Earthly Delights


There are two kinds of people: those who like to dig in and get their hands dirty and those who don’t. And there are two kinds of giving: the kind where you roll up your sleeves and the kind where you pull out a check.

With sleeves rolled and hands in the dirt, the Gardening Angels at the Mission of San Juan Capistrano work quite literally at the grass-roots level. Founded 2 1/2 years ago, the group of 25 volunteers gathers at least weekly to beautify the mission’s gardens, the backdrop for one of the state’s oldest and among the most beautiful historical landmarks.

“If you love to garden and want to give, you can’t beat this,” said Jan Sorensen, director of the mission’s volunteer gardening program. As she talks, a tiger swallowtail butterfly pauses nearby to take a long drink of nectar from a blooming bougainvillea.

Sorensen once owned a landscape and maintenance company in the San Fernando Valley, which she gave up when she moved to San Juan Capistrano 2 1/2 years ago. Although she didn’t miss the business, she missed the work. Just after she moved, she visited the mission around the same time that horticulturist Ann Thiel visited.


Although strangers at the time, the two green thumbs had the same thought: “Boy, I could really make a difference here.” Independently, they contacted the mission’s museum director who had, coincidentally, wanted to start a gardening club. So the seeds were sown.

“A lot of us in California have small yards and a big desire to garden, so here we are,” Thiel said.

“Here” means different parts of the mission to different volunteers, who tend to gravitate to the gardens of their choice. One volunteer, for example, has adopted the fountain in the central courtyard and maintains the flower pots there. Sorensen is partial to the rose garden near the main entrance. On this day, she’s brought a new rose bush, a coral pink ‘Tamora’ that she didn’t have room for at home. Although she’s supposed to be giving a tour, as she wanders by the roses she can’t help but snip a dead head or two. “It’s a sickness of mine,” she confessed. As it turns out, wherever she is in the gardens, her critical eye constantly roams the planters and walkways looking for errant foliage or upturned pavers.

Thiel’s favorite space is the Sacred Garden, which she’s resuscitated with care. The cloistered area has mainly flower boxes and succulents, because any other plant so close to the wall that requires a lot of water or has invasive roots might undermine the 225-year-old foundation.


Other volunteers have their hearts in the Children’s Garden, a magical place near the wall off the front entrance where children can walk under a pergola draped with morning glories, and find lambs ears, kangaroo paws and the hollyhocks of fairy tales. They’ll find butterfly weed, a plant that attracts monarch butterflies, and fragrant nutmeg geranium. After this particular morning, they’ll also get to appreciate the newly planted foxgloves, stock, delphiniums and snapdragons.

“If you saw this place two years ago and came back today, you would see a 200% improvement,” said Al Ravera, a retired community services director who volunteers at least weekly because “I have a great feeling for this mission. Too often in California we replace rather than restore. I want to be part of preserving an important part of California history.”

But the gardeners’ goal is not to keep the mission looking like it did 200 years ago, when livestock hung out in the dusty courtyard, but to give visitors--many who come from less lush states--what they came to see: a colorful garden.

The volunteers know better, however, than to make changes too quickly. “This is a very sentimental place for people,” said Thiel, adding that it took awhile before the administration fully trusted them. For example, when Sorensen and Thiel first started, they agreed the place needed mulch, but the administration wanted to leave the ground muddy because the resident swallows use mud to make their nests. Today, the mission has mulch, and special swallow mud pits are filled with water in spring for the returning flock. Few restrictions are now placed on the volunteers.

To raise money for the work, the group holds a garden festival for the community every June. The volunteers also receive a portion of their budget from the mission as well as from public and private donations. The mission also pays a professional landscaping service to do the heavy work, leaving the Gardening Angels to do what Sorensen calls the specialized gardening.

Most of the Gardening Angels have no training beyond a love of gardening, but a few, like Jill McAlester, are certified master gardeners. These are plant lovers who have completed a 15-hour University of California extension program on home and community gardening. They then return what they’ve learned to the community through a variety of volunteer efforts. Master gardeners donate more than 50,000 hours a year to educating the public and helping keep public and community gardens beautiful.

“It’s simply the very best therapy out there,” said McAlester.

For more information about the Gardening Angels, call the mission at (949) 443-2060.