Home & Garden

Bringing the Sierras home

A view of Henry and Terri Giacomantonion's natural watershed pond and mixed conifer/white birch forest. A coast redwood in the foreground frames the scene.
A view of Henry and Terri Giacomantonion's natural watershed pond and mixed conifer/white birch forest. A coast redwood in the foreground frames the scene. The Tribune

Landscape contractor Henry Giacomantonio and his wife Terri purchased a new spec home in the Dresser Ranch area east of Paso Robles in 1983. “The two-acre property was just a bare flat grass field full of crickets,” Henry said.

Giacomantonio noticed right away that the large backyard had a low muddy spot that accumulated water from neighboring properties. This inspired him to take advantage of the existing watershed feature and build a natural pond that could overflow into the Huer Huero Creek adjacent to his property. He hired two tractor operators to dig out the pond and mound the dirt behind it to create the beginnings of a mountain environment.

Henry had spent many summers as a young man backpacking in the Sierras and at a small walk-in family cabin in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. His affinity to mountains was also rooted in his family lineage originating in the Italian Swiss Alps. With the pond and the surrounding mounds, he could bring the mountain landscape he loved to his own backyard.

With the mounds in place, he planted evergreen trees from one gallon cans: he chose both Coast and Giant Sequoia redwoods, four varieties of pines – Aleppo, Canary Island, Coulter and Mugo, and several Deodar cedars. To add contrast, he interspersed white bark birch and blue-green Pfitzer glauca juniper.

Terri presented Henry with a truckload of boulders for Christmas the next year to maximize his Sierra scene. He tucked many types of grasses around the boulders, with his favorite being the variegated reed grass Calamagrostis. Henry has continued to add more grasses and conifers at 10 and five-year intervals to sustain a natural looking forest.

A rolling lawn simulating an Alpine meadow fills the yard from the house to the pond and forest, leaving open views to the east. Using perspective tricks learned at architecture school at UC Berkeley, Henry created depth by making the lawn wide at the front and narrow at the back. Henry notes, “I didn’t become an architect because I preferred working outdoors with my hands, so I backslid into gardening and got catapulted into a landscape contractor.”

To keep the backyard mountain scene consistent and pure, Giacomantonio placed his rose and ornamental garden in the smaller front yard. With deer prevalent in the area, he has found plants that are deer-proof and allowed them to volunteer and spread. Those that have succeeded are salvia, gold coin, gazania, catmint, germander and society garlic. A side yard contains apple and pistachio orchards and the family vegetable garden.

Now that the successful backyard forest is 25 years old with trees reaching to 45 feet, Giacomantonio says he needs to become an arborist more than a gardener. The forest of evergreen trees has created a microclimate attracting birds and wildlife, and the years of falling pine needles have produced a rich mulched groundcover like that found along a mountain trail.

But what Henry likes most of all is the sound – the soothing sound of the wind blowing through the pine needles on a quiet starry night.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune