Magical garden: Point Loma couple add whimsy to outdoor spaces

Guests who step behind an architecturally striking stucco home sitting atop a Point Loma Heights ridge will experience a magical wonderland. Following the sinuous path leads to discovery of a garden filled with repurposed discards, whimsical thrift shop finds and stained-glass treasures, along with containers artfully filled with lush drought-tolerant plantings.

Especially lucky visitors may even catch a glimpse of Max, a charming black-and-white cat tripping daintily over rocks amid the pond’s lily pads while stalking the resident goldfish. Rosie the Old English sheepdog and Ginger, Max’s tabby feline companion, also hangs out in the peaceful oasis.

Rebecca Long and Eric Johannesen purchased the Point Loma Heights home 15 years ago, starting their marriage fresh in a new home. Built about 1963, it began as a ranch house but, after remodels, morphed into a multilevel midcentury design with twin peaked roofs and vaulted ceilings, which Long described stylistically as “modern midcentury meets Victorian.”

“We have a passion for beautiful old stained glass. We integrate it throughout the house and garden,” Long explained.

Situated on a spacious 6,300-square-foot lot, the property overlooks the sea at Ocean Beach and offers expansive views toward Mission Bay and Mount Soledad.

The 2,700-square-foot house with its four bedrooms, three baths plus attached and freestanding garages, needed only basic updates when they purchased it, the couple said, but they knew they wanted to overhaul its landscaping.

When the couple bought the house, large ficus trees dominated the front and back, with two palm trees in front and birds of paradise, a red camellia, daylilies, alstroemerias and grass in the rear. The ficus trees provided heavy shade but limited what the couple could grow in their garden. They’re also notorious for having invasive root systems that can damage plumbing and sewer lines.

“We removed almost all the landscaping, especially the ficus and palm trees, and brought in rock,” Johannesen explained.

“The red camellia was the only thing we kept,” Long said, noting that the alstroemerias continued to spread despite repeated removal efforts. After making peace with the invasive flowers, the couple now enjoy the pops of contrasting color the blooms offer amid predominantly green succulents.

Johannesen, an antiques dealer, had greatly enjoyed gardening at his prior North Park home and was eager to take on a fresh challenge. Long, with an intense career as a nursing manager from which she retired after the pandemic hit, was new to gardening but had grown up in a farming community in Missouri in a family that treasured its abundant vegetable gardens.

Plunging into gardening and embracing its calming effects and creative inspiration, Long decided to improve her knowledge by joining horticultural organizations, including the Mission Hills Garden Club, where she’s now leaving her post as president.

“Gardening brings me back to my roots. I grew up in a family with hands in the dirt. It brings me full circle,” she explained.

Johannesen designed the landscaping himself, with initial advice from landscape designer Jim Bishop, past president of the San Diego Horticultural Society. Bishop recommended adding eye-catching purple smoke trees and Podocarpus, softening the lines of the rear freestanding garage, which doubles as Long’s private retreat. Before the new landscaping, the blocklike white stucco building sat amid grass, with a few plants around its base, shaded by the large ficus.

The couple transformed the structure, filling its window frame with stained glass and hanging birdcages along the walls filled with antique religious art and tillandsia. White alyssum, ferns, society garlic, aloes, aeoniums and other succulents surround the adjacent pond and nearby waterfall.

“Jim inspired us to be free with the design, not too structured,” Long said. “Eric had a vision,” which resulted in a garden that’s more vintage in feel than modern, she added.

“I think of the garden as a beautiful painting,” Johannsen said. “When we’re sitting in front of it, we’re looking at expansive greenery,” which their guests also enjoy when they entertain on their patio.

The couple have done all the work themselves, although Johannesen brought in professionals to install the pond and waterfall.

While the reimagined front yard – planted with California poppies, lantana, daylilies, aeoniums, coreopsis, asparagus ferns, jades, aloes, Japanese maple and pygmy palm trees – is complete, the garden behind the house is still evolving, as Johannesen and Long experiment with new plants.

Recently they’ve discovered versatile bromeliads, which they’ve incorporated along the pond and elsewhere in the garden. They find that these colorful, drought-tolerant plants complement Long’s favorite kalanchoes and Johannesen’s preferred aloes, along with many varieties of tillandsia, sedum, jade, agaves, aeoniums and other succulents, all low-water-use choices.

One of their greatest challenges in installing the garden, Johannesen said, is the sandy character of the soil. “It gives amazing drainage but has to be watered regularly,” he explained. “I water weekly by hand. It’s more efficient.”

They have a clear division of labor, Long said: “Anything planted in the ground is his, anything in pots is mine.”

Long learned through trial and error how best to combine plants in pots for color, texture and compatibility. As her reputation has grown for creating beautiful designs in found or repurposed pots, she’s often asked to speak to garden clubs and horticultural organizations about container design.

She pointed out an old birdbath base topped with a sculpture of a woman’s head, which she draped with pale green Sedum morganianum, or donkey tail, ringed with green, blue and pink Echeveria. Pink and white geraniums replaced the crown.

Near their home’s rear sliding doors which open onto a seating area and nearby fireplace, Long combined several colorful Mexican Talavera containers and baskets, filled them with a mix of succulents and annuals and set them before a wall tile of brilliant sunflowers. Nearby, she arranged a display of classical pots and sculptures, filling them with succulents and flowers complementing their shape.

Throughout the garden sit numerous charming arrangements of plant-filled found objects, such as an old oil funnel she brought from her family’s Missouri farm, then converted into a flower pot and hung from a repurposed old metal chair. Sculptures and religious art also dot the landscaping.

Between their artistry, the couple have created a restful urban refuge ideal for entertaining.

“Gardens are meant to be shared,” Johannesen said.

Nicole Sours Larson is a freelance writer.

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