Gardens: Words and Photography by Will Gullette
A Family of Gardens
Traditions abound at "Villa de Flores"
Tom and Judy DiAnda have a big family and they like to keep them nearby. In order to do that, in 1979 they purchased a 2.4-acre estate in the back hills of Rancho Santa Fe and through the years, created a family compound with grand gardens. They dubbed it “Villa de Flores.” It has been inspired by their love of family, and continues to bring enjoyment and contentment to residents and guests alike.
Originally, the property consisted of a home with a small “English Garden,” an equestrian riding ring and corrals for horses. Today, the gardens are distinctly “Mediterranean,” a result of Tom’s Italian-Mexican heritage. The riding ring, raised with 5 feet of landfill, is now the sports field where family gatherings include soccer and volleyball games. The corrals were transformed into a recirculating waterfall and a natural streambed, bridged by an antique hay wagon that’s more than 100 years old.
Of this collection of awe-inspiring landscape spaces, Tom, a devout Roman Catholic, says, “There was no master plan. It was a shoot-from-the-hip design that came from the man above.”
Maybe so, but as the owner/designer of Blue Horizon Landscape, a company he formed in 1983, Tom does have a gifted hand when it comes to gardens and gardening. Many of the garden’s installations come from the vignettes Tom created throughout the 1980s for the Del Mar Fair Garden show. After dismantling them when the fairs were over, he’d reconstruct them and install them in his own garden.
The very first of these, a waterfall he built on the bed of a 1962 Chevy pickup, was for the inaugural San Diego Home/Garden Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The bed is still under the waterfall, but now it’s showcased at “Villa de Flores,” along with three other waterfalls and five water features that are distributed throughout the gardens.
The gardens begin at the highest point at the rear of the property with a reflecting pool that provides a great spot for the children to cool off in the summer (currently one daughter and four grandchildren live on the property). Adjacent, is one of the aforementioned waterfalls, surrounded by tropical flora that include king and queen palms, giant bird of paradise, pygmy date palm, draceana and agave.
A series of vignette gardens then descend in tiers throughout the property including Asian, country, New Orleans’ courtyard and xeriscape landscape designs, rose and vegetable gardens, a sports field and children’s playground, a vineyard and a fruit orchard. The orchard trees include Robinson and Valencia orange, tangerine, apple, avocado, fig and guava. One singularly unique tree has four different fruits grafted onto it: plum, peach, nectarine and apricot.
“Though the gardens are disparate, there are unifying factors,” says Judy. “Plants interspersed throughout the gardens provide continuity. Azaleas, for example, can grace oriental, tropical or country gardens. Roses are also prevalent in each garden with over 200 bushes.”
Walkways and box hedges define and separate gardens as well as unify them, creating a distinctly European park-like environment. Along the sunny side of the sports field are the vegetable garden (which includes a convenient showerhead pot with drain for washing off freshly picked produce), orchard and vineyard. The shady side is lined by Brazilian pepper trees with staghorn ferns and under-planted with cymbidium orchids, geraniums and iceberg roses.
Brass sculptures permeate the gardens, a result of the relationship Tom and Judy developed with the Brass Baron, a San Diego garden sculpture and fountain company, which used “Villa de Flores” gardens as a location background for catalog photo shoots. Many times they would leave behind a sculpture as a gesture of thanks. One example, At the Well, is the fountain centerpiece in the “white garden,” which is planted with iceberg roses, alyssum, nemesia, white iris and calla lilies.
Along a street named after “Villa de Flores,” the gardens terminate with another Del Mar Fair garden show transfer: a stately colonnade of rock columns where beams alternately support grapevines and Sally Holmes roses. Connecting the columns are low rock walls capped with slabs of aggregate exposed concrete. Here, as throughout the gardens, there are bistro tables that provide seating for rest and contemplation.
Tom says, “When the grounds are full of wedding guests they seem to prefer sitting on the low walls throughout the gardens rather than on benches and chairs provided.”
Wedding guests? Of the DiAnda’s five children, all three daughters and one son were married in the gardens. A nephew, too, made use of the gardens as his wedding venue.
Family weddings established a tradition that continues to this day. But nowadays, weddings in the garden are not just for family members. When the DiAnda’s daughter, Shellene — now a third-generation landscape designer/contractor — contributed the pergola she designed and installed for the 2008 San Diego Home/Garden Spring Garden Show to the “Villa de Flores” garden when the show ended, it wasn’t just her parents that were enamored with her creation. Wedding planners and photographers hired for family weddings took notice as well. They suggested that the gardens would be a wonderful place for public weddings.
This led to yet another use of the gardens from April through October — and continues an old family tradition of creating new families.