Home & Garden

In the Thomas garden in Morro Bay, a reverence for nature

Reverence for nature and its beauty is evident in the Morro Bay garden of David and Justine Thomas.

David Thomas loved collecting sea shells when he was a child. His parents lived in Morro Bay and supported his interest in collecting such beauty. When he was 10 he started selling shells on the waterfront.

“I made $100 that first summer,” he said. In those days abalone was abundant and cheaper than hamburger meat. Dave collected discarded abalone shells, cleaned them up and sold them to tourists who were anxious to take a piece of Morro Bay home with them.

“Dad put a little stand together out of oyster crates and I used a wheelbarrow to take the shells back and forth to it.” The Shell Shop on the Embarcadero is his brainchild and is his dream realized, “but I never could have done it without my parents,” David Thomas said.

The Thomas garden has many shell symbols and also many shells. Pueo, the owl, has significance as a guardian and protector in Hawaii. An imposing Hawaiian pueo sculpture named “Whoo” wears a seashell lei and feather crown to guard the Thomas home.

Circular brick planters bookend the home’s entrance with mature olive trees, boxwood ball topiaries and bright red geraniums.

A shell theme is repeated in the handsome driveway with large inserts of dark brown scallop shells among the tan pavers. Well-chosen plants such as giant bird of paradise, Agonis (Australian willow) and Cordyline “Festival Grass” bring Hawaii right to the Thomases’ door and screen any traffic from seeing their elegant southern patio. An overflowing bird feeder, bright hibiscus, palms and bamboo also draw many birds to the garden.

A trio of king palms softens the corner next to the expansive brick barbecue and outdoor kitchen covered in Dakota granite. This handsome countertop complements the brick base because it is sprinkled with black, gray and brick hues. Silver flecks in the granite capture the sunlight. It gets plenty of action; during the interior kitchen remodel it was in use daily.

Patricia Cullinan, landscape designer and contractor, selected unusual plants for the garden and extraordinary slate for the southern patio, which shimmers turquoise, green, orange and gold. This jewel-like patio is complemented by a corner firepit with blue glass that glows when the fire is lit.

Most striking are two custom-made bronze sculptures; one favorite companion, a border collie named Tucker, who welcomed Shell Shop visitors for more than 10 years, stands with shell and ball. City Dog, a retriever, chases a flock of bronze chickens that are airborne in their haste to escape his attentions. He is ringed by a grouping of well-behaved sea thrift (armeria). Ann LaRose sculpted both.

The bright purple blooms of a large princess flower shrub and dwarf princess flower ground cover also add drama to the southern patio.

Jim Schemmer, masonry contractor, replaced an ordinary asphalt driveway with estate-type pavers. When combined with the terraced retaining wall, also designed by Cullinan, the feel is one of solid expanse. Plants that line the driveway include Calylophus in spectacular bright yellow and Ozomanthus, an Australian perennial with tufted white flowers. They are incorporated into a pattern with expertly trimmed obelisk-shaped boxwood topiaries. Justine Thomas really wanted the topiaries because they reminded her of her childhood.

“Patricia and Jim did such a wonderful job,” Justine Thomas said. “They were really great listeners.”

Lower levels of the retaining wall have a king protea and alternating orange flowering pincushion proteas and strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo). Skirting them are gold trailing Lantana and Lantana ‘Radiation’ in shades of red, orange and yellow.

The northern face of the garden features azeleas, fuschias, camellias, a giant Australian tree fern and a Chinese azelea that is 47 years old.

A spectacular three-dimensional tiled fountain pours into an iridescent blue-tiled lap pool that is so cleverly hidden behind a garden gate no one would suspect what beauty lies beyond. A bronze birdbath features a ground squirrel scampering among oak leaves. Other creatures enhance the floral displays of peace lilies, red ti plants, camellias and hibiscus. Several unusual ferns complete the palette.

Dottie and Angelina, the family dogs, have three special places where they roam. According to Justine Thomas, dogs dream of bones. Both dogs have bone shapes inlaid into the area in front of their dog houses. A long run of artificial turf is especially popular with these two.

Whimsy takes hold in the bunny garden where a charming collection of little rabbits appear to scamper among the flowers or stand upright to smell the roses. These statuary bunnies are immune to Dottie and Angelina’s charms.