Taming The Slippery Slope
Making terrain safer for a gardening enthusiast creates a habitat for butterflies and birds
HEAD OVER HEELS, Marcia Van Loy tumbled down the steep slope behind her Clairemont home. Tired of the bank’s weedy iceplant and eucalyptus, she had been digging planting holes when she slipped and fell.
“My husband, Alan, just shook his head,” she recalls. ‘“If you’re determined to plant the hill,’ he said, ‘we’d better make it safe for you to work there.’”
Four months later, retaining walls, switchbacks, walkways and railings tamed the broad 70-foot hill. In the five years since, Marcia has trekked countless times up and down, densely planting edible and perennial beds with bulbs, shrubs, succulents and vines irresistible to the birds and butterflies she loves.
Countless visitors — neighbor kids to garden clubs and Clairemont Garden Tour-goers — have thrilled to views, upslope or down, when the bank bursts into bloom spring through summer. Drifts of alstroemeria, gaura, sages and more are punctuated by hundreds of tall, fragrant oriental lilies (Marcia’s favorite bulb of the dozens she plants). Poppies and other annuals weave through the garden with abandon, many grown from seeds she scattered months earlier.
Birdhouses, some hand built and others collected over the years, dot the terraces and even decorate the stump of a felled Monterey pine. Milkweeds teem with striped caterpillars that will morph into Monarch butterflies, while another butterfly-host plant, passion vine, cloaks some of the fencing that rings the garden. For months, a cluster of butterfly bushes (Buddleja) is a kaleidoscope of purple, blue and yellow flowers.
The garden’s recent transformation was sparked in part by the retired couple’s decision to stay in their home of 30 years, where they raised their family and now babysit four grandkids. Both had glimpsed the back yard’s potential a decade earlier when they added a koi pond and cascading waterfall there.
Marcia’s growing garden skills also spurred change. While growing up in Coronado, she gardened with her grandparents and mother, whose yellow clivias, hand-thrown succulent pots and repurposed apartment door live on in the back yard. Years of free nursery classes helped her become a UC-trained Master Gardener in 2001.
Wrestling with her garden’s clay soil and annual winter frosts, Marcia initially spent weeks researching suitable plants at Buena Creek Nursery with the San Marcos nursery’s former owners, Steve and Donna Brigham.
“I was so proud that I only lost one of the hundreds of plants I bought there,” she says. Today her plant choices have become “more experimental,” she says, pointing to recent trials of pincushions, leucadendrons and proteas. “I’m definitely a plant fiend now.”
On a deck above the back patio, Marcia propagates plants from seeds and cuttings, many to donate or give away at the dozen garden talks she gives annually. Among her favorites are giant sunflowers and the butterfly magnet Asclepias physocarpa, also known as the “family jewels plant” for its prickly round seed pods.
Late last year, Marcia turned to the front yard, removing grass to make way for flagstone pathways and a curvilinear bed planted with winged and other wildlife in mind.
“I’ve had visitors come to the garden; and when I’m talking, I can see they are barely listening. They’re captivated by the birds and butterflies,” she says. “I love all the critters that are at home here. It’s nature that makes a garden.”
Garden Planner: By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand