Finders Keepers

A La Jolla homeowner gives her back yard personality with salvaged goods




The rustic outdoor living room in Claudia Johnson’s La Jolla garden showcases her singular style that accents spaces with reimagined objects, ranging from vintage birdcages to pruned twigs. Cozy seating is sheltered by a vine-wrapped pergola.

Cloaked in vines, the walled garden behind Claudia Johnson’s La Jolla home feels like a secret garden of yore — a romantic, rustic landscape brimming with surprises. Where else have you seen an outdoor room defined by a suspended metal mat that once groomed baseball fields, stairs framed by a salvaged segment of an early 20th century New Orleans porch and wine glasses racked on a rusted refrigerator coil hung above an outdoor kitchen counter? Vintage birdcages stuffed with plants and bric-a-brac sway from the branches of sheltering trees and nestle among the fronds of lush ferns. Pruned branches crafted into rustic arbors and wreaths capture wandering trumpet, grape and wisteria vines to fringe windows and doors in greenery. An impossibly dainty hummingbird nest rests like a crown jewel in a ceiling lamp above the cozy outdoor living room. “I reimagine and repurpose,” Claudia says of her highly personal garden, created since she and her husband, Jeff, settled here in 1999. “I love giving new life to something discarded, including things from nature.” A crowd favorite on this year’s La Jolla Secret Garden Tour, Claudia’s yard is a first for the native San Diegan and business woman who heads Exclamations!, which sells branded gifts and gift baskets.  

“When we moved here, we started the makeover in the back yard,” she says. “Who does that? But I was so excited.” Determined to create comfortable, low-maintenance areas for “just hanging out with friends,” Claudia carved out spacious patios for cooking, dining and relaxing. She installed new planters for herb and cutting gardens and a wall fountain. Aggregate concrete, rusty red bricks and cobblestone accents brought in the earth tones she loves. It wasn’t until the interior remodel got underway a few years later that she discovered her singular style. “Workmen were carrying out the kitchen cabinets, when I thought, ‘Wait a minute,’” she recalls. “I wanted a storage shed and realized I could use the cabinets, granite counters, light fixtures and vents for that.” Three weeks later, what she calls her “sugar shack” stood alongside the fountain. A weathered door framed with hand-scraped ceiling beams from the kitchen creates a Tudor-cottage look, accented by wrought iron lanterns once outside the home’s front door and rusted urns planted with passion vines.

“That cool little shed was the beginning,” she says. “It all evolved from there.” Nicknamed “Scout” by her husband, Claudia can’t resist “spontaneous scavenger hunts” in secondhand stores, estate sales and flea markets for treasures others have overlooked: dinged kitchen gear, farm tools, old jelly jars, metal military trunks and more. Some are mystery objects no one can identify, like the rusted chain found in San Luis Obispo and now looped like a garland with strings of lights above the outdoor kitchen and living room. While neighbors completed a remodel, she awaited their 1920s iron gate, which now separates her outdoor kitchen and dining areas. A few finds have rested in storage until needed, like a weathered door from Hungary and panels from an Egyptian balcony now fronting a second shed along the side yard.

“I don’t always know what I’m going to do with things,” she admits. “I’ll walk them around the garden until I find just the right place. When something surprisingly is the perfect fit, I feel God’s hand in this garden.” Throughout, the garden showcases Claudia’s creativity. A patio umbrella pole and stand all but disappear behind an artful arrangement of containers on a platform made from a rustic barn door. T wigs and branches double as plant supports and table runners. “And I don’t neglect the air,” she says, pointing to a suspended wooden yoke displaying lanterns, bells and other finds. “It’s another platform for bringing the eyes up and adding interest.”

Working outside, often propagating succulents (her latest plant passion) or watching “garden theater” through a sitting-room window, Claudia strives to be mindful. “I notice the hummingbirds, butterflies, what’s blooming, the grapes on the vine clustered around a birdcage,” she says. “I could be in the garden all day. I live a life of gratitude. It’s all crazy good.”

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