Couple Live and Let Die : Solana Beach Artists Plant With a Passion, Let Bugs Do the Rest

Irina Gronborg is a pacifist, a painter and a passionate planter of anything that expresses a wish to grow in her Solana Beach garden. As long as she doesn't have to wipe its nose and spray it with a dozen poisons. And worry whether it is going to make it through yet another harsh California summer.

"I give up easily. If they want to die, I let them. Roses? Too hard here. Bulbs? Too much work. Temperate fruit trees? Nup. Lawn? Pulled that out long ago. I have decided to grow things that like growing here.

"Some people are control freaks when it comes to gardens. Not me. For a start, I have one hour a day, max. I don't like using sprays. There are usually bugs that will take care of things if you have plants that are built for this environment.

"Besides, I like Zen. I am an artist. If a plant really wants to die, there's nothing wrong with letting it. There's something beautiful observing a living thing dying, as well as growing."

She's pert, she's pretty worked out. She's non-doctrinaire. You just know, from first glance, that she's vegetarian, into some kind of meditation, buries her organic rubbish in her garden . . . and probably helps emotionally disturbed kids come back from drugs. A child of the '60s who has not sold out.

What she and her sculptor husband, Erik, have done is drown their third-of-an-acre garden in Mexican weeping bamboo, bougainvillea, star jasmine and, out behind the house--mainly Erik's space--a crazy mix of Pecos Bill cacti, kapok trees ("We want to make our own life jackets") acacia trees--the ones giraffes nibble on in Kenya--the exotic Cherimoya, and hundreds of hidden sculptures--heads, torsos and other figures peeking out from behind trunks and earthenware pots glazed in rich greens and reds and gold--all the work of Erik.

Sheltering the back porch is Erik's pride and joy: a huge silk floss tree, the kind with a bright-green trunk studded with big thorns that look like a thousand white Hershey's Chocolate Kisses. It was the lone survivor of 100 seeds he brought back from Florida.

On the other side of the porch, near the fish pond they built, are edible things such as grapes and loquats and the Cherimoya, a Central American fruiting tree.

The Gronborgs are happy with the climate they have chosen. They want no pretense at living elsewhere by planting strangers such as camellias, which would mean an artificial existence and neurotic owners. The whole third-acre scene is enclosed in small forests of golden goddess bamboo, pine and macadamia trees.

"That's how I want it," Irina says. "I want everything edible, fragrant, beautiful--and blocking the neighbors out."

She took a master gardener's course and was horrified at the emphasis they put on sprays and pesticides and control.

"People who don't like plants have to have control in their lives," she says. "The condo crowd, they have to feel they're controlling nature or they feel threatened. Me, I hate this dependence. I love to see something beautiful and live--and not calling for help all the time."

She leans over the waterfall-fed pond they have made near the grapevines. She absently squashes aphids feeding on the lilies, then scatters the mush of their green bodies onto the water. The goldfish come up and nibble in a sort of low-key feeding frenzy.

"See? Free food for the fishes. There's usually an alternative to pesticides."

Irina did have a heavy aphid problem with a euphorbia. "We did try to spray that. Nothing much was happening. We left it a few days, then suddenly the ladybugs came to the rescue. An army of them. It was like the cavalry."

When the Gronborgs bring in a plant from somewhere else, they worry like adoptive parents about how it will fit into the general balance.

"Plants do like to be in the company of other plants," says Irina, "but they also need their niche.

"Those aloes," she says, pointing, "their seedpods stayed intact for a whole year. Then a few creative birds started eating them. Completing the cycle.

"The Cherimoyas--it took a while, but the raccoons have started eating them. We're attracting quite a few plain, ordinary animals now--skunks, and like a rat comes and eats our loquat. . . . A controller-type gardener would be upset about it. Me, I cut off the bits they've eaten.

"The guava--they have that sweet smell, and their petals are edible. We have a snail problem with them. I could hit them with poison, but instead I'll give up. Plant something else."

The Gronborgs' is apparently not the sort of garden that Home and Garden or Architectural Digest goes for. It's too, well, anarchic. Those magazines seem to go for high-tech, high-chemical, full-control, formal fantasies.

But Irina, who spends most of her time painting her flowers--on canvas, not like the knaves in "Alice in Wonderland"--has just had three exhibitions running concurrently in San Diego. She also teaches botanic art, appears in San Diego Home and Garden magazine every month, and illustrates for the San Diego Union. Art is clearly her No. 1 thing, but the garden is just as clearly the inspiration and the extension of the art.

For years, the Gronborgs dreamed of moving to a bigger, more "characterful" house. But as Erik filled the inside with his sensuously rounded Scandinavian-type furniture (he also teaches furniture making at MiraCosta College) and the outside with his ceramics, and as the bougainvillea gradually dressed the front in brilliant purples, and the silk floss tree started bathing the back in green, protective shade, and the macadamias grew to 20 feet in eight years and finally blocked out the neighbors--and the kids flew the nest and Irina didn't have to bury the rubbish anymore if she didn't want to--they decided this God's Little Third-of-an-Acre had too much of them in it.

They're stuck. In a loving embrace. In a glorious place where they have succeeded in creating disorder where once there was order. A fascinating desert where once there was just one more of Solana Beach's artificial oases.

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