Between a Rock and an Easy Place

An El Cajon property strewn with boulders accommodates a relaxing garden with a wide vista

From their perch high above El Cajon, Nancy Hampel and Richard Johnson savor spectacular bird’s-eye views. On a clear day, Point Loma and the Coronado Islands shimmer west of the San Diego skyline. In the east, beneath a crown of mountain peaks, Sweetwater River sparkles between the emerald green Sycuan Golf Resort and Cleveland National Forest. 

Then there’s the light — “first thing in the morning and then again around three o’clock,” Nancy says. “You feel you’re being bathed in gold. It’s magical.”

After years of searching, the couple, both veterinarians, jumped at the chance to buy the 9-acre property in 1988 and held onto it until they were ready to build their dream home 20 years later.  

“We wanted to live in the country,” says Nancy, who grew up in southwest Michigan on a fruit farm. “This is close in but rural.”

Giant granite boulders, glinting in the sun, guard the two-story, modern Craftsman home and guesthouse designed by archi-tect Melvin McGee, who incorporated one behemoth rock as a sheltering patio “wall.” Many others were painstakingly scrubbed to remove decades’ accumulation of graffiti. A few were dynamite blasted to carve out a subterranean wine cellar.

Boulders clustered at the home’s entry embrace beds of colorful succulents that Nancy selected to thrive in withering afternoon heat. Cobble paths lead to a promontory with an oceanview bench she calls “the pew,” one of several garden spots where she retreats for prayer and Bible study. “I feel connected here,” she says.

Aeoniums, their cheery rosettes lifted sunward, are favorites in this spot and in the rear garden, where Nancy tends an overflowing test garden for them. 

“I have 33 different kinds,” she says. “I love the beautiful colors and all the variations.” 

A broad deck spans the home’s east side, where views beckon out over the spa, waterfall and vanishing-edge pool below. Ground-cover myoporum, hedges of rosemary and Carolina jessamine, and swaying peppermint trees contrast with chaparral-clad acreage downslope, dedicated to remain open space. 

At one corner of the deck, near comfy wicker seating, stands a patinaed brass bell, a replica of guideposts along the state’s historic El Camino Real. 

“Richard is a California native and always wanted one,” Nancy explains. A recent addition, a gleaming kinetic bicycle sculpture by San Diego artist Amos Robinson, celebrates the active couple’s love of cycling. “That’s our Boston terrier, Truman, in the bicycle basket,” Nancy notes with a smile.

Rustic stairs to veggie and herb gardens were laboriously constructed by the couple, who often struggled for hours moving hefty flat rocks around the property.

“We had no idea how we were going to set one 600-pound rock, so we gave it a shove and — we couldn’t believe it — it just tumbled into place,” Nancy recalls.

At the foot of the stairs is Nancy’s cedar potting shed, built from a kit by the couple with help from friends. 

“The company said two guys could build it in a weekend,” she says. “I’d like to see those guys. It took us a couple of weeks.”  

A life-size bronze sculpture of their American bulldog Cheyenne keeps her company when she works here planting seeds or creating hanging baskets.

This corner of the garden abounds with tree and shrub roses and plumeria that perfume the air. 

“I love fragrance,” says Nancy, who searched out highly scented varieties from English rose breeder David Austin and a Florida grower of heat-loving lei flowers. More fragrance wafts from a nearby trio of citrus trees that, like most plants on the property, were planted with the aid of a jackhammer.

Last June, the couple, who had interspersed Zinfandel grapevines on the property, added a 10,000-square-foot vineyard, planted with the help of Maness Vineyards along steep, southwest-facing terraces carved out by a bobcat. When the vines mature, in about four years, the couple hopes French winemaking friends in Napa will turn the grapes into fine wine.

When Nancy and Richard aren’t hosting friends or volunteering with Next Step Service Dogs to help connect PTSD veterans with canine companions, Nancy heads to the garden to water, prune, weed and plant. The often-exhausting effort, she says, is exhilarating. 

“More than with any other downtime, working here seems to foster meaningful thought,” she says. “When I come in, I’m just so happy. I think everyone should have a garden.” 



Categories: Gardening