The house that Robert Nieto and Kelly and Andrew Macdonald inhabit sits atop an oceanside cliff in Shell Beach. Because of its wonderful views, they cheerfully overlook the site’s few disadvantages, including sandy soil and a steep slope downward from the street.
Aside from an enormous fig tree and a row of Hollywood junipers beside the wooden ramp-like walkway to the entrance, there was little that could be called a garden when they moved in eight years ago. As a professional landscaper, Robert perceived the property’s condition as a challenging opportunity. His landlord permitted him to make improvements, though he could not remove the existing trees.
Robert is clever in using the small amounts of unused materials left at the completion of his landscaping jobs. For instance, his patio sandstones were leftovers from two projects. He’s arranged them so that their subtle differences in color appear intentional, rather than mismatched. He also built composting containers with leftover wood. And he devised a fire pit using large concrete drain pipes topped with yellow crushed glass.
Wanting to grow as many food plants as possible, Robert inserted young lemon and orange trees between the pre-existing Hollywood junipers. Much of the level portion of the lot is now dedicated to food plants growing in beds of neatly mounded soil, topped with mulch. Spring crops included strawberries, artichokes, cabbage, celery, beets, kale and onions. As these were harvested, they were replaced with mid-season plants that had been started in an improvised greenhouse.
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Instead of a lawn, Robert planted a sedge meadow. While at Native Sons Nursery to purchase sedge plants, he discussed his plans with owner David Fross. Fross was so taken with the idea that he donated the sedge and added some California poppies to brighten the meadow.
Taming the steep slope between the street and the level meadow-vegetable garden below was challenging. Robert’s solution was to terrace the slope, and plant a unifying and soil-stabilizing ground cover of low-growing Ceanothus, “Diamond Heights” in the steeper portions. Its variegated dark-and-lime green leaves gleam above the mulched background. Rosemary, thyme and oregano also planted there will be allowed to naturalize like wildflowers.
On the lowest terrace, a row of sunflowers stands at least 10 feet tall. One level up, a row of young grape vines stretches out, backed by a row of tall amaranth alternating with Chenopodium quinoa. The feathery flowers of these plants add summer color, and their grain-like seeds can be harvested for winter meals.
Up at street level, a flower bed by the sidewalk is flanked by two bird-of-paradise plants. Between them, a colorful floral mix includes Verbena boneriensis, Buddleja davidii, coprosma, senicio, teucrium, leucodendron, yarrow, and a euphorbia called “Portugese Velvet.” It’s a visual treat for passers-by.
Robert loves to share his garden methods and his conservation philosophy with others. He hosted demonstration workshops for the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Gardens Program in April.
The organization encourages gardeners to help revive watersheds and oceans by improving soil permeability and retention, and also to conserve water by using low-flow irrigation and drought-tolerant plants. Another workshop is scheduled for August. In October he will host members of the California Rare Fruit Growers during their annual meeting.
Sharon Crawford is a freelance writer who lives in Los Osos. Reach her at email@example.com.