More than 50 shades of green are seen when visitors step through Charles Varni’s garden gate in Oceano.
“It’s been a labor of love, a labor of the heart, and just a lot of labor for me,” said Varni of his half-acre garden with its delightful views. Succulents, well-suited to their custom pottery, take center stage.
Growing up, the Santa Barbara native roamed the backcountry and was first drawn to succulents by the native dudleyas clinging to the bluffs in the mountains nearby.
“I’ve been collecting succulents for more than 40 years,” Varni said. It is no surprise that he is past president of the local cactus and succulent society.
This year he is chairman of the annual show and sale hosted by the Central Coast Cactus and Succulent Society at Ludwick Community Center in San Luis Obispo May 23 and 24.
Since retiring from teaching sociology and human services at Alan Hancock College, Varni has thrown his energy into garden and pottery design. Watching him work with clay and talk about sharing his interest and skill with small groups of students is inspiring.
The former rose and camellia garden has been transformed into a unique drought-tolerant showplace featuring specimensized cactus and succulents that range in color from bright yellow-green to deep emerald green. The amateur geologist also has a large collection of rocks that complement the plantings.
“I hardly ever met a rock I didn’t like,” Varni said.
Turquoise rocks complement turquoise aloes, and small black lizards lounge among flat rocks elevated for the lizard’s comfort. The tame lizards nip at your fingers when you rest anywhere near them. Varni, the nature lover, buys worms for them. His travels and explorations inform and enhance his garden and ceramic art. A few years ago he traveled down the Colorado River and said the colors of the canyon walls inspired him to mimic the hues he found there. He uses rocks and primitive symbols to texture his custom pottery, which is designed to enhance succulents and cacti to their best advantage. Many are available at Left Field, 1242 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo.
Planting beds in the garden evolved from grass so that now islands of succulents thrive in asea of chips. Two large aloe “Hercules” and a trio of South American cactus, with one of them sacred to the Incas, bring vertical interest. At ground level, scores of agave, crassula and euphorbias vie for attention.
A wall of chartreuse blooming cymbidiums dramatically alters the shape of the wall because they’re so tall. Above them, Varni’s pottery wall sconces hold exotic epiphyllums. A curv ing gray retaining wall holds an unusual plant with bright red barrel-shaped flowers. This red banksia with its stiff, oak-like leaves, is a real show-stopper.
A prolific collection of gasteria varies from plant to plant due to its promiscuous nature. All are showcased in custom pots in a spectrum of earthy colors and textures.
The undulating Spanishstyle wall separating the garden from the heavily textured and striated Idaho flagstone patio holds many small gems of various succulents in the handmade pots, elevating them for closer inspection.
The garden is a work in progress. For example, they’re now turning the flagstones that look like butterflies or peacock feathers into bas relief sculptures on the patio’s surface. This labor of the heart receives heart-felt appreciation from visitors. However, some may turn green with envy.