Swayed by Swedish Roots

A La Jolla back yard reflects the heritage of the gardener who created and tends it

Neighbors of Stina Lake have become accustomed to seeing her in gardening gear, weeding, pruning and even spreading manure around her half-acre property. Her family isn’t surprised to discover her on the roof wresting with an overgrown wisteria or on a sun-baked slope, slip-sliding as she digs a dozen planting holes.

“One day I was trimming the jacaranda when I felt the ladder start to sway backward and I thought, ‘Whoa, what am I doing here?’” she says shaking her head and laughing. “I am very hands-on. I guess it’s the Viking in me.”

Born in Sweden in a small town at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, Stina moved to La Jolla with her husband Edward 14 years ago, into what she describes as a bland ’70s California stucco home with nondescript landscaping. As they raised two children, now both teens, Stina transformed the property into what an admirer calls a “European country manor.”

Hundreds of visitors discovered its Old World charms during last year’s La Jolla Secret Garden tour. From the front porch perfumed by standard roses and lavender, they wandered down decomposed granite paths to the back yard with its chandelier-lit dining deck, a rock-strewn circulating creek and new native garden where a eucalyptus “forest” once stood.

“This is a living garden,” Stina says, pausing to admire the fragrant yellow flowers of two spring-blooming knifeleaf acacias, humming with bees. “It’s not one where you take out what’s done blooming and replace it with something else. And it’s very do-it-yourself, in the old European tradition.”

Much of the garden’s person-ality speaks to Stina’s Swedish heritage. A gravel path reminds her of the crunch underfoot at her native country’s outdoor cafes in summer, while flag-stone patios and a retaining wall echo its wintry grays. The Swedish flag’s blue is a favorite accent, coloring containers, metal canisters and a pair of shutters propped against the house.

Wagon wheels, farm tools, galvanized steel tubs, weathered wicker and rusty cast-iron urns decorate the sunny brick and wood decks in the back yard. A long, wood dining table and the antique stone fountain behind it are sheltered by an arbor where a ‘Flame’ grapevine twines. “I appreciate the beauty of the simple, the rustic,” Stina says of the shabby-chic look. Her finds were collected over the years online at eBay and Etsy, in antique stores and at garage sales. Once, alerted by a friend, she raced to salvage a tall urn abandoned by the side of the road.  

Stina says her childhood in drought-plagued Sweden and three decades as a California gardener sustain her vow to conserve water. Recently, she
successfully applied for a turf-replacement rebate to replace part of a side lawn with brick-edged beds fragrant with rock-
rose, lavender, butterfly bush, rosemary and other drought-tolerant beauties.

Efforts to cultivate a hillside native garden at the property’s edge, however, have proven frustrating.

“I followed all the advice on what to plant and how, but eight out of 10 plants died,” she laments. Despite ongoing severe drought, some are finally taking root: coffeeberry, Cleveland sage, manzanita, California lilac, black sage and buckwheat, for example.

Near the top of the slope, a vintage sign for “Vila St.” marks the spot where a hammock once stretched between two eucalyptus trunks.
“Vila is Swedish for rest,” Stina translates, smiling at the thought of a break from her gardening chores. “I’m always busy with family and life, but that doesn’t stop me. Whenever I get a chance, I grab my garden hat, call my dog Hannah and
I’m back out here for more.”



Categories: Gardening