Home & Garden

The Vickery garden in Atascadero: Made in the shade

The magnificent deciduous Catalpa tree, with its large 5-inch leaves on sweeping horizontal branches, and the Mimosa silk tree on the left, gracefully shade the front of the Vickery home, creating lush garden beds below, and a cooler home.
The magnificent deciduous Catalpa tree, with its large 5-inch leaves on sweeping horizontal branches, and the Mimosa silk tree on the left, gracefully shade the front of the Vickery home, creating lush garden beds below, and a cooler home. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Gardening is important to Wayne and Shelly Vickery. When they were house hunting in the North County in 2001, they took a shovel along so they could see what kind of soil they’d be working with. They wanted to avoid the clay soil they had left behind in San Diego.

They’ve been using that shovel ever since to create a beautiful and serene tree-filled garden on their property in Atascadero that backs up to the Salinas River. The soil there is a variety of sand, rich former pastureland and a small amount of rock.

With three quarters of an acre, there was room to flex their gardening muscles and create their dream backyard, with a tall fountain surrounded by flowers behind a wide lawn, a grape gazebo, a vegetable garden, a meandering path through a varietal orchard and trees providing a canopy over the whole scene.

Shelly Vickery, a former corporate executive, has made horticulture her second career.

“My mother always loved working in the yard. Her favorite place to go would be the nursery, and I liked tagging along,” she said.

Before landscaping, she thoroughly researched Zone 7 trees, shrubs and perennials, driving around to see examples of what worked in the North County. She asked lots of questions at the nearby Bay Laurel Nursery, and used the Sunset Western Garden Book to study landscaping options.

Shelly and her husband, Wayne, who worked in construction, make a good team. They did all of the drainage, irrigation and planting themselves. She makes the plant selections and placement decisions and works right alongside Wayne, her “human backhoe,” as she calls him, digging and planting. Wayne likes to make the hole five to 10 times bigger than the plant, and fill it with a compost mix.

“Five dollar plant, $50 hole,” he said.

Now, with 13 years of gardening experience in the North County, the Vickerys have a good idea of the zone’s best performers, based on beauty, hardiness, water needs and disease resistance. Their yard is their laboratory, with 23 ornamental trees, eight varieties of producing fruit trees and dozens of shrubs and perennials.

At the top of their list for shade and beauty is the large-leafed Catalpa Speciosa tree. The Catalpa provides a wide-spreading open-growth canopy of heart-shaped leaves up to five inches across, growing 50 feet tall and 50 feet wide. Fragrant white flowers cover the tree early in spring, and long slender seedpods hang like ornaments in the fall.

“The Catalpa has given our west-facing front yard entry its own shady and tropical microclimate,” she said.

A close second to the Catalpa is the Pistacia chinensis, Chinese pistache, which they love for its fall color, shape and hardiness. Other trees high on their list are the Chionanthus Fringe tree for its clean look and lacy white flower clusters, the Arbutus Unedo with its pink bells and Koelreuteria paniculata, Golden Rain Tree, sending out long shoots of dainty yellow flowers in June, and tiny paper capsules like little lanterns in the fall.

Then there are the trees that they like, but have “issues.” Albizia julibrissin, Mimosa Silk Tree is a favorite, but requires a great deal of cleanup for its three stages of dropping — blooms, seedpods and leaves. Their Mimosa tree canopies over the front walkway and driveway, requiring Wayne Vickery to use a blower almost every day to make the front walk passable.

Other trees with drawbacks are the Mayten that has weeping branches like a willow, but sends out suckers even after the tree is gone. Robinia pseudoacacia, Purple Robe locust, seed themselves everywhere and have brittle branches and trunks that split and break. Sycamores send out zillions of balls of fuzz in the spring winds, causing homeowners to flee indoors to avoid coughing.

“The sycamore is the one tree we should have taken out,” Shelly said.

With a desire for privacy from adjacent yards, the Vickerys planted several types of screening shrubs, discovering that the three best performers were the evergreen red-tipped Photinia fraseri, Ligustrum Texas privet, and the yellow euonymous Emerald ’n Gold. The Vickerys recommend using the three together for great background color or hedge planting.

For shrubs that bloom as well as provide privacy, they chose the Viburnum Snowball, with its big white snowball bunches in April and May, and the Syringa, lilac, that announces spring every year with its strong fragrance.

Early every morning, the couple strolls their backyard and fruit orchard to carefully inspect each tree and plant, commenting to each other over their coffee cups on what needs to be done in the garden that day. They spend about three hours a day trimming, weeding, mowing, feeding and puttering, and bask in the fruits of their efforts by enjoying lunch and dinner in the patio covered by wisteria and star jasmine.

“This is just where we want to be, outside, in the shade, surrounded by the garden,” Shelly said.


Be well-acquainted with your irrigation system to know if plants are getting too much or too little water. Check dripper system often, and learn how to repair yourself. All parts available at Home Depot. Replace regular sprinkler heads with Hunter multi-stream bubblers for individual plants to provide variation in pressure and spray area. http://www.hunterindustries.com/irrigation-product/nozzles/bubblers-bubbler-nozzles

Feed all trees, fruit trees, shrubs and perennials after frost in mid-April and again in September, with Triple 15 Bandini Pro Choice fertilizer, available at Home Depot. This is the Vickery’s secret to abundant healthy green growth.

Chose from many nice perennials available instead of replanting annuals. Shasta daisy, delphinium, rudbeckia, hosta, heuchera and snapdragons all come back every year. A drought-tolerant yellow-gold perennial ground cover is Cistus “Mickie.” The splash of color in full sun is good contrast to red ground cover roses.

Purchase dwarf fruit trees to ensure the ability to pick the fruit as they mature. Regular trees get too tall and produce too much fruit for processing. Favorites: Panamint nectarine, Elberta peach, Blake’s Pride and Conference pears, Santa Rosa plums, Braeburn and Fuji apples.

TLC suggestions: For fire blight in apples and pears, prune back affected branch to point of good health, dipping pruners in bleach water between cuts. If a trunk is getting sunburned or splitting, wrap with plastic sleeve to protect from sun. On hot summer days, use gunnysacks or shade cloth over tender plants, then spray everything with water in the evening to cool down.