The Blooming ‘20s


A massive dragon tree grows near the front entrance. Two imposing ‘Majestic Beauty’ magnolia trees flank the library and master bedroom. Rows of manicured box hedges sweep across sloping lawns of a stately residence overlooking nearby La Jolla Bay. The architecture of the two-story structure, built almost a century ago, is early ranch with Spanish Mission influence.

The sophisticated 1-acre garden surrounding this residence is a blend of meticulously manicured semitropical and Mediterranean plants. Verdant shrubs, trailing vines and pockets of flowering plants ornament the walls and fences, creating a series of garden rooms.

It’s a surprise to learn that this garden is just 3 years old, judging from the apparent maturity of the plants and the faithful 1920s garden design.


The original landscape had to be demolished when owner David Marino extensively restored the exterior of the house. To create a new garden, he enlisted the help of Michael Bliss and Maurice Taitano, partners in Garden Design, La Mesa.

“As he described his ideal garden--elegant yet suitable for casual outdoor living, a very California garden but with European influence--we realized that he was describing a garden from the 1920s,” Taitano said. When Marino, who works in commercial real estate, was married this month, the gardens provided a dramatic setting for the reception.

Bliss and Taitano, who have been designing landscapes for more than 10 years, both appreciate period gardens. Like many of their colleagues, they regard the 1920s as the golden age of Southern California gardening because of innovative designs and imaginative use of a diversity of plants. These distinct characteristics are still applicable to contemporary gardens.

“I’ve always been fascinated with old gardens and their elements that are just as useful in today’s designs,” Bliss said.

Landscape architect and horticulture expert Shirley Kerins of Pasadena agrees that what worked in the 1920s is still useful today. “Gardens from that era epitomized beauty in simplicity,” she said. “Designs were based on straight edges or wide sweeping curves as a reaction to the curlicues or circles cut out of lawns and filled with bedding plants popular in the Victorian era.”

Wealthy industrialists built their California estates and hired prominent landscape designers to create imposing gardens proclaiming their power and importance. Estates such as the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Filoli in Woodside and Lotusland in Santa Barbara are characteristic of this era, and all are open for public viewing. They marked a departure from English and European design and, especially in Southern California, the recognition of the mild climate that fostered outdoor living.

“People with status and power wanted gardens that reflected their prominence,” said Pamela Chapman, a professor of landscape architecture at Mesa College in San Diego. “There was more emphasis on the garden as relating to the house’s architecture than there is in current times. Also, planting designs in the 1920s relied greatly on green foliage and texture because heat was a factor. The coolest possible color scheme is green and white, and that’s descriptive of many of the early gardens.”

The approach to the La Jolla residence is a study in green and white, with punches of color used in restraint. Carob trees line the parkway, covered in fescue grass. Flagstone steps bisecting three terraces lead visitors up to the gated front entrance. The lowest terrace is boxwood hedges containing emerald green fescue lawns. Privet shrubs on the middle level enclose a bed of snowy white ‘Iceberg’ roses on one side and masses of dark purple and white bougainvillea cascade over the hedging on the other side.

The upper terrace made of Pennsylvania bluestone consists of several garden rooms. The north room is a private, cool retreat, where an oversized antique birdbath provides a graceful water accent. White azaleas, gardenias and roses emit their fragrance for anyone lingering on the teak bench to enjoy this formal enclave. The south garden is more open and informal, with a lap pool and a patio that overlooks the surrounding neighborhood and bay.

Clipped Italian cypress trees, 25 feet high, anchor both sides of the house but not in the usual regimented row. Grouped in clusters of two or three trees, they carry the eye up the slope to where a small grove of olive trees shimmer with gray foliage.

The rear patio, fully enclosed by the house and retaining walls, is completely private. A 25-foot-high giant bird of paradise planted by the rear entrance leading from the dining room to the patio symbolically connects the rear of the house and back garden with its massive arching leaves.

A large clumping Senegal date palm, positioned adjacent to an oversized outdoor fireplace and seating area, serves as a visual balance, as do a cluster of cypress trees along a tile fountain and reflecting pool. Joel Laird Plumighly of San Diego designed the custom tile and animal mask fountain with a Moorish influence that harmonizes with the Spanish Mission elements of the house.

“The cypress anchors the fountain and complements the vertical fireplace,” Bliss pointed out.

Bliss and Taitano transformed a previously barren hillside above the fountain into a semiarid garden with dramatic view area. Steep stairs lead past olive and citrus trees, agaves, succulents and cacti. At the summit, a stone seating area capitalizes on the spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.

The formality of the garden design, with straight lines, manicured shrubbery and garden ornamentation, are softened by the informality of the plant palette. “Using tropical and subtropical flowering plants, with mass plantings of uniform color and keeping it simple overall is the key here,” Bliss said.

Ever since the Spanish missionaries brought their grapevines, olive trees, roses and herbs, California has been a fertile site for a host of exotic plants. A similar wave of new plant introductions occurred during the 1920s and ‘30s with exotics including dragon trees, Senegal and other types of palm trees, new camellia species, and New Zealand tea trees.

“A lot of plants that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s are now coming back in style,” commented Robert Bishowski, a retired arborist and now a consulting horticultural agronomist based in San Diego. “Queen palms, Italian cypress, sycamore trees, California pepper trees, boxwood hedges, gardenias and camellias were big then and are again being widely used.”

Conifers were more often found in these period gardens than they are today, although they’re well suited to semiarid regions. “Italian cypress were some of the workhorse plants of that time,” Chapman of Mesa College said. “Geraniums were also very popular, so much so that brides carried them in their bouquets.”

Bliss and Taitano have relied on modern cultivars as well as plant varieties true to that time. They selected ‘Iceberg’ roses over older varieties because this recent hybrid offers greatly improved disease resistance. Kerins concurs that it isn’t always necessary to plant gardens with historic accuracy.

“Unless you’re creating a garden for a museum or need to be completely authentic, there’s no reason you can’t use modern hybrids of old-time plants that offer better disease resistance and flowering. Many people who gardened almost a century ago were more tolerant than we are today.”