Le Jardin de La Jolla
Friends and partners apply their Francophile aesthetic to a local home
The garden’s fountain — topped with a pine cone reminiscent of the Pigna fountain from the Temple of Isis in ancient Rome — splashes before a replica of a frieze from the Pompeiian Villa of Livia. Evocative of a Mediterranean garden, electric blue echium and Florentine cypress punctuate the landscape, while ‘Joseph’s Coat’ roses begin climbing the trellis they share with ‘Sally Holmes’ climbers. Rosemary hedges line the paths.
When the millennium changed, Annie Navarra took the celebration to Villa San Souci, her French getaway in Provence. As she and her friend Bethany Atherton braved frigid weather to walk the villa’s grounds, Bethany suggested planting a classic Provencal garden there — one with bountiful olive, lemon and fig trees; sky-piercing cypress; roses; and rosemary. “You even have room for a lavender field,” she enthused, as Annie embraced the project. Within months, the two women broke ground on a garden, the first of many they created together in ensuing years. “Yes, we were hands on,” Annie says, laughing at memories of hard work under the summer sun. “At the end of the day, we shared lots of pastis.” Today the friends are partners in a business that immerses visitors in French hospitality, history and culture at Clos de Saint Phare, their South of France retreat perched on a promontory above the Mediterranean. Bethany lives there much of the year but makes regular trips back to California, where her father, an architect, instilled in her a love and knowledge of gardens as she grew up. One recent visit coincided with this year’s La Jolla Secret Garden Tour that featured the duo’s latest garden: an exuberant, lavender-scented landscape around Annie’s La Jolla home that blends French style with an homage to her Sicilian heritage. Three years in the making, the garden’s sun-drenched beds, orchards and vineyard skirt the property — from the entry walkway to the rear driveway. The landscape includes recently added courtyard patios and a luxe casita with a chef’s kitchen and wine cellar.
Until 2012, Annie spent a dozen years in a spacious La Jolla condo, close to her large family that first settled in Little Italy at the turn of the 20th century. But on walks around the neighborhood, a courtyard home and garden captured her imagination. “She told me so many times that she’d love a house like that,” Bethany says. “One day I said, ‘Maybe it’s time to move.’” A quick search identified only one possible property: a neglected second home with a courtyard monopolized by lawn and a clay tennis court. “When we walked in, something said, ‘This is it,’” says Annie, who closed escrow 30 days later. “There was this feeling of peace, serenity and quiet.” And, Bethany adds, “We saw the potential for a garden.” Today, garden views from every room in the single-story home equate to a passport to Provence. Just outside the living, dining and great rooms lies a terraced patio partitioned with fleur de lis-accented fencing, lacy hedges and long flowerbeds redolent with English and French lavenders. More perfume wafts from jasmine and honeysuckle vines climbing the stone pillars of an arbor that shades a favorite lunch spot, often shared with Annie’s dog, Lola.
Nearby, where a spa once stood, a pomegranate ringed by pelargonium and heliotrope recalls a gnarled sentinel outside the home in France. Dozens more fruit trees — fig, avocado, stone fruit and what the duo calls their “limoncello” tree — share space around the garden with flowering perennials and shrubs, a balancing act inspired by Annie’s childhood. “My father would argue, ‘Why plant it if you can’t eat it?’” she recalls. “My mother, who grew dahlias the size of dinner plates, would answer, ‘But flowers feed my soul.’ Both influenced me.”
A short climb up broad stairs reveals the heart of the new landscape, now marked with a bronze plaque as “Bethany’s Garden.” “It’s an almost-secret garden with par-terres in the French style for an effect I call ‘controlled wild,’” Bethany says. Stucco walls, decomposed granite paths, and hedges of rosemary and boxwood frame lush lavenders, flowering sages and bulbs, seasonal annuals and bold perennials like agapanthus, clivia and pride of Madeira that explode with flower spikes in spring. Above them, a flag with the symbol of Sicily flutters in the breeze.
In the center, ‘Sally Holmes’ and ‘Joseph’s Coat’ roses wend around an arbor that shelters a convivial circle of chairs warmed by a fire pit on fog-cooled evenings. Behind it, a fresco-style painting by Daniel Hole recalls a pomegranate- and bird-filled garden painted on a wall in Pompeii’s Villa of Livia. A second garden mural by the La Jolla artist drew on paintings in Annie’s collection to decorate a dining patio outside the nearby casita, the setting for family and charity events throughout the year. Between the casita and Bethany’s Garden, behind a tiered fountain, is a niche for a statue of St. Anthony, whose daylong Feast of Feasts celebration in June is a fond memory of Annie’s childhood. To Bethany, the festival’s shared abundance of faith, food and flowers exemplify Sicilian hospitality. “Visit any Sicilian family and the first thing said is, ‘Are you hungry?’” she says. Even as they enjoy their landscapes in France and La Jolla, Annie and Bethany know there will be other gardens in their future. “We will always garden. And we will always plant lavender wherever we go,” Bethany says. “We love to put our hands in the soil and make it our own.”