When Yvonne Smith was the busy director of communications for the Port of Long Beach, her day was frantic with reporters, special events, advertising deadlines and speeches.
“The only thing that kept me going in my hectic job in the concrete jungle was the dream of someday creating a beautiful mini-botanical garden,” she said.
Yvonne and husband Vic have now created that garden on a 4-acre wooded property in the hills of Atascadero. “It is everything I ever hoped for and more,” she said.
After retirement — Vic was the land surveyor for the Port of Long Beach — they settled in Cambria, but the climate was not conducive to what they wanted to do. They moved inland to a unique Craftsman-style home on an undeveloped property that Yvonne describes as a “blank canvas” on which to realize her dream.
In the spring of 2006, the Smiths planted a Mimosa tree and two cherries in the open sunny space between their yard and their closest neighbors. After the deer destroyed the cherry trees, they fenced the entire backyard in the spring of 2007, using Viburnum tinus “Robustum” for a tall hedge screen along the new fence.
It was at this point that Vic and Yvonne received some bad news — Vic was diagnosed with prostate cancer and there would be a seven-week wait for surgery.
Instead of worrying, Yvonne said, “We just got busy with projects.” Vic converted the barn to a guesthouse while Yvonne completed plans for the pergola and koi pond, which would be the centerpiece of the garden.
During this time, Yvonne visited all of the local nurseries, taking copious notes on plant varieties, foliage and floral colors, water needs and seasonal blooming patterns. She worked extensively with Bay Laurel nursery to become familiar with suitable choices for the North County hillside climate zone.
Meanwhile, a neighbor dug the pond with his Kubota tractor, Vic and a friend built the pergola, and Allen Anderson of The Pond Place in San Luis Obispo advised on pond design, pump and lining. Vic, jack-of-all-trades, installed the pump and filtration, and at 10 p.m. on the day before his surgery, he filled the pond. The same evening he had also completed the guesthouse flooring.
As Vic recovered, Yvonne began the planting and the flagstone pathways through the garden area. She laid all the flagstone out according to shape and size, and then put the path together like a puzzle.
Plant selections were carefully placed in groups of three, five and seven, using oranges, pinks and reds to pick up the colors of the koi in the pond.
“I did 60 percent of the planting myself, with weekend help from the strong young guys who built the fence,” she said.
The now mature garden blooms from early spring to late fall, starting in the trees with bursts of white and pink from the cherries, dogwoods, and Merrill magnolias, followed by eye-level red and white carpet roses, orange kangaroo paws, pink guara, peach and red daylilies, purple agapanthus, and groundcover white star jasmine.
Yvonne spends about three to four hours a week pruning her garden, and walks the drip irrigation lines on watering days to “look and listen” for leaks or damage. Each morning she devotes time to filling the many birdbaths, troughs and feeders for visiting birds, quail, squirrels and deer — now outside the fence.
The good news is that Vic is thriving along with the garden, and is now cancer-free with no side effects. On a recent visit he was replacing the Trex railings on the large deck that provides views of their colorful garden below and the deep green hills beyond.
Taking it all in, Yvonne smiled broadly. Her garden dreams while sitting in traffic have been fulfilled, and, best of all, she and Vic can enjoy the fruits of those dreams together.
Connie Pillsbury is a freelance writer who lives in Atascadero.