An English cottage garden in San Luis Obispo

Letting nature take its course leads to a colorful, abundant garden

Special to The TribuneMay 28, 2014 

Welcome to a chaotic garden with too many hot colors and no focal point.

“It’s all wrong, but you don’t work against nature, you work with it,” said Ron Mussulman, whose English wife, the late Lynn Hockaday, planned this perfect English cottage garden.

The couple loved gardening so much they had a home in San Luis Obispo near Bishop Peak with a dog-friendly garden and a smaller modular home outside the city where they took stay-cations and enjoyed their hobby to its fullest. They wanted to get their hands dirty.

“This garden is not kid or dog friendly,” Ron said. “It’s plant friendly.”

The English don’t need a manor house to have extraordinary gardens because long hours of sunlight in spring and summer encourage puttering long after dinner. Most have been at it for generations.

Lynn continued that English tradition at their stay-cation garden in a 10-home modular park called Rancho Oaks, in the foothills south of the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. It is peaceful and off the beaten path.

Both she and Ron believed that California gardens were boring and too restrained.

Lynn hated the bloody thistle patch crowded along the outside of the fence in Rancho Oaks. She would put on her gloves and spend hours pulling them up one by one, Ron recalled. California poppies, freed from thistle strangulation, sprang up, thriving far beyond expectation. This spring, in the fourth year of the garden, poppies invaded the enclosed, terraced Garden of Eden (complete with an apple tree), drawing exclamations of astonishment from lucky visitors. It’s a golden tribute to an English gardener.

“The nice thing about a fenced garden is it adds drama,” Ron said, adding that he thoroughly enjoyed working with his wife in the garden. “It’s a process, not a project.”

After Lynn died, taking care of two gardens was too much, Ron said. He was glad his former neighbor, Megan Talevich Beach, and her sister, Becky, bought their weekend home away from home.

But even though he sold the home, its garden still reflects Lynn’s vision and hard work.

A visitor gets the first hint of what’s inside the garden at the entrance gate, where a rambunctious Cecile Brunner rose climbs over the gate’s arch. Once inside, the garden’s colors and texture are almost too much to absorb. You’re struck by a riot of color.

Fruit trees anchor the upper tier while vines of dark purple clematis, amber honeysuckle and white passion flower scramble over the back fence. Scent fills the air. Hybrid tea roses and English cabbage roses are in their full glory.

A grafted Iceberg tree rose surprises with both white and dark purple blooms. Bearded iris, geraniums, Stargazer lilies, and vanilla-scented heliotrope in dark purple compete for attention among the poppies.

Reddish pink Jupiter’s beard throughout the garden is a spectacular unifying element. Alstroemeria (Peruvian lily) in several colors and silver dusty miller bring height, color and structure that will last throughout the summer. Japanese maples add their burgundy foliage and containers scattered throughout hold cascading succulents and geraniums.

A galvanized horse trough used for a pond contains goldfish that now rise to the top when they hear Megan’s voice. The trough is like many of the other materials in the garden, repurposed.

Megan said the garden brings her much joy. “I feel more like a caretaker,” she said, noting that “every day there’s a different delight.” One of her favorite things is taking The Tribune and tea into the garden in the morning. Dew on the flowers when they are backlit by sunrise is especially enchanting. Songbirds add a joyful note.

Megan’s grandparents grew flowers for sale. One of her favorite memories from childhood is standing in fields filled with flowers whenever she visited them. So it’s no surprise that she has planted seeds and bulbs to add her own touch to the home.

Before purchasing the property, Megan and her mom, Mary, both avid gardeners, lived a couple of homes away and would walk up the hill each day for exercise and to see what was in bloom behind the fence. Lynn and Ron would then walk them back down.

Ron said he’s delighted that Beach bought the property and continues the love and care invested in a perfect, un-California, English cottage garden.

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