Small and gorgeous: homeowners create lush gardens in a compact space

After living in their home in Talmadge for about nine years, David Moore and his partner knew it was time for a change.

Moore, a retired architect who’d spent his itinerant career roaming the country designing sprawling malls, had owned 19 homes in a variety of styles, from a starter salt box in Normal Heights to a Cape Cod in Boston and from a mid-century international style residence in Phoenix to a five-story, vertical, ultra-modern apartment in the Los Angeles area. The couple had moved to San Diego after retiring while his partner continued to work from home.

It was in Talmadge that Moore had the time and space to pursue his passion for gardening and painting for the first time. But he and his partner eventually realized they weren’t using all of the space in their converted ranch-style home. Moore’s densely planted garden full of succulents and drought-tolerant plants and the underused but high-maintenance pool had become too much work.

“It was time to simplify,” he said.

But where should you live next?

Moore was torn between downtown San Diego and the shoreline of La Jolla, where he once rented a bungalow and loved the location. After his offer for a downtown condo fell through, Moore discovered a charming two-story townhouse on a quiet lane within walking distance to Windansea Beach and the village of La Jolla, and in a friendly, multi-generational community. It was built in 1974 as a two family maisonette, now separated into two units.

“We wanted to enrich our lives and live in a more colorful, walkable, cosmopolitan neighborhood,” he explained.

It turned out to be the perfect choice. They moved in October 2020.

The 1,800-square-foot blue-grey wood-paneled home is about the same size as her previous abode but is better tailored to her needs and has plenty of useful nooks and crannies. The home includes a two-story sundeck and a covered deck dining room off the main dining room.

However, the 5,800-square-foot lot is considerably smaller than the former mostly sunny, canyon-facing half-acre. The garden of her new home is long and narrow and almost entirely shaded.

“It’s like living in a tree house. It stays cooler and is shaded by a large ficus tree,” Moore explained. “It’s a whole new experience. I’ve never gardened in the shade before.”

Because of a month’s delay in moving, he couldn’t bring any of his plants, not even his pots.

Moore’s biggest challenge was finding plants that would work in his new garden.

“For me, it’s trial and error. I would buy indoor flowering plants that don’t need direct sun and then plant them outside. It’s hard to make things bloom without sun,” he said.

“On large architectural projects, I had a penchant for rigid architectural plantings. In my house I like exuberance, I like charm. It’s a little too lush now and looks like a plant shop, but I love it the way it is,” he added, laughing.

In addition to the walled garden surrounding the house there is a small front yard.

“When I moved to the area, under the ficus tree [in front] was almost dead. Now it’s thriving with calla lilies, nasturtiums, ferns, gazania and Coleus ‘Pipers’(Coleus terranova piper),” Moore explained.

The heavily shaded gray walled garden is divided into three distinct sections or rooms. On the right side of the house is a narrow, elongated seating area on a hardscape filled with potted plants including anthuriums, camellias, ferns and begonias. The walls are adorned with Moore’s own paintings along with mirror art and other “eccentric” decorative objects, many of which can be found in consignment shops.

Beyond is a lush side courtyard lined with bamboo and featuring many tones of green and other seating and garden ornaments. Meanwhile, the backyard, which has areas of dappled sun where nasturtium and orange stand out Clivia (Clivia miniata) thrive, has a small dining table.

Rather than relying on flowers for color and texture, as he had previously, he opted for variegated foliage like bromeliads. In addition to selecting many shades of green—yellow-green, blue-green, and gray-green—shade-loving plants, he gradually found other plants that tolerated shade and flourished in mottled shade.

Moore found friends in his new community who gave him clumps of the orange-flowered clivia that neighbors had shared among themselves and that had wandered from house to house along the road.

While he used many varieties of ferns – including boston, maidenhair, holly, leatherwood and asparagus – to provide lushness despite the lack of sun, he discovered he could add other plants for more color including dracaena, hydrangea, Camellias, impatiens, fuchsias, anthuriums, dragon-winged begonias and nasturtiums.

Moore has thinned out existing stands of bamboo but kept them along his side and back fences to provide privacy, particularly from new construction at the back of his property. Smothered under the bamboo was a mature staghorn fern, which he rescued, replanted, and revitalized.

While most of his plants aren’t considered drought tolerant, he found they don’t use much water either, due to the cooler climate along the coast and the protective shade of his property. “I only water once a week,” Moore said.

On his sunny rooftop terrace, Moore indulged his love of succulents, filling different sized planters with a combination of succulents of different shapes, colors and textures.

“I like to mix several things in one pot and see the interesting textures as they grow and develop,” he explained.

Now that his garden is mature and thriving, Moore and his partner are enjoying a simpler, more relaxed lifestyle and settling into their new coastal community.

Nicole Sours Larson is a freelance writer.

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