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Garden Visit

The Blooming '20s

A La Jolla home basks in a Southland 'golden age' of outdoor design.


A large clumping Senegal date palm, positioned adjacent to an oversized outdoor fireplace and seating area, serves as a visual balance, as do a cluster of cypress trees along a tile fountain and reflecting pool. Joel Laird Plumighly of San Diego designed the custom tile and animal mask fountain with a Moorish influence that harmonizes with the Spanish Mission elements of the house.

"The cypress anchors the fountain and complements the vertical fireplace," Bliss pointed out.

Bliss and Taitano transformed a previously barren hillside above the fountain into a semiarid garden with dramatic view area. Steep stairs lead past olive and citrus trees, agaves, succulents and cacti. At the summit, a stone seating area capitalizes on the spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.

The formality of the garden design, with straight lines, manicured shrubbery and garden ornamentation, are softened by the informality of the plant palette. "Using tropical and subtropical flowering plants, with mass plantings of uniform color and keeping it simple overall is the key here," Bliss said.

Ever since the Spanish missionaries brought their grapevines, olive trees, roses and herbs, California has been a fertile site for a host of exotic plants. A similar wave of new plant introductions occurred during the 1920s and '30s with exotics including dragon trees, Senegal and other types of palm trees, new camellia species, and New Zealand tea trees.

"A lot of plants that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s are now coming back in style," commented Robert Bishowski, a retired arborist and now a consulting horticultural agronomist based in San Diego. "Queen palms, Italian cypress, sycamore trees, California pepper trees, boxwood hedges, gardenias and camellias were big then and are again being widely used."

Conifers were more often found in these period gardens than they are today, although they're well suited to semiarid regions. "Italian cypress were some of the workhorse plants of that time," Chapman of Mesa College said. "Geraniums were also very popular, so much so that brides carried them in their bouquets."

Bliss and Taitano have relied on modern cultivars as well as plant varieties true to that time. They selected 'Iceberg' roses over older varieties because this recent hybrid offers greatly improved disease resistance. Kerins concurs that it isn't always necessary to plant gardens with historic accuracy.

"Unless you're creating a garden for a museum or need to be completely authentic, there's no reason you can't use modern hybrids of old-time plants that offer better disease resistance and flowering. Many people who gardened almost a century ago were more tolerant than we are today."

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