Bright orange poppies pepper metal grids in an unusual San Luis Obispo backyard.
Chris George, a local software engineer, has laid out his garden in attractive gabion grids that hold his sloping backyard in place. Gabion grids are frequently employed along steep roadsides to help hold mountain rocks in place. These metal cages are very effective. George’s gabion grids follow the linear design of his home and are filled with large, black Mexican river rock.
It is obvious he enjoys his visits to Lotusland in Santa Barbara because his Blue Garden is an homage to Ganna Walska. She was the visionary designer of the expansive garden on her Montecito estate. The Polish opera singer had the knack of marrying wealth several times. This enabled her to finance the garden of her dreams, which she called Lotusland. It has inspired many gardeners.
George’s Blue Garden is anchored by a trio of Mexican blue palms (brahea armata), several large agaves, yucca prostrata “Blue Sapphire” and blue chalk (senecio mandraliscae), all floating in a sea of blue fescue.
The surprisingly expansive garden is surrounded by a variety of trees and bamboos, including lush Mexican weeping bamboo, Alphonse Kerr bamboo and black bamboo (phyllostachys nigra). Knife-leafed acacia (acacia cultriformis), acacia baileyana and a silvery blue Arizona cypress add more color and texture. The bright yellow of the acacia blooms contrasting with the blue is particularly striking in early spring, as are the orange poppies wildly peppering George’s well-ordered grid later in the season.
Yellow Bright Star yuccas, Blue Glow agaves and burgundy dyckias, with their dangerously sharp leaves, are nestled in the grids along with fat manfreda “Macho Mocha,” agave attenuata and a selection of kalanchoes, aloes and portulacarias (elephant food jade).
The most striking feature of this backyard is the oversized “GULF” sign in bright orange edged with cobalt blue. George found it at an Arroyo Grande yard sale and recognized its design potential immediately. He has also acquired several unusual sculptures by simply checking Craigslist.
A triangle of large barrel cactus set in black Mexican river rock front a large stand of bamboo and adds geometric interest, but watch your step. A custom-built bench near the “GULF” sign was installed by George to give visitors more seating and a view toward the house.
He enjoys experimenting with his garden; one triangular area is filled with vertical plants, like Italian cypress and tall upright cactus.
The patio area is also triangular and uses modern warm brown tile identical to the home’s interior flooring, so the inside flows neatly to the outdoors. The outer edge of the patio is framed by built-in wooden benches, which makes sitting by the gas fire pit pleasant. A trio of Eichler-era ceramic pots in solid orange, turquoise and white strike just the right note for the home’s mid-century modern design.
A lovely polished concrete bowl nestled in a bed of large Mexican river rock burbles over as a refreshing water feature.
Along the side yard, well-trimmed black acacias reach for the sky. Their smooth trunks, like a circular forest of telephone poles, seem more sculptural than horticultural. Across from them, a huge staghorn fern dominates a small patio featuring a metal sculpture by a local artist. Grass failed in this area, so George used artificial turf to add a lush green note — perfect.
A tall, square vertical pot explodes with euphorbia “Sticks on Fire,” accenting the side of the garage and flaming up toward the roof.
The approach to the front of George’s home is a splendid example of his own vision, with several mature weeping Mexican bamboo that billow in the breeze behind an impressive assortment of specimen-sized agave, yucca, euphorbias and succulents in various stages of bloom.
A tall concrete pagoda peeks out from the center of this lushness.
“Having a garden is a very active hobby that’s challenging because things always change. I don’t know who’s in charge,” George explained. Fellow gardeners agree completely.
Anyone with an eye for the unusual could take a tip from Chris George:
▪ Craigslist searches, newspaper classified ads and yard sale adventures can yield many treasures.
▪ Thoughtful repetition as a design strategy can be very effective.
▪ Keep your friends and party planning in mind when envisioning where seating may be used to best advantage.