Gardens: By Mary James • Photography by Bob Wigand
ON SUMMER NIGHTS WHEN CONCERTS ARE PLAYING in Bird Park, Greg and Helena Livingston like to relax on their balcony, soaking up the music and compliments from their neighbors strolling by.
“People are always telling us how much they love our garden,” says Helena. “We wave back, feeling like a king and queen.”
Passersby actually glimpse two gardens behind the white stucco walls surrounding the Livingstons’ 1916 residence on the edge of Balboa Park. The backyard is a sultry tropical oasis, home to gingers, bamboo and dozens of rare palms from around the world, while the front garden is Italianate, scented by 18 citrus trees, a rose border and exuberant lavender trumpet vine.
Both are the work of North County landscape designer Ken McClellan and both were in their infancy when the Livingstons bought the property from him in 2004. Engaged to be married, the two realtors wanted to live in the city and have a garden, especially since Greg was leaving a 5-acre landscape in Elfin Forest.
“When we saw this home and garden, we both thought, ‘perfect!’” Helena says.
McClellan, who held out for garden-loving buyers, has befriended the couple and visits when he’s in their neighborhood. “They have been phenomenal caretakers,” he says.
All share the bounty of the citrus orchard that curves around a black lava-stone fountain imported from Europe. Planted on dwarfing ‘Flying Dragon’ rootstock, the slow-growing trees are barely 6 feet tall even though some are almost 20 years old. Welsh-born Helena annually turns the homegrown
oranges into marmalade, while McClellan takes home tart Mexican limes for key-lime pies.
Along the arched entryway, Helena added a rose garden, under planting fragrant favorites like ‘Double Delight’, ‘Neptune’ and ‘April in Paris’ with paperwhites and other bulbs. Patches of lawn are now artificial turf. Greg gleefully says, “It was a great day when I sold the mower.”
Above the front porch, three sunset-hued bougainvilleas twine together, almost obscuring the balcony’s wrought-iron railing. From this perch, on a clear day, the couple can see beyond the park and skyline to the distant Coronado Islands, a view captured in stained glass for a privacy window downstairs in the living room.
A deep cover, built by Helena’s brother-in-law as a wedding present, shades the patio just outside the kitchen where the Livingstons’ Siberian husky likes to snooze. Adjacent tile and gravel paths wend through the backyard stopping in front of a tiered fountain where the couple said their vows eight years ago.
Here, in less than 3,000-square feet, McClellan celebrated his passion for palms born during his childhood on the paradisiacal Marshall Islands.
“My dad was a botanist by desire and he taught me a lot,” he says. “My mother travelled the Pacific Rim in her job as a diplomat and I used to beg her to bring back plants and seeds.”
Determined to “push the zonal envelope” for growing subtropical palms, McClellan created an ideal microclimate in this garden already enclosed by a 6-foot wall that held in needed heat and humidity. He removed thousands of cubic yards of clay soil and replaced it with a mix of loam, compost and coarse sand that is nutrient-rich and moisture-retentive, helping to keep water use low.
While a few succumbed over time, most of McClellan’s finds — grown from seed, ordered from specialty growers or passed along by “palm-crazy” friends — have thrived. When several members of the Palm Society of Southern California visited, Greg says, “they went nuts.”
Among the rarities are five species of Pritchardias native to the Hawaiian Islands. “One is almost extinct now in the wild,” he says. “They do well here, as do so many others. It’s a pity we don’t grow more varieties in our gardens.”
Another favorite, also admired by the Livingstons, is Chambeyronia macrocarpa often dubbed the “Flame Thrower” for its dazzling red new leaves. Equally eye-catching is the umbrella palm that hoists fronds above its silvery trunk like an umbrella blown inside out in the wind. They are from the South Pacific, in and around Australia as are nearby sentry and solitaire palms,
Adding to the canopy are a champaca tree (Michelia) sometimes called the Joy Perfume tree for its richly scented flowers; an impressive stand of Timor black bamboo with inky culms; and an elegant 40-foot-tall Canary Island date palm that the Livingstons affectionately call “the guardian.”
Beneath them is a lush understory of smaller palms and cycads, shrub and vining philodendrons, five kinds of flowering ginger, and blooming gardenias, clivia, plumeria, hibiscus, shrimp plants and peace lilies that add splashes of glowing color.
Now house-hunting for a single-story home, the Livingstons could leave their tropical paradise by year’s end. “We’ll never forget this garden,” Helena says. “It’s been such fun bringing up Ken’s ‘babies.’” υ