By Jim Bishop.
By the late 1980's, I wasn't really looking for garden mentors, just trying to learn more about local gardens and plants. However, touring gardens changed my way of gardening and plant selection in unimaginable ways. It still does. Here are two of the first local gardeners that made big impressions on me.
Alice Maynard garden
A friend at work mentioned that there was garden in Lakeside that hosted an open garden on April Saturdays. She said that it was always full of flowers and that I should check it out, so I did. The garden belonged to Alice Maynard. She'd been gardening for years at this location and her garden looked very different from other home gardens. There was minimal use of lawn, mostly for pathways. It was loosely divided into rooms - something I hadn't seen before in a residential garden. There was a shade portion up near the house, a large rose garden and vegetables. But the most glorious of all, and the ones that made you gasp, were the front display beds planted mostly with what she called "sun colors" - bright yellows, orange, orange-red, coral, hot pink and whites all glistening in the San Diego spring sunshine. Looking out from her front door, a small lawn sloped gradually towards the street. Beyond the lawn and slightly higher were very wide planting beds. In the middle of the beds was a split-rail fence dividing it from the street. On the fence bright-colored roses bloomed. There were lots of pelargoniums, geraniums and other perennials and annuals. She used many bulbs - daffodils, irises, ranunculus and especially bright colored South African bulbs - ixia, sparaxis, watsonias, freesias, babiana.
Alice Maynard Rose garden
One plant in her garden that I kept thinking of long after visiting was Linaria maroccana - with the awful common name toadflax. It has small snapdragon-like flowers often with the lower lip with a spot of a brighter color than the top or lower petals. She had many in sunny colors, but the one that caught my attention was bright orange with an even brighter yellow lower lip. It seemed to glow and picked up the colors of the nearby orange California poppies and yellow bulbs tying the composition together. I thought it must be some exotic bulb and was surprised when Alice told me they were annuals that she grew from seed. My obsession with the plant and all of my questions must have made me appear to be a little crazy. I searched this plant out and grew it myself from seed for many years.
The second big influence was the garden of Karen Kees in Poway. There was an article and photo of her garden in the Sunday Union Tribune and it said on Thursdays in April she opened her garden to the public. A work friend and I took a very long lunch and set out to explore. I don't recall any lawn at all in Karen's garden. Just garden room after room stuffed with all sorts of plants that looked as though they had been effortlessly thrown together in large drifts with focal points. It all made the garden seem infinitely large and had many places to explore. I already had learned the trick of using white flowers in the garden to tie all the different colors together, but Karen also used light gray plants for this purpose. I've been in love with gray plants ever since, the closer to white the better. She also had an inordinate number of bulbs, especially Dutch Iris in parts of the garden. I later learned this was because she was hosting several weddings in the garden. Like Alice's garden, she also used lots of easy to grow low-water plants that bloom seasonally.
From her garden, Alice sold extra bulbs and plants. I arrived there late in the day and everything was pretty well picked over. However, Alice insisted that I buy this muddy used bread bag full of bulbs that she called blue star flowers. Feeling I needed to show my appreciation to her for sharing her garden, I hesitantly bought the bag. The muddy bag of bulbs turned out to be Ipheion uniflorum with wedgewood blue star flowers with a white center. It readily naturalized in my garden and bloomed with abandon early each spring. Sadly in a tragic accident, Alice passed away a few years after my visit, but I still grow her blue star flowers in my garden today and think of it as Alice's legacy to me.