Gardens: By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand
This Fallbrook landscape design is a showcase for sculpture.
An angel watches at the entrance of Jim Helms’ garden. No ordinary spirit, this one wears twisted robes of metal salvaged after the 2007 Rice Canyon wildfire scorched a mobile home park in Fallbrook. Her horn is a light fixture; her frizzy hair, a trash can; her halo, siding. She stood as a symbol of hope for the community’s rebuilding effort before finding a permanent home here.
Helms forged her and four more haunting sculptures from the fire’s debris in a burst of creativity, he now acknowledges, “changed my art.” Since then this artist/dentist, a Fallbrook resident since 1975, has crafted award-winning abstract metal works, including graceful stainless-steel sculptures that tremble in the wind.
Helms’ artistic turning point coincided with a garden make-over, spearheaded by landscape designer Scott Spencer, a fellow Fallbrook resident. While the pair had many goals for the new landscape, the paramount one, Spencer says, was “to create a gallery for Jim’s art.”
While the main gallery stretches from the angel along the driveway, sculptures are displayed throughout the garden, now a vibrant tapestry of waterwise plants from countries around the world with Mediterranean-style climates. “Jim isn’t a plant person, but he has a sculptor’s eye,” Spencer says, “so I emphasized plants with dynamic shapes.”
The sophisticated combination captivated visitors earlier this year on the San Diego Horticultural Society garden tour. In October, landscape architects in town for their annual convention walked the grounds as part of an education field session on residential design.
One of Helms’ mandates — “no straight lines” — shaped each of the refurbished landscape’s three galleries, starting with the one along the entrance to the ranch home. There, a new stamped, curved driveway replaced one that was “a straight shot of concrete” to create a welcoming arrival for family and friends.
On one side of the driveway at the base of a slope, artworks, including the imposing 9-foot tall copper Burnt Wrangler, are embraced by semi-circular stacked-rock “niches,” that, Spencer says, were inspired by the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy. Behind them are flowering shrubs, small trees, grasses and shapely succulents that meet another Helms’ request for “no cookie-cutter plants.” “There’s plenty of seasonality,” Spencer says. “Nothing is static, but there’s very little maintenance.”
Next to the house, the same rock forms circular planters for shrubs and ornamental grasses that shield the master bedroom windows and provide a backdrop for more sculptures. Two graceful small trees, an ‘After Dark’ peppermint tree and a blue-green leaved weeping acacia, frame both the view outside Helms’ studio window and glimpses of Helms’ ghostly Rising from the Ashes sculpture by the front door.
In a nook just steps from the entry is “Victoria’s rock.” The boulder was craned in and carefully sited for Helms’ wife, Victoria, who sits there to change shoes before her daily bike ride.
Beyond the driveway, a decomposed-granite path pauses by another Helms’ sculpture, Casual Reader, a piece identical to one he made for the new Fallbrook library. Past swaying kangaroo paws and a wall of evergreen Miscanthus, the landscape opens on a broad labyrinth bordered by an undulating privet hedge and avocado trees. In the center is Helms’ Standing Man, created from copper coving seared by wildfire; at its feet, as a bit of whimsy, is a golf ball.
The labyrinth replaced a little-used lawn with permeable California Gold gravel. Its paths are outlined in gleaming rectangles of polished black granite from a quarry in San Marcos. “In the sun, they almost look liquid,” Spencer says.
Behind the labyrinth, in a raised bed, is one of the garden’s two sculptures by other artists. A witty take on a wine opener, Bacchus, by Escondido artist Wendell Perry, seems ready for a party surrounded by swaying silver grass and fiery torches of Aloe rudikoppe.
The second work, Bubo, a bronze owl by Wisconsin artist Don Rambadt, is perched on a granite pedestal in the third garden gallery, which is shaped to reflect the sculpture’s slightly skewed circles and triangles. Behind it are arching clumps of coppery orange sedge, lavender-blue wands of Mexican and Cleveland sages and burgundy blades of ‘Dark Delight’ phormium.
Nearby, flanked by the bold foliage of cannas and giant birds of paradise is one of Helms’ most traveled sculptures, Wounded Warrior. Earlier this year, it spent a month on display at the County Administration Building downtown.
Across from the sculptures are new stuccoed beds designed to link this “gallery” to the deck above where the Helms’ enjoy al fresco meals. Here massed ‘Rye Puffs’ Pennisetum, when in full flower, is a living kinetic sculpture, ever- changing with the slightest breeze.
“I call Scott a landscape artist,” Helms says appreciatively. “This garden shows his art, as well as mine.”