Taming the Ups and Downs

A historic Mission Hills property’s canyon gets transformed into an accessible garden

Horticulturist Kate Sessions often gets credit for the early landscape behind Ellen Preston’s historic Mission Hills home. After extensive research on the 1913 bungalow perched on a steep canyon edge, Ellen concluded, “It’s probably an urban legend. But when you look at what was planted here all those years ago, it’s hard to believe the average gardener put this landscape in.”

Among the towering, decades-old specimens on the half-acre-plus property are rare spiny paperbarks (melaleuca), stout Canary Island palms and a weeping Baja native pea bush with pendulous lavender flowers.  

Combined with Ellen’s choice additions since moving onto the property in 1999, the landscape delivers the private “country-in-
the-city” ambiance the now-retired marketing executive sought.

For years, Ellen toiled in the garden, often slip-sliding up and down the precipitous canyon and its uneven stairs and terraces to plant and prune. Even though her efforts earned her property a
spot on the Mission Hills Garden Club tour a decade ago, by 2012, she decided it was time for a makeover. 

“I wanted the garden to come up to me,” she explains, looking out from one of her home’s two balconies. “And I wanted it to look so good that everyone would want to go down — and could go down.” 

On his first visit, Fallbrook landscape designer Scott Spencer remembers exclaim-ing, “This site is impossible.” But over the next year, he and Ellen partnered to tame the canyon with gentle switchback paths, a layered collector’s plant palette, a bocce ball court, and other accents, including sculptures and totems that Ellen crafted.

Revamped stacked-stone and stucco garden walls were combined with vintage cobble retaining walls to shape curved beds and gravel-topped walkways. Removing the old stairs allowed Scott to bring paths closer to the house and link them for an easy zigzag descent. 

“There’s no hard breathing going up and down now,” Ellen says with a laugh.

Inspired by famed Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, Scott filled several curved beds with mass plantings that can easily be read from a distance. A grassy meadow, semicircles of blue sedge and ‘Breeze’ dwarf mat rush ring the Canary Island palms. Upslope, multiple clumps of ‘Rye Puffs’ pennisetum wave in a raised bed, while near the bocce court, a dozen ‘Blue Flame’ agaves nestle together in the sun. 

In other beds and borders, deft low-water plantings mix flowering perennials, dramatic succulents, natives and bulbs beneath the dappled light of small trees. Among them are a half-dozen unusual and rare melaleucas — chosen, Scott says, as
“a nod to the big ones planted long ago.”   

“I don’t always know the names of all the unique things Scott brought in,” Ellen adds, “but I love the shapes and colors, the aesthetics. I walk the garden in awe.”

While Scott wrestled with the canyon, Ellen tapped her artistic talents to revamp the balcony outside the master bedroom and bath. New gray paver flooring is shaded by a laser-cut aluminum patio cover and edged with a swirled iron railing — both her designs. Wicker seating and a dining table make this a popular destination for “movable feasts when guests load every-thing from the kitchen in baskets and bring them down here,” Ellen says.

Nearby, the same kind of pavers trans-formed a former rose garden into a patio bordered by a checkerboard pattern planted with succulents. Another makeover turned a cluttered basement into a potting shed, just steps away from what Ellen calls her “fluffy, girly garden” of roses, sages and pelargoniums. 

“It makes me feel good that we were sensitive to the site and did it justice,” Scott says.  

Ellen, who welcomed hundreds of visitors during last year’s San Diego Horticultural Society and San Diego Floral Association tour, views her role as the garden’s steward. 

“I didn’t want a new garden that would be in decline in a couple of years,” she says. “I wanted something lasting, and that’s what’s here now.” 

Categories: Gardening