Home & Garden

Imaginative miniature gardens in SLO delight visitors

All of the garden’s themed areas work together to form a unified landscape for the front of the house.
All of the garden’s themed areas work together to form a unified landscape for the front of the house. Courtesy photo

Dancing past tiny gardens will make your heart sing if you stop, bend to leprechaun height, and enjoy the details.

International photographer and local ballroom dance teacher Linda Drake found a new direction for her enthusiasm and imagination when she and Jay Hieatt, her fiance, moved from apartment life to a new home in San Luis Obispo with garden space. Their tiny garden vignettes appeal to any fairy flying by and also to anyone who loves gardens.

Although Drake designs almost all of the tiny gardens, Hieatt is engaged in gardening a wee bit.

“Linda’s the designer; I’m the digger,” Hieatt said. “Sometimes the goal is texture, sometimes the goal is color, and sometimes the goal is shape. The creation is hers. I’m a willing worker but she’s the mastermind. I’m just happy to help.”

Preparation of the soil before planting involved removing lawn and 1 1/2 feet of Laguna-area clay and replacing it with layers of pumice and gravel. It crunches when you walk on it and the neutral palette provides a perfect foil to highlight each plant. Occasionally Drake will suggest moving a plant that has found new life and grown to exceptional height.

“Don’t you think it looks good right there,” Hieatt will tell her. (There’s a lot of work involved in relocating prickly plants.)

Plants are carefully named and so are sections of the garden: “Wonderfully Weird,” “World of Mesems,” “Bonsai Ridge,” and “Zen Garden” compete for attention. Any plant that outgrows miniature status moves into a new area. Anything really unusual moves to “Dr. Seussville.”

One day Hieatt decided to work on a miniature garden of his own to surprise Drake. “Hobbit Hill,” complete with two rounded doors into the mossy miniature green hillside, is just the place for visiting Hobbits. Two tiny boots sit on flagstone outside one door and a little chair is on the patio by the other. The Hobbit’s path winds to the top of the hill so they can enjoy the garden’s overview from the bench in another sitting area.

“I think he’s extremely artistic,” Drake said about Hieatt. “I love his different perspective.”

The front yard hosts a home for “Mini Cliff Dwellers,” a tiny homage to Mesa Verde, complete with tiny ladders, shrubs, a mine, tiny stacks of rock to mark the trail, and a wishing well. The only thing missing is a petroglyph, and one is planned.

The garden is also home to a variety of stapelia, with a flower the size and appearance of a starfish that smells like roadkill if you get your nose too close. Other smelly plants have a mound of their own toward the back of the yard and thankfully, some smell good.

More than a thousand succulent specimens are on display and each is featured to its best advantage. Because succulents require so little irrigation, Drake waters sporadically.

“There were so many specimens I had to try to figure out what to do with different species. I started getting into all the different forms of succulents,” Drake said. She fell in love with aloes first. “Then I started to become an elitist. I tend to only have purebred aloes, not hybrids.” She didn’t want anything someone designed in a garage.

The area between their house and the neighbors’ is planted with succulents with green shades blending into blue-green to blue, then lavender and gray. Neighbors appreciate the loveliness so much they have asked Drake to design a complementary plan for their garden.

She obviously enjoys hunting for species she doesn’t have. The annual Central Coast Cactus and Succulent Society Show judges gave her the “Best Cactus in a Novice Class” award for a plant that she agrees looks somewhat like a Chinese shar-pei dog, with its deep wrinkles and bear-like coat. “Until you touch it,” Drake said. Then the crested stenocereus hollianus bites, even though it can’t bark. She also received six first places, one second and one third at the same show.

Drake’s mother, who lives in Texas, is also a collector gardener.

“I didn’t understand why she would go work in Texas heat in her garden but now I do.” Mom is the ideal visitor. The two carefully laid the curving flagstone path the length of the backyard the last time she was in San Luis Obispo.

Does Drake plan to continue this unusual hobby? “I love the thrill of the hunt,” she said joyfully.