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Garden Feature

A post-fire “moonscape” inspires a Poway gardener to create artful vignettes

WHEN ANN AND BILL DAHNKE returned to their Poway home after the 2007 Witch Creek wildfire, “It looked like a moonscape,” Ann says.

Flames had melted fencing and irrigation, soot and debris blackened the pool, and trees were stripped bare by gale-force winds. But firefighters had saved the house, helped in part by the couple’s efforts since moving there in 2000 to clear brush from the canyon side of their acre-plus property.

“I had started other projects; but after the fire, I got more creative and kicked it up,” says Ann, a self-taught gardener and active member of the Poway Valley Garden Club. Now the landscape she found “boring and uninteresting” brims with artful vignettes that delighted visitors during the San Diego Horticultural Society’s spring garden tour.

From the top of the sloped driveway, one of Ann’s first endeavors comes into view. She eliminated a thirsty lawn to create a horseshoe-shaped bed with bright, bold perennials and shrubs that skirt a flagstone path and birdbath.

“I always start with vision and a focal point — like the birdbath — and then everything else falls into place,” she says.

Here and throughout the garden are many of her hardiest plants: rock rose, sea lavender, daylilies, rosemary, bougainvillea, lantana and other time-tested perennials, shrubs and trees.

“We have it all here — wind, heat, bad soil, tree roots, critters — and these plants can handle it. They add lots of color too,”
Ann says.

Her success with one lawn replacement led to another in front of the house, where a small patio with two Adirondack chairs beckons down a gravel path. An adjacent gentle slope shaded by liquidambar and xylosma trees is a serene setting for blue-flowered and foliage plants.

White pickets and red brick columns outside the front door enclose an entry garden with sasanqua camellias, pygmy palms and a tinkling fountain.

“I sometimes take a break from gardening out here to relax,” Ann says.

In the back yard, a long patio, airy gazebo and turquoise pool hug the remaining swath of lawn — a playground for the couple’s standard poodles and setting for an annual Fourth of July party. Magnolias and flowering crape myrtles add no-fuss seasonal color, while tall carrot wood trees cast welcome shade.

A flagstone path at the canyon edge curves past swaths of rosemary, Jupiter’s beard and sea lavender to reach a small orchard with citrus, apple and pomegranate trees. Bill, a Qualcomm vice president, often lends Ann a helping hand. One of his latest projects, a view bench, rests here beneath a solitary Canary Island pine.

Ann’s artistic eye and her recent infatua-tion with succulents have transformed a side yard, once a barren concrete basketball court. Pots, folksy birdhouses, statues and other garden art form a deft container garden along a 25-foot span of fence. More container vignettes dress destinations throughout the garden.

Visits from wildlife, like deer that nibbled plants last fall and serenading songbirds in the mornings and evenings, delight the couple and color their garden philosophy.

“Gardens are for sharing,” Ann says. “For the most part, we live outside and wouldn’t want it any other way.”


By Mary James • Photography by Bob Wigand

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Perhaps it’s because the “cottage” with the wavy, cedar-thatched roof on the cover of our July issue looks like it could be the home of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that I was immediately intrigued by a press release I received this week.

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