GOY: Tropical Punch


Ronee and Bob Kozlowski know how to cultivate a partnership. This artistic couple, who celebrated their 30th anniversary in June, lived in Vista, but the area was too chilly for many of the plants they coveted. 

Tropicals! That’s what they most wanted, after several trips to Hawaii. So when they moved to a house on a large lot near the ocean in Carlsbad 10 years ago, Bob made Ronee an offer she couldn’t refuse: He’d take care of the hardscape and heavy lifting if she’d maintain their garden. 

Today, Bob laughs at the deal, because, of course, maintenance never ends. (Being an honorable partner, he does pitch in.) “It’s brought us together. We both love to work on the yard,” says Bob, a retired contractor and artist.

Until now, their eclectic backyard garden has remained the Kozlowskis’ secret, tucked away from view behind fences. Only a few guests have ventured through the redwood side gate Bob built and enhanced with a palm tree’s silhouette.

Sunshine and microclimates of coastal Carlsbad make it possible for them to grow a startling array of tropical plants that most San Diego gardeners keep indoors, with bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) topping the list. “The bromeliads turn crimson in the sun and look so good with the greens,” Bob says. They also favor drought-tolerant plants: “Blue fescue (Festuca glauca ) sets off all the colors,” Ronee adds.

Their dream garden took root after the Kozlowskis moved or removed — by themselves — years of old growth, including bougainvillea that reached the telephone wires and a 20-foot-tall oleander hedge that blocked glimpses of the ocean. Orange and tangerine trees along the side of the house stayed, as did camellias, giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) and split-leaf philodendron (Monstera delisiosa). They eventually eliminated most of the thirsty grass, except for meandering pathways among curvaceous tropical or floral islands. 

“Though we have a lot of tropicals, we use only a moderate amount of water and watch every drop,” says Ronee. “We are as green as green can be.” She recycles kitchen rinse water into the beds and waters by hand a few times a week; he built three rain barrels.

Initially, Bob spread a truckload of compost around the yard. The pair are religious about composting themselves and “We use a prodigious amount of steer manure,” Bob says.

Now, sensational tropicals and more than 20 varieties of succulents form a thick tapestry that changes as plants bloom year-round. Elegant orchids mix with dwarf avocado trees, kangaroo paw, papyrus and hundreds of bromeliads Ronee has propagated. Young queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) fan a host of day lilies, a vegetable garden sprouts food, and succulents’ rosettes and blades thrive alongside an undulating pond. 

“The pond is really the focal point,” Bob says of the 12-foot-by-30-foot figure-eight-shaped pool he dug and lined with concrete. He and Ronee enjoy sitting near its cool edge under a second-floor deck that offers shade and privacy. “I turn on the waterfall and butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds come around.”

“Gardening is very therapeutic,” Ronee says. “The hard work keeps us happy.” 

Gardens of the Year: By Ann Jarmusch Photography by Bob Wigand

Categories: Gardening