Home & Garden

The Mulvihill garden in SLO: In the zone

Michael and Theresa Mulvihill transformed their San Luis Obispo landscape with the help of Gardens by Gabriel.
Michael and Theresa Mulvihill transformed their San Luis Obispo landscape with the help of Gardens by Gabriel. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

After Michael and Theresa Mulvihill sold their Michigan-based health coaching business in 2006, they embarked on a three-year hunt for a second home.

They traveled to Belize, St. John, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic in search of the perfect location. A friend suggested they consider the Central Coast, so they flew into LAX, rented a car and drove north.

“We ambled into San Luis Obispo and completely fell in love with it, with the quaintness, charm and historic quality,” said Michael Mulvihill.

That was the beginning of a yearlong search for a house, resulting in the purchase of the historic Anholm home built in 1920.

The Mulvihills began reconstructing the home in a Craftsman style in 2008, and asked Gabriel Frank of Gardens by Gabriel and his associate Nick Wilkinson of Cambria’s Grow Nursery and Left Field Gallery in SLO to create a landscape that would reflect their excitement about their new climate zone and surrounding topography.

“We didn’t realize how amazing the climate was here; once we experienced it, we decided to make this our primary home,” said Mulvihill.

“The garden became two separate projects: a welcoming front environment, and a lush, private back yard,” said landscaper Frank. In order to shield the home from the busy street in the front, Frank and Wilkinson created a series of berms under the large canopy of a towering Australian paperback melaleuca tree.

In keeping with the Australia theme, they added several Australian “After Dark” peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) for their dark red foliage, grevillea, Leucospermum shrubs and tall New Zealand wind grass.

On the inside of the berm, a vine-covered pergola invites guests to enter along a flagstone pathway lined with a rich variety of succulents peeking out of boulders, all highlighted by large Australian tree ferns and a specimen weeping atlas cedar along the fence.

The front yard is itself a horticultural showpiece, but the big surprise comes when one enters the deep backyard, mounded and planted with a dazzling display of succulents, palms, weeping bamboo and papyrus.

The sweetwater flagstone walkway winds around a central ‘Signature’ hill where two large variegated Agave plants provide the focal point, surrounded by chalk dudleyas, salvias, aloes, red cordyline, yellow calyophus and creeping sedum. Throughout the plantings are oversized boulders creating structure and providing seating for a lava rock fire pit.

Around the outside of the walkway are several showcases of specimen succulents, as Agave gemniflora, coral ‘brain’ echeveria, euphorbia and fan Aloe with its orange-red bloom. A colorful carpet of silver dymondia, palomino gravel, dark beach pebbles and red shaved bark accentuates the carefully placed specimen plants. Throughout the garden and patios, potted mixed succulent groupings created by Theresa Mulvihill repeat the textures and colors of the plantings. At the back of the deep yard the flagstone pathway leads to another surprise — a welcoming deck complete with fireplace and pizza oven overlooking a small creek, with Cerro San Luis rising in the background. Mature trees along the creek, wisteria vines, fragrant pittosporum shrubs and a quaint garden cottage encircle the deck, creating the feeling of a timeless European village.

The Mulvihills share a deep appreciation for their new home and surroundings. Working out of their home in the health technology field, their serene garden provides a peaceful setting to offset their busy professional life. Their attention to detail, willingness to learn and awareness of the dynamics of a changing garden all contribute to the exquisite and outstanding display they have created on their historic property. “This project is a great example of the ongoing commitment between owner and landscaper to keep a garden outstanding,” noted landscape designer Frank.

“Every few months we evaluate the planting schemes and tweak areas that need attention. We keep a sense of adventure by trying out new plants, and cull the few that don’t succeed in our water-wise climate. “This has been a garden we all continue to learn so much from, and Nick and I are very thankful to have an owner who supports our continued cultivation.”