I was a neophyte gardener on a cramped San Diego corner lot when a heartbroken widower offered me his thirty-year-old glasshouse and a collection of orchids (Cattleya) that he had tended with his wife. In accepting that offer, I became convinced of something I had already suspected: my soul needed more gardening space. That yearning was satisfied in 1979, when my wife Elizabeth and I bought a 1920s-era Spanish-style house that sat on approximately three-quarters of an acre. It was known locally as “The Enchanted Hacienda” from the years it had served as a board-and-care home for the elderly. Located a few blocks from the beach in Encinitas, California, our land sloped gently west, with 180° ocean views. The upper garden had a manicured lawn, sapote (Pouteria), Ficus, Metrosideros, and Podocarpus trees, plus roses, camellias, hibiscus, bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia), and three queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffianum). Below were a few aged avocado trees near a new swimming pool, surrounded by young Washingtonia, Syagrus, and Brahea palms. The lower yard was, with the exception of a loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) and an old bouganvilla, a tangle of shoulder-high weeds.
We were busy physicians with a two-year-old son and a second on the way, but, whenever I could, I found myself in the yard thinking and planning. We would have a sustainable food garden; we would strive towards self-sufficiency; we would grow everything organically. I was also fascinated with the plants themselves, with their complex life cycles, the convergent and divergent evolutions of their families, and the challenge of stretching their cultivation requirements to grow here in Sunset zone 24 (USDA hardiness zone 10). My collection grew slowly, in fits and starts, as an ever wider selection of plants became available.
My first project was to move the glasshouse from San Diego, piece by piece, and site it at the southern end of the pool. Although unheated, it provides the cattleya orchids with protection from local wildlife and winter rains. A former neighbor had sent me off to Encinitas with divisions of her Cymbidium orchids. They still flourish outside, along with other orchids, such as Laelia, Epidendrum, Zygopetalum, Sobralia, Eulophia, Brassia, and Dendrobium speciosa, that I’ve acquired over the years.
Fresh Food from the Garden
Eating from our own garden was a high priority. Not long after we cleared the lower garden of its weeds, a friend offered me day-old chicks. Soon, we had a steady supply of eggs and a recycling system for our kitchen scraps. I built raised redwood vegetable beds (four by twenty feet) and planted fruit trees, hoping that the stone fruits would receive sufficient chilling hours. We are blessed to have fruit production almost year-round. Loquats fruit first in the spring, followed by navel, ‘Moro’ (blood), and ‘Valencia’ oranges. The ‘Meyer’ lemon has fruit most of the year. Our bounty truly begins around Father’s Day, with white peaches and nectarines, boysenberries, mulberries, and strawberries. July brings yellow peaches and nectarines, Green Gage and purple plums, and pluots. Summer ends with four types of figs, bananas, Asian pears, pineapple guavas (Acca sellowiana), and ‘Fuji’, ‘Anna’, and ‘Braeburn’ apples. The season winds down in October with persimmons but starts up again in November with tangerines. I am currently experimenting with low-chill cherries (‘Red Royal’ and Minnie Royal), which have flowered well but yielded only a couple of cherries so far. My tree planting system has evolved over time. Now, instead of one tree in a hole, I either plant three similar trees in one hole or buy multi-grafted trees. This increases the variety and lengthens the fruiting season. I keep them all pruned to about ten feet to simplify harvesting.
For the first few years, I watered the entire garden by hand, then installed a twelve-station sprinkler system that uses water efficiently. Hand watering, limited to a few pots and hanging baskets, now requires just an hour a week.
The concept of “sustainability” is especially challenging in the food garden, if we measure it solely by the amount of water used. After the San Dieguito Water District informed me that I was among its highest users, I did what I could to lessen my water use. In the lower garden, I planted my vegetable beds leaf-to-leaf, following the French intensive method, so that the miniature canopy would shade the soil and keep evaporation down. I put in a graywater system for the fruit trees, and I mulch everywhere. This year, I couldn’t resist keeping our gourmet lettuces growing through June by watering them daily, despite Elizabeth’s complaints about the summer water bill. My feeling is that a little more water in our home vegetable gardens is more justifiable than driving to the market to buy lettuce grown on farmers’ water and trucked miles to a market.
Our mild coastal climate is ideal for ferns. My thirty-year-old staghorn ferns (Platycerium) not only encircle our old avocado and sapote trees but also spread by spore to adjacent trees, rock crevices, and flower pots, where they happily grow on bark planted with orchids and cacti such as Rhipsalis and Epiphyllum. Although the avocado trees (Persea americana) bear little fruit, they provide shade for the middle garden. Recently, I asked a commercial avocado grower what it would take to get my old trees producing again. “Three hundred gallons of water a week!” he replied.
A Self-sustaining Pond
Because I’ve always liked the sound of running water, I imagined a pond near the house on the northern slope of the garden. As I pondered and planned, I started a tropical tree and shrub collection there, leaving space for the future pond. Scheffelera, Dombeya, Tecoma, Thevetia, and a Brahea edulis circle around the northern section of that slope, while ornamental gingers (Hedychium, Alpinia, and Zingiber) and Duranta filled in on the east. On the west, I put in an African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata), a Cassia, Schotia brachypetala, and Senecio petasites, along with lilies, Eucomis, and freesias. Finally, after twenty years of research and questioning friends and patients about their ponds, I found the courage to begin. Over three months of Saturdays (the only day my gardener and I could work together), we excavated two ellipsoid ponds connected by a stream with waterfalls, tied in rebar and chicken wire, and poured concrete. Once the ponds were full of water, I added a bagful of five-cent goldfish.
My ponds were to be purified only by circulating water, water lilies to shade the surface, and oxygenating plants (Anacharis, Vallisneria, Sagittaria). I put sedges (Carex), taro (Colocasia and Alocasia), and water irises in the stream and hoped for the best. After two months, my beautiful pond had turned to pea soup, but I was told to be patient. It took about a year, but, for the last nine years, the water has been crystal clear: a proper biological balance has taken hold. Frogs, a sensitive indicator of ecological health, have taken up noisy residence, along with many-hued dragonflies. The water feature establishes an island of diversity in the garden, providing habitat for many creatures, including three families of Bullock’s orioles, hummingbirds, finches, sparrows, mockingbirds, scrub jays, and the occasional woodpecker, hawk, and heron.
Our older son Jesse chose botany for his college major. While he was at UC Santa Cruz, we visited the campus’s arboretum, where I saw South African restios for the first time. The curator told me that these reed-like plants liked “to feel the wind and see the ocean.” I had a perfect spot for them at the top of my garden and even more reason now to start ripping out the thirsty lawn. Not long after, I found other restios in a Heronswood Nursery catalog. Today, I have a small collection that includes the genera Thamnochortus, Rhodocoma, Chondropetalum, and Elegia. Just recently, I discovered an Ischyrolepsis subverticellata at an Ace Hardware Store in Oakland!
More South Africans
When Jesse gave me Betsy Clebsch’s A Book of Salvias, I found a new genus of plants to explore. Soon, South African salvias—S. africana-caerulea, S. muirii, S. lanceolata, S. dentata, and S. repens— rounded out my restio-rich fynbos habitat. Numerous other species have filled niches throughout the garden.
Our mediterranean climate is ideally suited to succulents, and I have engaged in some plant mimicry with them that fools all but my most knowledgeable friends. The hot, dry area adjoining the concrete pool terrace was perfect for combining succulent Euphorbia with barrel cacti, Aloe with Agave, Alluaudia with Fouquieria, and Xanthorrhoea with Dasylirion. This collection, my most successful, is anchored by a large Aloe thraskii at one end and a Dracaena draco at the other.
I found new inspiration following another gift from Jesse: Rick Darke’s The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes. More lawn disappeared. In went selections of Pennisetum, Muhlenbergia, Miscanthus, Nassella, Stipa, and Panicum, along with Chasmanthium and Calamagrostis. I love the varied textures and colors of the grasses and the kinetic motion that their flower stalks bring to the garden. Except for the calm around sunrise, their longlived panicles dance in our nearly constant ocean breeze.
A New Challenge
I have always felt like a student in my garden. After years as a “novitiate,” I was convinced by gardening friends that I was ready to learn about cycads. I had felt that orchid lovers could be a bit snobby, but the cycad freaks—there is no other way to describe them when they argue about the true identiy of a new Encephalartos—were intimidating. And the prices for these plants were downright scary. But the more I learned about these relics from Carboniferous times, the more interesting they became. Specimens of Zamia, Ceratozamia, Dioon, Encephalartos, Macrozamia, Cycas, and a sole Stangeria now accent the garden. All plants have a way of humbling the gardener, but perhaps cycads do so more than most. These plants are not just “slow growing;” they are despairingly slow growing! Cycas petraea or Encephalartos caffer sat leafless in the garden for two years before “pushing” new leaves. Perhaps it’s because of the cool coastal climate (summer 2010 had an average temperature here of only 69.5°F), the salinity of the water, or the alkalinity of the soil.
As my garden fills up, my plant purchases necessarily become more selective, and I’ve even taken things out (never easy for me to do). Jesse went on to UC Berkeley and became a landscape architect. Because he thinks in terms of designing entire gardens and parks, his first question now about a rare plant that I “must” buy is always, “But Dad, where are you going to put it?” And Elizabeth asks about a new Cycas media: “Doesn’t it look just like the other ones?” For those of us smitten with gardening, there is always space, somewhere, for a species we’ve never grown before, and no two species or cultivars ever look exactly alike. I’ve come to realize that my attachment, attention, and devotion to my plants should be called by its true name: love.