Bloom On: A Family Uncovers Their Floral Garden’s Sweet Past
Two separate families treasure an estate garden’s colorful blossoms
For the second time in 30 years, a traditional Hamptons-style Fairbanks Ranch estate is a family’s “forever home.”
“The minute we walked in, we knew it was for us,” says writer and author Kristin Helms, who had been searching with her husband Mike, a commercial real-estate investment executive, for a larger home to house their growing family—two energetic preschoolers, Blake and Gavin, and their friendly golden retriever, Tucker.
The home’s shutter-framed dormers, broad bay windows and brick accents brought back childhood memories for Kristin, who was raised in Sacramento, and for Mike, who grew up in Virginia. The resort-style pool and spa in the backyard, rimmed with flower-filled beds and sheltered by mature trees, also appealed to the couple, who had been living near the beach in Cardiff. “The house just felt like home—our forever home—where we want to raise our kids,” Kristin says.
After moving in last spring, the couple spent six months renovating the interior, striving to “marry the old and the new,” says Kristin, who drew on experience with two previous remodels to organize a trusted team of tradespeople. “So much thought and detail went into this house, we only wanted to update.”
In the process, the family discovered touching mementos of the former owners, the late Joe and Rachel (Rae) James who built the home for their retirement in the late 1980s. “In a brick arch in the kitchen, there’s a lucky penny with the date 1988, the year they moved in,” Kristin says. “And one day, I moved a potted plant on the patio and saw they had put their initials in the concrete and drawn a heart around them. It was so sweet.”
Native Californians and high-school sweethearts, Joe and Rae were “corporate gypsies” during Joe’s successful career in the automotive industry, according to their son Clay James who lives in Orange County. “Everywhere they lived, they built their own home and my mom put in a garden,” he says. “They designed this last house to be the best of the best. And the garden there was my mother’s pride and joy.”
Much of that landscape lives on today, to the delight of the Helms family. “We see her love of flowers, birds and butterflies all around us,” Kristin says.
“Whenever she gave gardening advice,” Clay adds, “my mom told us, ‘pick plants that flower.’ She believed deeply in the beauty of flowers.”
In every season, colorful blooms and foliage brighten the landscape starting at the brick-pillared entry. There, sculpted Indian hawthorns line a long driveway shaded by tall trees including five melaleucas, their dramatic trunks feathered with cream and brown bark.
Closer to the house, the drive circles past majestic California sycamores that herald fall with golden color and purple-leaved flowering plums and blue-gray acacias that signal spring when they blossom.
Flanking the front door is a classic shade garden fronted by a recirculating stream that tumbles over silvery cobbles and under the entry walkway before ending in a shallow reflecting pool.
Here, bright pink azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas mound beneath striking tall tree ferns that brush the slate roof with their fronds.
Nearby, a white gate decorated with a rustic heart opens into a rose garden surrounded by a white fence Rae designed. Shrub roses obscure the pickets year-round with bouquets of pink flowers, while across a swath of lawn, more rose bushes—some with arm-thick canes, their metal name tags long lost—bloom beneath the bay window in the master suite.
“Roses were my mom’s second favorite flower,” Clay recalls. “First were daisies. She admired their simplicity.”
In the backyard, narrow beds between the pool patio and the house overflow with ferns and impatiens in the shade of a pergola, while sunnier areas blossom with red star clusters, a butterfly favorite, penstemons that lure hummingbirds, and frothy drifts of sweet alyssum and lobelia.
Opposite the pool’s turquoise waters, where chaises call to sun lovers, beds of jaunty agapanthus punctuate a low-growing evergreen hedge and a trio of palms reach high into the sky.
A walkway around the side of the house to the outdoor shower is studded with a variety of metal objects—medallions, keys, owl and turtle sculptures—another of Rae’s touches. “I suspect my mother bought them when she had an antique store,” Clay says.
Rae’s display of birdhouses on a garage wall, though, is no mystery to Clay, the oldest of the couple’s four children. “When we were living in Chicago, one spring a robin nested in a tree outside our house,” he says. “My mother took us all out to look at the nest and blue eggs. She talked to us about spring as a time of rebirth, new life, new beginnings. I think the birdhouses are a symbol of that renewal to her.”
With the house update behind them, Kristin and Mike anticipate a similar refreshing of the landscape, perhaps adding a fire feature and replanting a long terraced bed. “We’ll keep the lawn—the kids love playing there,” says Kristin, gesturing to the toys jumbled on the grass nearby.
In the interim, she continues to expand a writing career built on modern motherhood that includes founding the online magazine Tribe and her first book, From Boardroom to Baby: A Roadmap for Career Women Transitioning to Stay-at-Home Moms. Her latest coffee table book of poetry and photography published by Dover Publication (due out in 2020) was drafted during quiet times in her home “writing den” that overlooks the front garden.
“This place is so inspirational for writing,” she says. “It’s peaceful. Beautiful. It’s home.”