Creativity Blooms in a Vibrant East County Garden
A once-reluctant farm laborer becomes a gardener
A former farmer becomes a gardener with bright, colorful florals and unlikely “found” containers in a stunning East County landscape.
Teens gowned for quinceanera pose for birthday portraits amid the tropical flowers. Families occasionally stop by to admire Buddha statues shaded by bamboo. Neighbors—and strangers too—aim cell phones at exotic blooms, an unexpected pleasure on this Fletcher Hills street mostly ceded to nondescript lawns.
Usually visitors strike up conversations with Cesar Villota, the young man who tends this lush yard where thick vines ramble up palm trees, bananas and mangos ripen, plumerias perfume the air and containers of every sort brim with plants. As he answers questions about “his ranch,” Cesar often cups bold blossoms in both hands, sharing his delight in a ruffled petal, swirls of color or wafting scent.
Cesar, now 35, discovered his green thumb a decade ago after marrying Julian Villota and joining his new husband and son Alex in the terra-cotta colored home near Gillespie Field that Julian purchased in 1998. Over the years Julian, owner of North Park’s Botanica Chango, outfitted the backyard for outdoor living with a sheltered patio, deck, fire pit and spa, and shaded the grounds with the swaying canopy of three dozen palm trees.
Before moving to San Diego, Cesar worked at his family’s farm in Michoacán, Mexico, tending avocados, mangos, corn, oranges and other crops. Initially, he admits, he was a reluctant laborer. “But I discovered I loved it,” he says in a mix of English and Spanish. “I loved the countryside, the agriculture, growing things.”
After years living in apartments, Cesar quickly jumped into gardening around his new home, then dominated by lawn. He especially relished the chance to add colorful tropicals he remembered from Mexico and trips to Hawaii with Julian. “I have 70 hibiscus, 10 different plumeria, six colors of bougainvillea, eight jasmines, lots of gingers” he says proudly of finds sourced everywhere from the internet to swap meets.
“I’m always looking for color and flowers,” he adds, fingering delicate double impatiens in shades of rose and lavender. “When it’s my birthday, I ask for Home Depot gift cards. It’s my flower place.”
Most of Cesar’s plant collections thrive in pots that he moves around the garden to take advantage of bloom cycles. In the front yard, for example, summer flowering hibiscuses replace orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) or epis that bloom earlier in the year. During warm months the epis rest among calla lilies and cattleya orchids along shady sides of the house.
Lately Cesar’s let his imagination run wild, tucking plants into “found” containers ranging from silver tea pots, birdcages and plastic queso fresco buckets to a wheelbarrow, wood pallet and worn pairs of Julian’s and Alex’s boots. Some are clustered on the front patio near a towering three-tier fountain from Ensenada, while others perch on ladder rungs and even a neighbor’s discarded sewing machine cabinet.
“He’s a very creative guy,” Julian says. “This isn’t learned. He was born with it.”
Today, a tile sign outside the front door—Familia Villota Pena—welcomes friends and the couple’s large extended family. “I have six brothers and sisters who live nearby,” says Julian, whose father came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in the 1930s. “My mother always loved coming to sit in the garden.”
A morning glory vine clambers along the roofline in this shaded entryway. Below, split-leaf philodendrons and asparagus ferns circle a rusted patio table set with succulent-planted china once owned by Julian’s grandmother. More containers overflowing with succulents, geraniums, peace lilies and impatiens crowd a baker’s rack. The jaunty gnomes peering from pots there were Dollar Tree finds.
Around the corner, in a sun-drenched section of the patio, two weathered Adirondack chairs—one mint green and one pink—are backed in summer by potted hibiscus that unfurl saucer-size, deep-throated flowers. Many are in shades of red, Cesar’s favorite color.
Among the standouts are ‘Night Magic’ with its nearly black center and orange-red petals, deep pink and white ‘Sugar Kiss’ and a bright yellow variety, the state flower of Hawaii.
Trunks of the 12 palm trees growing here are slowly disappearing beneath twining wisteria, trumpet, jasmine and other vines. More purple, white and pink wisteria clings to palm trunks and the patio cover in the backyard, where its sweet fragrance mingles with the perfume of gardenias, angel’s trumpet, jasmine and plumeria. One pot near the spa intertwines the satiny yellow, white, pink and rose blooms of four plumerias Cesar and Julian brought back from Hawaii.
Along the deck railing, geranium-filled lime, orange, purple and yellow trellises decorate the backyard for celebrations like Julian’s recent birthday party when 250 friends enjoyed mariachi music and barbecue. Most days, the family gathers for quiet outdoor suppers in the company of their three affectionate Yorkshire terriers.
In the future, Julian says, the aging deck will be replaced to include stairs down to a now barren part of the property. There Cesar envisions expanding the tropical-themed landscape and starting a small plant nursery. “So many people love these big beautiful flowers when they see them in the garden,” he says. “With the nursery, they can take them home, and make them their own.”