s experience, but Torzeski actually drives me to some of the gardens he constructed, and they are magnificent. Meanwhile, he describes his back-to-America politics. “We’re losing all sense of responsibility. Look at this third generation of hippies. Everybody owes them a living.” I’m distressed. If I have contempt for liberals, it’s from the opposite pole. But certainly Torzeski’s politics are consistent with the Western ideal of rugged individualism that informs his life; he even goes on a 350-mile cattle drive each year.
Why should gardening and politics be separate? Torzeski built a garden for a Palestinian, head of the Arab-American Antidefamation League. “I was transforming his house into a tropical paradise. Then a Jewish neighbor tried to steal 25 feet from the Arab. The Palestinian didn’t say anything. He got a surveyor. The Jewish guy still fought, and in court the judge fined him $14,000 in punitive damages that helped with our landscaping.
“Then the Jewish guy sold the property. Jewish folks bought it and hired me, and I married the two properties by using the vistas of one to view the vistas of the other.”
They share the sound of the waterfall he built for the first house. For the second house he’s refigured the square architecture with a series of radiuses, designed decks, used interlocking block in amazing ways, planted an elegant grove of queen palms that shade the windows all day and punctuate the grand view. He has not only constructed an oasis, he has expressed a strong and original vision.
“The two households get along just fine. Only in America —” I hope in the Middle East as well.
As we drive back, he’s expansive in his contempt for the yards we pass. “Nothing,” he groans. “A pepper tree. Whose idea is that? Trash. Pines, oh, God.”
JIM I find my prose changing with each of these interviews. I can hardly contain Torzeski, his voice pushes through on its own, while Jim needs to be coaxed onto the page.
Jim lives in University Heights, a neighborhood of small ’20s bungalows and boxy ’50s apartment buildings. There are the scraggly yards, palms coming to maturity too close to the houses. I walk up to Jim’s house, where a mother with a stroller is entirely gazing — it is a lot to take in, an aesthetic of serious overplanting on a tiny plot.
Jim is a lanky, mild fellow, mid-40s perhaps. He speaks after taking a moment to consider. After the sheer volubility of Torzeski, it takes me a while to repace myself. Jim is as inward as Torzeski was outgoing; Jim declines to let me print his last name.
Jim’s garden is tiny by comparison with the others, and it is intensely personal, a collage. In some areas it’s almost a planted wall, a mural. There is a glimmering, enigmatic quality to the whole garden.
Jim has been a gardener for 25 years, and he favors drought-tolerant plants. The tea tree, for example, which has pink or red flowers and blooms every day of the year. Even though he has a wide variety, the garden can go three weeks without water. He waters by hand so he can see what each plant needs. His plantings are layered; even the sunplants get some shade so they go longer between waterings.
How has he chosen his style? “My plan was to overplant with shrubs I could train into small trees. I could have a lot of intimate privacy, the feeling of a woods, shadows. I like to design a garden so that even if there are no seasonal flowers it looks good.” In San Diego there doesn’t have to be a dormant season. He considers that for a moment. “The garden can look the same all year long, and that’s fine with me.” He prefers to put flowers in a small area where people will see them, coming or going from the house.
Like most tiny gardens, there is a lot of up — lots of walls rather close together. The plants, especially the succulents, speak of an older California, and old, curious objects lend the garden a patina. It’s severely pruned every six months, so the plants will grow into each other. “There is a lot of maidenhair fern, which people say is hard to grow and takes a lot of water, but it really doesn’t. Once it is started it will even take full sun.”
Jim was an art major in college. When he came to San Diego he cleaned houses, and a woman asked him to plant a camellia. “When I did, I decided that was it and went back to school to learn about plants. Everything grows here, but not everything is easy to maintain, because of the water, the bugs, and the frost.” He started to eliminate.
“By using plants you can be in your work instead of just observing it. When the weather changes, the whole scheme changes. Mornings are different from evenings. This has an oriental feel, though it’s not oriental at all. It’s about peace and quiet. Considering I’m surrounded by houses, the garden is very private. I don’t have water noise. That dripping sound destroyed the quiet.”
Jim likes variegated leaves and objects that are handmade. He puts them together with other handmade shapes. If he’s starting a garden for someone else, he’s likely to look in their attic, basement, or garage to find objects that make focal points or add interest to a wall. Metal — old and rusted. Glass and crystals. Sculpture, figures out of coat hangers. Anything the wind will turn. Silver foil cutouts that catch the light. At night they look like fireflies.
Against a brown fence, he hangs diamond-shaped Moroccan windows over rusted artifacts off machinery. They almost look like exhibit cases. The shapes of old crockery and birdhouses themselves. Mirrors give an impression almost of water. They create space, of course, and they also permit Jim to see most of the garden from the high windows of his house. “People walking through have the odd sensation of following their own movement without being aware of the mirrors.”
The garden wraps around the house. The side yard is 12 feet by 35 feet. The front is 12 by 20, and then on an alley a very small garden measures 2 feet by 5 feet. It’s raised above the pavement so most plants hang over a retaining wall capped by cone-shaped stones. In that garden he uses rugged plants that replenish themselves, because people often pick them.
“The tea is the one shrub of interest. It’s bright pink, so that’s your focal point.” There are a lot of grays at the bottom, with geraniums and little bulbs. Freesias come up in the winter, white and fragrant. In the summer, pink primroses. It’s simple and beautiful.
When Jim moved into this house it had practically no earth and no real yard. “The soil was just clay, period. I broke three pitchforks on it.” He liked the house’s simplicity; it has the charm of delicate choices. The neighborhood is middle-class and mixed ethnically, a plus for Jim.
Favorite plants? “I like the flowering pear. It has a dark trunk, the leaves are a good green and nice shape, it gets white flowers in January and then drops some leaves.” Another favorite is the map plant, with its wide, variegated leaves.
Jim likes variations, white and green, yellow and green. Succulents in grays and blues, plants that always have color, whether in foliage, bark, or bloom. He plants in patches. He puts reds and pinks together— red berries and white sprays, red foliage. These arrangements are planted in sequences and yet can be approached as vignettes. “My garden is small but I get lost in it. Each small section is like a page of a book. It keeps changing.” It is a garden that you read — lyrical, complex, curious. Jim reminds me of the reclusive collage artist Jess, who said, “I was painting to have a dialogue with myself and what I think of as the history of the imagination.”
Jim is Italian. (His uncles on both sides were gardeners till World War II.) He notes that Italian gardens also favor a lot of interesting small things — whimsical objects, the use of architecture, walls, and sculptural incident. “Even in Venice where’s there’s not a lot of space, I saw people take broken Murano glass from the old glass blowers and glue it all over their clay flower pots. That’s interesting.”
We take a walk into the front yard. The path is narrow, and we keep gesturing like courtiers for the other to go ahead. Rosemary. A tea tree with beautiful bark. Many plants are practically espaliered. Nandina, nandina. There’s a lot in bloom in March. He puts a plant that is delicate and light next to one that is bold and strong. Succulents. Geraniums so hardy they look like succulents. Plumerias. Butterfly bush. A purple bottlebrush. A belladonna that throws out huge flowers — two different melon colors and a pure white. Star jasmines. Arborvitae that he’s opened up. They have the strength of columns that you can see through. He’s espaliered a powderpuff tree to create a fan between the sidewalk and the front of the garden. He cuts it back in winter to get the light, in the summer he lets it grow to the roof for shade and privacy. There is a severely pruned cedar, yellowish green. Ground orchids. Lots of delicate sprays. Glass insulators from old telephone poles. And that’s just the front yard!
In the side yard a serpentine path of brick winds between low benches. Midway, all kinds of baubles hang from an arbor, metal bells and glass grapes. In one tree, wire chickens roost, pregnant with glass eggs. There are two stilled wall fountains — glass balls float in one, a boat floats in the other. A Victorian iron sewing machine bench has a flagstone seat. Marbles glimmer in a rectangle of polyurethane embedded in the tread of a step. Old toys. Variegated leaves. An upside-down crystal chandelier. A crayfish trap. A dish of broken window glass. Baby’s tears. Aloe vera next to a succulent. Tiles from Venice and Istanbul.
AGATHA YOUNGBLOOD Agatha comes out to the yard to welcome me. She is a gracious, elegant woman; she is glad to be 70 years old. She lives in a beautiful way and looks for the beauty and sense of occasion in a situation or an exchange. Her garden is certainly the expression of her attraction to welcoming beauty. It is an English garden and it is a showplace. She lives with her agreeable husband in Rancho Santa Fe, a California wealthy enough to keep its charm.
We have coffee in her elaborate kitchen — the previous owner ran a cooking school! Agatha is an artist as well as a gardener. She was a docent at the Museum of Art, where she taught other docents as well. She says with mock dismay that her favorite school is Impressionism — “like any beginner.” But that is the period of her garden, when Gertrude Jekyll was purveying the love of cottage gardens and perennial borders — surely Jekyll’s concept of painting with plants referred to the Impressionists?
The garden is an acre, perhaps more. A gardener comes three days a week, but Agatha does the planting, cutting back, planning, fertilizing. Like most gardeners, she is ruthless. She quotes Vita Sackville West, “ ‘If a plant is troubling you, hoik it.’ So I hoik it.”
Why an English garden in Southern California? “I’ve always been an Anglophile. I call mine a cottage garden, California-style. A lot of English plants will not grow here, so we substitute. Judy Weigan, of Judy’s Perennials, is the mother of my garden. She researches and tests in her own garden.
“I try to grow the colors that they would use. There are principles that go through all the arts. So I use, say, repetition. I did have a lot of red penstemons, but they stole the show. I have some now — and I try not to have a lot of orange, but sometimes it just sings. I don’t think Monet discriminated against any color.”
Why plants? “I came from a long line of farmers and Presbyterian ministers. My grandparents lived on a large cotton farm. They grew all their own food, and peanuts. We had a vegetable garden — Mother canned — and she had a flower garden.
“When I was first married I planted a vegetable garden, I guess because my parents always did. I remember one day I looked out the window after it had rained and all the little things were coming up and it was so beautiful. I’ve always had a little garden, just zinnias, petunias, cucumbers, and tomatoes because they are so wonderful fresh.
“Perhaps I started such a large garden because of my age and the time in life when I have time to do it. Maybe role model or atavism. I’ve noticed a lot of gardeners are older, and now there are a lot of young gardeners, and I’m so pleased because they will have all those years of enjoyment. I could work every single day in that garden.”
What is the pleasure that comes from it? “I have a deep appreciation for not only the plants but the soil, especially here in California, where you really have to work on the soil. It’s like a living organism. I also feel the more I work in the garden, the more it has to be organic.
“I’m happy that I have to work all year long; there’s no dormant season. I’m cutting back and planting all winter. I can walk into my garden and — you know the feeling of being in the alpha state? — I just get that wonderful euphoric feeling and I’m so happy.”
Judy Weigan has been Agatha’s mentor. “She’s such a delightful young lady. When we started this garden, Judy and I were out there with a pickax, trying to dig a hole big enough to put a bush in. Every time I dig I put in some wood shavings composted with chicken manure for the nitrogen, along with some peat.
“I thought at first I had to have every new plant I saw, but not anymore. I grow the things that like it here. I read some snobby Englishman who brags about how few plants he has. I’m not like that, but if you have a plant, subconsciously people will look for another one like it. I read that the reason we crave repetition in art is that we live with it— with our beating heart and our breathing.
“I have a yellow gaillardia. I have never seen it outside of Judy’s Perennials, never seen in any of the catalogs or books. It is a workhorse, it is a soft yellow and beautiful in bouquets. I like aster frikartii, periwinkle blue. I love penstemon, and roses, of course. The new English cultivars by David Austin — old roses with repeat blooms. I just got Mr. Lincoln. It’s a blue-red tea rose, just like velvet.
“Since I wanted it to be like an English garden, I furnished it with cement casts of old ornaments and statues. They make the garden seem like it’s been here a long time. Another thing that’s very important to me is the wonderful things that happen in my garden. I read a little book by Sharon Lovejoy, Sunflower Houses. It’s for grandmothers who want to teach their grandkids how to love a garden. My granddaughter and I made a 6-foot-by-6-foot sunflower house and then put morning glories across the top. It’s creating a playhouse, a secluded environment. Magical. My other grandchild has a tepee of red scarlet runner beans, those little pumpkins, and gourds. These little boys love gourds. I put chamomile as a carpet.
“The garden seems like a place for occasions. In the spring I had a luncheon and we all dressed up in hats, just as romantic as though we Were in costume.
“People love the scents. I love pungent smells too — geraniums, oh yes. There is this clevelandii sage that is so wonderful.” (It’s a San Diego native.)
We stroll around. The main part rises on a mild slope. We look up into a lilting beauty. There’s a little English birdbath. “Alstroemeria, it’s a workhorse too.” Sylbum marianus, a blue thistle whose leaves became striated when Mary’s milk fell on them. Poppies.
A helichrysum with variegated leaves. The garden seems enormous. Old rosa soliana, a rampant climber with clusters of white, single-petaled blooms.
“I love topiary. I gave my gardener a Chippendale chair to copy, and he did the bones.” Ivy covers it, and on the seat erodium’s tiny pink flowers mix with blue star creeper so it looks like needlepoint. She likes the topiary to be a surprise — Peter Rabbit jumping through the bushes. Agatha gives a picture to a nursery in Mission Hills. A craftsman in Tijuana makes the frame of heavy-gauge wire. Then she fills it with sphagnum moss over plastic bags of popcorn to keep it light. She is pleaching apple trees to form arches. Grand cement balls, “because roundness has a feeling of love.”
The whole property is surrounded by horse trails and open space. The garden is a series of borders. Each little garden has a main plant and takes off from there with texture and color. Even the composting area is charming; the garden shed looks like a photo in Horticulture.
“A little over a hundred years ago this was nothing but desert to the sea. In the early part of the century, we had a horticulturist — you know Kate Sessions? — who set the style in San Diego. She had been to Hawaii, so it’s tropical. She did Balboa Park. People still go by her ideas, but we can have almost anything.
“There’s always something happening here, and I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.” Agatha’s joy and surprise in her own handiwork is contagious. Her favorite topiary is taken from a medieval woodblock print. It is a wonderful sight. “The herb lady — I sent her measurements and a picture.” This droll, big-footed ficus-covered gardener bends over, picking herbs forever.
GERRY RASMUSSEN I concluded my tour with a garden that is different from all the others, a manageable back yard that produces a sincere and serviceable beauty. I feel immediately at home with Gerry and her husband Jim, and I recognize in them the perfect illustration of the term “salt of the earth.” Gerry is 74; she has an open face and a frank, relaxed manner. She apologizes that her yard is not a showplace.
“When the roses are out, it’s really pretty, though,” Jim chimes in. Jim is a steady source of encouragement. The yard is a bit less than half an acre, mostly composed of raised beds, some of them 25 years old, set at angles around a square plot, with high hedges in the rear. The raised beds save water, create ease and visual interest.
The life of the garden centers on blooms and the hundreds of birds that come to feed at four or five locations and to hang out in the bird covers, hedges, and oleanders. “It’s a down-home garden,” says Gerry. “It’s manageable, still pretty packed in. It doesn’t frighten you away.”
Under the oleanders, where nothing proverbially grows, they have geraniums and aspidistra, morea lilies, and clivia. All survivors. Viburnums, a bank of Wheeler’s Dwarf (pittosporum). Shiny-leaved xylosma. She loves to move things around. The notion that a plant grows in one place is foreign to the inveterate gardener. In the rear, behind the oleander screen, is a feeder for sparrows and finches.
She has a butterfly basin. Lots of butterflies come to the garden. And the limonium attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. These lacy flowers grow on the beach and the sides of roads.
Their tract was built in 1959 and still has a number of original residents. Many of the front yards are original plantings. “When we moved in, the developers gave the residents five landscape plants in gallon cans.”
The tract had been an old vineyard, but the developers scraped off the topsoil and sold it to another project. They used this particular yard to do the concrete mixing, all the stuccoing. “We were down to that old sticky gumbo clay they make bricks from. I came from Kansas, where the soil was wonderful. I couldn’t believe that you had to do anything to soil.”
The garden has changed over the years. Gone is the huge fruitless mulberry that shaded the entire yard. Now there are groupings of her 125 roses and other small gardens. Her “little garden” has mostly annuals. Last year it was petunias, and this year it is ranunculuses and anemones. She has keepsake roses that are 30 years old. Some of her first roses are not in commerce anymore.
We look at the Baby Garden — everything small: species tulips and species irises, all dark purple, and lobelia.
In one corner, roses and jasmine twine together. There’s a classically inviting table with a huge yellow umbrella. In another corner a big hopseed that had died is sunk in cement; it’s where they feed 30 or 40 doves, 2 blue scrub jays, and some blackbirds. “The birdseed germinates and we have to dig it out, but I love them. I finally got my husband trained so that we see how many doves there are before we walk into the yard because they’re spooky. The jays don’t care.”
There’s a grotto with a fountain and a waterfall with little goldfish swimming in its basin. The fish arrived as eggs attached to water plants. It’s very ferny, with lots of cymbidiums, and it creates a nice bank of color from the deck.
Favorite roses? “Summer Fashion. Creamy color with pink edges, a tea.” That’s their advice for the best rose, but they can’t resist adding Plumb Crazy, a tea that is almost purple.
There’s cooked rice strewn over one part of the yard for the little birds. Gerry sometimes cooks two cups of rice a day to feed the white-crowned sparrows when they’re migrating. They also like peanut butter spread over a pine cone. “And pine siskins love to eat aphids. We don’t have a lot of pretty birds,” she apologizes, “but I don’t care — they all bring their babies back to eat. We have cats sometimes, and two hawks that come through help themselves.
“The house finches are just starting to come back. They sound so pretty. I take a magazine called Wild Bird and they call these LBBs. Little brown birds. There are so many varieties of little brown birds. We have had up to 12 hummingbirds feeding, but they sprayed us three years ago now — malathion all over our yard, because across the street they found a medfly — and we never had a hummingbird after that except one or two.”
Jim is the helper. A few roses are his, but mostly he digs holes and helps plant. Gerry and Sally Long are putting in the garden for their East County Rose Society this year at the Del Mar Fair. They can count on their Jims to drive the truck, carry, unload, load. And neither husband tries to boss them. Jim adds that four of Gerry’s gardens have been winners there. Gerry says, “The people in San Diego will not believe that you can grow anything in El Cajon. We have a reputation for being the end of the world. This year’s garden was prompted by a remark made by our president, who is also a member of the San Diego group, which is quite large. He said they were going to put in a garden and beat the pants off of us. The thing is, we have always won and they haven’t. We’re better. It’s a lot of work. But it’s rewarding to sit back and see what you did.”
What is her garden style? “It’s a comfortable garden. I always had a rose wherever I lived. I was raised in Kansas, where nothing grows. We always had five to eight rose bushes. The only one I remember was an old German rose called Gruss an Teplitz. A red garden rose. It gives me great satisfaction to look out and have color in the yard. That was something I just longed for when I was a kid. Nothing pretty grows in Kansas. Too much hot wind, too much cold wind, snow drifts. Cottonwood trees that never turned color. I want to spend my life looking at what I can enjoy.
“That’s how my roses started. When I moved in, one of those rose people came in and said, ‘If I were you. I’d take out the ivy and put in roses,’ which I have since done to a number of neighbors. I have a friend in Alpine who had 35 of my old roses. So’s the fellow across the street. I got him hooked. He’s dug up his yard —pots everywhere.
“I joined a rose society about 15 years ago. That was the year I retired. We have all our meetings at each other’s houses so you’re always seeing something you have to have.
“I’m reaching the point where I’m thinking, hey, I don’t have that much longer, and I want to have this particular rose before I go or before I have to quit gardening. I just want to grow all the flowers I can grow before I have to quit.”
Gerry and I are sitting on her sofa, attended by her two dogs. Across the room, a yellow canary starts singing. “He’s my miracle bird. That’s my baby over there — that’s my Sunny Delight. I had another and he died. He was only two years old. I cried more over my bird than I did over my dogs.”
I advise the dogs, “Cover your ears.”
“I couldn’t stand to put him in the ground. We have a drip system and everywhere it’s wet. So there he is, there he is.” And here he is indeed, a little ruffled, but still, well, game — stuffed and perched on a twig!
“I always feel some urgency because I want more roses before I die. When you hit our ages, you have a lot of friends who die, and in spite of the fact that you say, oh, you won’t die, you just don’t know.” She shows me her coffee mug, which reads, “God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I’m so far behind, I will never die.” “When I saw that I thought, that’s me. I just keep trying to cram one more flower in.”
As you read this, Gerry’s yard is completely covered in bloom. The oleanders make a white backdrop. “And bottlebrush, they bloom four times a year. Hummingbirds like them, butterflies like them, that’s good enough for me.”