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Loving hands tend Apple Farm Inn’s gardens in San Luis Obispo

Joseph P. O’Keefe has provided the inspiration and TLC for the Apple Farm landscape for 26 years.
Joseph P. O’Keefe has provided the inspiration and TLC for the Apple Farm landscape for 26 years. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Joseph P. O’Keefe loves his job. As landscape manager for the Apple Farm Inn and Restaurant in San Luis Obispo since 1989, O’Keefe is the heart and hands behind the bountiful displays of color throughout the three and a half-acre grounds at the popular hotel.

O’Keefe, born in Dublin, Ireland, caught the gardening bug from his mother and pursued his interest in the ornamental horticulture programs at Reseda High School and Pierce College in Southern California.

After 26 years working with the landscape at Apple Farm, O’Keefe understands the unique microclimate of the property that borders the creek and sits at the bottom of Cuesta Grade. Both of these factors, along with the Santa Ana winds, create warmer fall temperatures and milder winters than other areas in town. The climate zone 15 rarely freezes, allowing for year-round use of tropical ferns, fuchsias, hydrangeas and hibiscus. Avocado, citrus, grapes and apple trees also thrive in the environment.

Starting with what he called “bad soil,” O’Keefe has now created a rich workable loam in the planting beds by rototilling down 20 inches to break up water-sucking tree roots, amending the soil with compost and topping off with a potting mix when replanting. “If plants don’t have good beds to sleep in, they wake up grumpy the next morning,” he says with a laugh.

“The unique challenge of a garden in a hospitality setting is that it needs to be visually pleasing and colorful for visitors every day of the year,” says O’Keefe. In order to accomplish this, he rotates the annuals in beds and pots twice a year. In November, while the soil is still warm, he plants for early spring blooms of violas, primrose, snapdragons, Iceland poppy, lobelia, foxgloves, delphinium and larkspur.

As spring rolls around in April, he reworks the soil with a small rototiller and fills the beds with summer blooming zinnias, begonias, impatiens, salvia, rudbeckia and sunflowers. For the Christmas season, he sets the holiday theme with red and white cyclamen, poinsettias, white alyssum and “Crystal Palace” lobelia.

Through the use of pots and hanging baskets, O’Keefe has creatively extended the gardens to decks, patios and walkways. There are 725 pots and baskets throughout the property. He uses a permanent foundation plant such as a dwarf apple or olive tree in each pot, rotating annual color as lobelia and begonias around the base.

The gift shop entrance alone features 177 of his custom-created pots, while the upper outdoor restaurant deck has been transformed into a garden setting with 76 pots filled with a variety of interesting combinations. O’Keefe hand-waters and monitors each pot, removes dead blooms and leaves, and replaces potting soil when needed.

In order to conserve water, O’Keefe has incorporated more succulents and low-water varieties into his plantings. His uses a liner under each pot to conserve water and create evaporation, and controls runoff by hand watering. The property does not have expansive lawns, and with mature deep-rooted trees, water use can be kept at a minimum. O’Keefe manages pests by hand, using no sprays or chemicals on the property.

As a one-man team, O’Keefe makes all the landscape decisions and does the soil preparation, maintenance and planting himself. He arrives at the Apple Farm at 4:30 every morning (his favorite time of day) to inspect the grounds and replant annual beds during the quiet hours before guests arise.

During the day, guests find him at his potting bench outside the gift shop and ask questions about various plants and potting techniques. Returning guests report back on gardening solutions he offered them, and he welcomes their comments and advice as well. “I enjoy chatting with the visitors from all over the world. I’m very lucky to have a job where I get paid to pursue my hobby and doing what I love,” he says with a smile.

Connie Pillsbury: Conniepillsbury22@gmail.com

Tips for your garden success

  • Hanging basket secrets: Use the tight coconut liner around the edge of a wire basket, then a plastic bag liner to hold water. Place annuals around the edge of permanent plant, and sprinkle seeds on the plant to add color touches. Water by hand and keep moist. Experiment with different combinations.
  • Get to know your landscape habitat. Every landscape environment is different, and it takes trial and error and a willingness to experiment to understand your own setting. Remove and replace plant species that don’t thrive or require too much maintenance.
  • Remove (‘dead head’) flowers for two reasons: aesthetics and to send the energy back to the plant instead of the seeds in the flowers.
  • Ornamental cabbage and kale add interesting texture and strong red and pink color to garden. Let them spike until finished in April.
  • The best time to visit the Apple Farm gardens is February.

Joseph P. O’Keefe, landscape manager at the Apple Farm

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