Home & Garden

The Swain garden in Morro Bay: A new chapter

Bob and Carol Swain's garden in Morro Bay.
Bob and Carol Swain's garden in Morro Bay. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

When Carol Swain retired from 37 years teaching elementary school, she set her sights on creating a beautiful garden. Her first thought was “Oh, good, work in the garden all day and read gardening books all night.” Boulders and rocks now solve the birthday and anniversary gift problem.

“What would you like, honey?” her husband Bob asks.

“I’d really like a new rock,” she says. For many women, that means something small and glittery.

But Carol’s husband, a retired chiropractor, supports her passion with boulders, some weighing several tons. The boulders the Swains used in developing their alpine garden can’t be rolled into place. They had to be moved with a giant forklift, which Bob Swain rented and drove with such skill that each time he planted a boulder it entertained the entire neighborhood.

Boulders can’t just be plunked down; they have to be planted at least halfway in the earth so they look like they’ve always been there.

Swain also has laid 13,000 used bricks from several locations. After he finished using all the bricks from the demolition of their chimney, the neighbors started suggesting where he could find more and what projects he could add.

The Swains’ wedge-shaped lot bisects two streets. One is level and the main entry to the home. The garage is three stories below on a different street so the home site offers ample alpine planting experience on the way to the curb.

When the Swains bought their home four years ago, the hillside lot was covered in aging pink iceplant, which they spent considerable time and effort removing. They brought in top soil and mulch to give new plantings a chance to thrive.

A well established Norfolk island pine and a hedge of red bottlebrush made the cut, as did some of the iceplant and several agave attenuata, but everything was re-imagined. Virtually all of the materials removed during the remodel were recycled and reused.

With the giant green serpentine boulders, the iceplant looks like it might be growing alongside a Swiss cog railway. The same is true of the gentle creeping thyme with its beautiful purple flowers and the clumps of sea thrift (armeria) with its pink pompoms that punctuate the upper terrace. A variety of unusual conifers, flowering shrubs and a repetition of design create the alpine illusion.

It is surprising and delightful to find a garden on the Central Coast so similar to Ohme Garden in the state of Washington. That garden is seven acres on a hilltop overlooking two rivers, but the feel of alpine respite and of a garden designed by a shared love is the same.

The Swains are thoughtful in their planting choices, knowing that the drought can take its toll on a garden that demands rainfall.

Low growing manzanita, ceanothus and a white flowering horizontal tea tree all bring texture to the hillside as they spread among the boulders and rocks without blocking the view.

A particularly arresting sight is one impressive flowering shrub, the unthirsty Australian hybrid, Grevillea ‘peaches and cream.’ Its exotic, toothbrush-like blossoms are a watercolor wash of ripe peach fading to a mellow off-white the color of brie.

A forest of five agonis trees runs along the edge of the driveway. Carol Swain really loves the contrast of the dark burgundy foliage against the house.

Undulating brick walls follow paths of recycled wood and stone that wind down the hillside. Bob Swain’s custom-made bench nestles into the hill offering a view of the estuary, dunes and beyond. A keen observer notices it also serves as a retaining wall on a particularly steep part of the garden.

A custom-made gas firepit fashioned out of more bricks sits in the center of a relaxed carex lawn. There’s no mowing and little water needed. A low curving boxwood hedge provides green separation from the steep part of the garden. A charming outdoor dining area on the upper terrace is tucked out of the sea breeze. A blue hanging Japanese fishing float serves as a chandelier for dining alfresco.

The Swains and their visitors can park easily along the upper terrace area so neither guests nor groceries have to travel uphill.

All the neighbors took a special interest in the couple’s planting and bricklaying . When driveways, footpaths and street edging were complete they insisted on a “Last Brick Party,” similar to the Golden Spike used to complete the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Swains said they still pinch themselves at their good fortune in moving to Morro Bay from Fountain Valley in Orange County. They aren’t alone.