By Mary James • Photography by Will Gullette
Build, Grow, Savor
A couple's exotic tastes combine in an unusual home and garden...
Dan Kinnard and Eloise Lau knew they wanted to retire away from suburban Orange County to an affordable place where they could build a home, farm and garden. When a friend showed them some Vista acreage with 180-degree views across a broad valley, they made the leap.
That was 13 adventure-filled years ago — years that often challenged the couple’s dreams and stamina. Critters munched their crops, building inspectors complicated construction, health issues zapped their energy.
“It was a huge learning curve,” Kinnard says on a bright fall day as the two postpone saucing homegrown tomatoes to relax on a shaded patio. “There’s always a lot to do, but we still enjoy it.”
Tomatoes seem ordinary compared to the mostly rare and unusual edibles Kinnard and Lau tend, including a grove of certified organic guavas sold to health food and other markets. Members of the California Rare Fruit Growers, they cultivate “odd-ball citrus,” mangoes, green sapote, passion fruit, cherimoya, goji berries and tropical apricot along with more familiar figs, apples, stone fruit and grapes. Among the vegetables and herbs are bitter melons, taro, perilla, roselle (a hibiscus relative), curry leaf and allspice.
This taste for the exotic also extends to architecture, given their choice of artist-designer James Hubbell and his architect son Drew to design their hilltop house and adjacent library-guest quarters. In 2003, at an open house at James Hubbell’s Santa Ysabel compound, the couple fell in love with his mosaic-rich organic buildings at one with their rural setting. Within months both Hubbells were involved in realizing Kinnard and Lau’s dream of “a simple Japanese adobe,” a reflection of Lau’s Japanese-American heritage.
During the 18 months of construction, Dan, a retired computer-systems designer, acted as “owner-builder — an experience you only want to have once,” he says. Meanwhile, Lau, a former librarian, helped install some interior mosaics. She “apprenticed” with Hubbell mosaic artist Emilie Ledieu who created swirling designs outside the new home with its domes that echoed ancient Japanese tombs.
When finished, the sculptural home “wasn’t exactly what we were thinking,” Lau says. “It’s much better.”
Today the residence is embraced by an equally eclectic collector’s garden Kinnard and Lau designed themselves. “We never really had a plan. The garden just kind of happened,” says Lau, who originally envisioned a “Japanese garden with succulents.”
Along walks, steps and the driveway are familiar and rare succulents, all included in a detailed data base of 3,000 plants that Kinnard maintains. Among them are multi-limbed euphorbias, prickly pachypodiums, bold furcraea, and slick Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’, a favorite of Lau. Scattered throughout are emerald-green cycads from a collection, one of several given to the couple by fellow plant aficionados.
Australian natives are also favorites, especially lacy trees open to the panoramic view. Many such as the knife-leaf and string acacias and the inky ‘After Dark’ peppermint tree were started from seed or tiny finds from local specialty nurseries. Other Aussies mixed in are showy bottlebrushes, tea trees, proteas, ‘Jester’ conebush, and grevilleas ranging from ground covers to small trees.
Accenting the choice plants are two striking mosaic walls both painstakingly created by Lau. On a wall outside the library, a wave pattern in pebbles and tile took a year to finish. More confident in her skills, she embellished a second 45-foot wall along the driveway with five snakes in thousands of pieces of aqua-toned tile, stained glass, glass pebbles and rocks.
Down slope from the driveway is an imposing shade house, twice the size of the Kinnard-Lau home. It shelters more than a thousand bromeliads, Kinnard’s plant “addiction.”
Now membership secretary of the Bromeliad Society International, Dan has amassed a collection that includes species from high Andean valleys and tropical rain forests, including some observed growing in the wild when he worked in Venezuela for 10 years.
In between caring for them, the garden and farm, Kinnard and Lau are working on a new agave garden, to showcase five-dozen plants from a departing friend, and a “secret” garden pachypodiums from another friend. Undaunted by the labor ahead, Kinnard says, “We’re getting more like a botanic garden all the time.”