Thirty-seven years ago, when Phil Niles joined the engineering department at Cal Poly, he and his wife Mardi sought a home that retained a sense of its past history. The Arroyo Grande property they chose reflected an agricultural past, and the farmhouse, though in decrepit condition, retained some charm.
In its favor, there were producing orange, grapefruit and apricot trees on the three-acre property, and a row of belladonna lilies (aka “naked ladies”) grew alongside the road.
Phil renovated the house, aided by Mark Bryan, a local contractor and artist. Original materials were retained when possible. The crumbling fireplace was rebuilt outdoors to become the cornerstone of a new flagstone patio. The outhouse was transformed into a garden shed.
While Phil worked on the house, Mardi envisioned an English-style garden with flowerbeds all around the house. She started in the sunny front yard, planting a wisteria vine against the south-facing house wall. It reaches the eaves now.
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Other early efforts were less successful. A circular vegetable garden and surrounding flowerbeds in the front yard were devoured by the resident deer. A row of Monterey pines planted to screen the house from the road gradually declined and has been removed.
Undaunted, Mardi determined to learn about plants that deer don’t eat, as well as those more suited to the climate. She joined the Native Plant Society in 1998.Now, native plants mingle with non-natives all around the house; vegetables grow within a fence; and native rye and deer grasses have replaced the Monterey pines.
Mardi waters the main garden monthly during the dry season, using overhead sprinklers. She hand-waters the vegetables and flowerbeds near the house as needed.
The patio outside the kitchen is shaded by a grape arbor and sheltered by a tall retaining wall. A raised bed near the wall is Mardi’s “ethno-botany garden,” so-called because it contains deer grass and juncus reeds, plants historically used for basket-making. An elderberry bush with multiple straight limbs was planted because they were used to craft primitive flutes and musical clappers.
Mardi and Phil enjoy bringing “pieces of nature” into their garden. She writes, “It really is just wonderful, having a native habitat with the wildlife surrounding your home. One morning, looking out the window, a spotted fawn came walking across the small bridge over the seasonal creek, and all around it were quail dancing about. It was right out of Disney.”
Obviously, they have come to terms with the deer, realizing that “if there is enough for them to graze on around the perimeter of the garden, they don’t come looking for the roses near the house.” To this end, Mardi has planted Hooker’s primrose and other self-seeding natives that deer eat in a partially developed area. Additionally, they pick fruit as soon as it ripens. They also pick up fallen fruit, tossing discards into the designated deer-friendly territory.