This Ever-Evolving Garden is an Air Plant Paradise
Time and patience result in a glorious garden of succulents and cacti in San Diego's Clairemont neighborhood
After a day in the classroom, fourth-grade teacher Krista Mills is relaxing in her backyard where the heady scent of orange blossoms swirls in the air. Lizards skitter over sun-warmed rocks. A red-breasted house finch is nest building, while hummers zip bloom to bloom. Pepe, a pet pionus parrot, savors the balmy day on the deck, while the family’s lively rescue dog Sophia waits in the house for her turn to roam and romp.
“I like to be around life. And I love plants,” Krista says, surveying the fine collector’s garden built slowly over 15 years since moving to a ’50s-era Clairemont home with her husband Doug, a chiropractor, and two children. “I’m always adding plants, always making room for more.”
Dramatic specimen succulents and cacti, many soaring over 15-feet tall and wide, fill the front and tiered backyard that stretches to a canyon edge and embraces views west to Soledad Mountain. Deftly mixed among them are a dozen fruit trees, showy bromeliads, fragrant plumeria, rare air plants (Tillandsia) and exotic orchids, including two rock orchids (Dendrobium speciosum) that stop traffic past the front yard with cascades of snowy white flowers.
The couple smiles as they recount shaping the garden, often sharing labor with family and friends to build broad stairs, a deck and gazebo and dress beds with boulders and cobbles, some pried from the rock-strewn backyard and others hauled in, one wagon load at a time. Plants started out small, often grown from cuttings or mini pass-alongs. “This is no insta-garden. It took time…and patience,” Doug says.
Twice during the past decade as it matured, the Mills’ garden drew hundreds of visitors on the annual spring Clairemont Garden Tour. Two horticulture groups Krista joined—the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society and the local Bromeliad Society—have held events here too.
“Regardless of the time of year, there is always something blooming,” says Doug who surprised his wife by secretly submitting the garden to San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles. “I believe seeing what Krista has done over time conveys the message of ‘yes you can too’ to everyone.”
In the early 2000s, the quarter-acre lot was far from a clean slate. “The former owner used the backyard as a dumping ground for all kinds of junk,” Doug recalls. “Bad plants were everywhere too,” Krista adds. “Fruit trees were diseased or dead and the front yard was just grass and some old junipers.”
Both native San Diegans, the couple envisioned a sustainable climate-compatible landscape, explains Krista, who started gardening at age 6 to earn ‘mad money.’ Krista got her own children started early too: Raising edibles and fruit—figs, guavas and more—would educate their son and daughter about food sources and choices.
With a year-long cleanup finally behind them, Krista started small, focusing on the backyard’s far southwest corner where she and Doug rototilled, sifted and amended the soil. Among the pint-size cacti, aloes and euphorbias she planted were “two gifts from my grandma,” Krista recalls. “They were souvenir succulents, unnamed, and bursting out of their little pots.”
Now the mix of Mexican fence posts, candelabra tree and prickly pear tower above the fence line, multi-armed silhouettes against the blue sky. Bloom spikes on a big-headed “mystery” aloe add a splash of hot orange, a bold contrast with the burgundy leaved Caribbean copper plant (Euphorbia cotinifolia) nearby. Steps away, a striking variegated Euphorbia ingens hoists multiple pale green limbs skyward.
Watching these and other plants mature taught multiple lessons and colored Krista’s redo of the front yard eight years ago and ongoing additions to the backyard, including a trio of “island beds” splashed with watery blue slag glass. “By going slow, I learned what I like and I learned from my mistakes,” she explains. “I evolved as a gardener and so did my garden.”
Tucked around the garden are Krista’s favorite succulents, imposing tree aloes with names like ‘Hercules’ and ‘Goliath.’ “I love their aesthetics, their blooms,” she says of the slow-growing South African natives that can reach 30 feet tall. Standouts include the classic “Dr. Seuss” giant tree aloe (Aloe barberae or bainesii) near the gazebo; Aloe pillansii, a rarity with a swirl of long blue-green leaves atop a stout trunk; and the fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis) aptly named for leaf clusters spread wide like a flared fan.
Spidery air plants that pull needed moisture from the atmosphere are equally prized. “They tolerate extreme conditions and add lushness and softness to a dry garden with minimal care,” says Krista, who displays dozens wired to tree trunks, hanging from deck and gazebo rafters and clustered on rotating wire “tubes.”
Krista owes part of her collection to a chance friendship with the late San Diego horticulturist Jim Wright, admired for his palm garden and diverse plant passions. “I met him at a garden tour and we just hit it off,” she says. “When he died, he left tillandsias and orchids to me in his will. I was so honored.”
Adding to the garden’s year-round appeal is Krista’s “yard jewelry”—some 350 glazed ceramic containers that showcase select plants like clumping mammillaria cacti or deep-throated bromeliads. Homemade custom soil blends and occasional drenchings with “compost tea” help her container garden thrive, Krista says.
Recently when a palm tree overlooking the backyard died, Doug and Krista commissioned San Diegan Tim Richards to carve the trunk into a 5-foot-tall tiki. They call their garden guardian Ulani, Polynesian for “cheerful.” “Of course,” says Doug, “cheerful is how Krista’s garden makes everyone feel.”