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Abstract Expressionists

An Artistic Couple's Garden Reflects Decades of Creative Planning and Compromise

March 07, 2004|Susan Heeger

The last place you'd expect to find two creative souls such as Erik and Irina Gronborg is in a tract house near San Diego. But tucked between homes with rose beds and buzzed lawns, their house stands out from the crowd. Giant agaves and echiums have replaced the grass, and bougainvillea climbs the walls amid carved gates. Nearby, exotic potted greens swing from the eaves.

"We love the tropics, the look of a small, simple building dwarfed by plants, half-buried in the jungle," Irina says.

Of course, there is no jungle in Solana Beach, and when the couple moved in almost 30 years ago, they had no plans to plant a forest on the one-third-acre lot. But once ensconced, they couldn't leave their environment alone. "We wanted beauty around us," says Erik, a Danish-born sculptor, ceramist and furniture maker who met Irina, a botanical artist and Oregon native, during the 1960s. Despite the differences in their art, they both were influenced by Abstract Expressionism, with its emphasis on experimentalism. This philosophy, says Irina, guided not just their work but their lives. "The idea is that you take what you get and make what you can," she says. "If something doesn't work, you change it."

Right away, what didn't work in their new house was the view. From the living room, they watched neighbors' cars come and go. Their bedroom overlooked a chain-link fence. The dining room window framed a neighbor's TV antenna. What's more, when they walked outside to the backyard with their then-preteen children, Misha and Tor, the space felt more dead than alive. A pastiche of flat lawn, asphalt and concrete between two naked slopes, it lacked the noisy, fragrant chaos they loved in nature.

"We started planting," Irina says. And so the garden underwent a metamorphosis that has lasted almost three decades.

Beginning with modest goals, the couple worked slowly, revising one area at a time. The first year, they tore out lawn and planted citrus, vegetables and a neighbor's castoff agaves. During successive seasons, they added cactuses, boulders and rock paths to make the garden accessible and to set off the new greenery. "We appreciated sculptural succulents," says Irina, who teaches drawing at MiraCosta Community College in Oceanside and at the Athenaeum School of the Arts in La Jolla. "There was a drought then too, and the succulents lived. You develop affection for plants that do."

To boost the prospects of other plants, she and Erik improved the compacted ground with topsoil and compost. They dug in palms, bananas and bamboo at the property's edges, and in the garden's center, added tall elements such as dragon trees and a greenhouse to break the space into parts that can't be seen in one glance. Subsequently they carved terraces into the rear slope to enhance the sense of depth. They removed remaining lawn for more cactuses, replacing the asphalt with a dining terrace and a pond. They connected the garden's disparate parts with more paths, stucco walls, trellises and Erik's furniture and ceramic pieces--pots, sculpted figures and iconic heads that steer hoses around plants. "Rather than start with a plan," says Erik, who retired from MiraCosta's art department after 26 years, "it's interesting to throw elements together and let them gradually suggest an order."

Other ideas came from their travels. An Italian sabbatical inspired Erik to build a "ruin" of carved-wood columns and agaves that leads the eye up the main path to the terraced hill. A more recent trip to Japan moved him to create his version of a Zen garden, complete with ceramic pyramids, gasterias and raked lava rock.

Not everything the couple tried succeeded. Early on, before their trees matured, scented geraniums withered in the baking sun. And now, after decades, there is so much shade that specimen cereus and agaves have died. In their place, Erik is collecting more epiphytes and ferns. "If you allow yourself to fail," he says, "you pave the way for something new."

Though he and Irina have different garden tastes--he prefers spiky rarities in somewhat structured beds to her common jades and ivies in naturalistic drifts--they accept one rule: "Whatever big project we do, we must agree on," Erik says. "If we can't, we make changes." Certain walls have been painted and repainted to get the colors right, and plants dug up and moved until both are satisfied with each layered, rustling view. "This is not the most efficient way to do things," he says with a smile.

But it has worked for these two, who see their garden as the long-term payoff of a creative gamble. "What do you get when you don't get what you want?" Irina asks. "Experience. Surprise. A chance to stumble on something you'd never have thought of in a million years."

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Resource Guide

Erik Gronborg's ceramics available through Nofufi Garden Gallery, Encinitas, (760) 635-0556.

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