A Golden Climate

NESTLED in a small seaside community about 20 miles north of San Diego, California, the garden of Ron and Mary Chamberlain comes about as close as you can get in Southern California to the climatic conditions of the highlands of Central America. Daytime temperatures rarely exceed 80°F, and evening lows—even during the winter months—never come close to freezing. Often the moist marine air shrouds the garden in mist, creating a scene reminiscent of the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Were the garden just a few miles further inland, the arid conditions that prevail there would make growing the lush subtropicals that give the garden its distinctive flavor a good deal more challenging.

In the 20 years they’ve been married, the Chamberlains have made the most of their unique microclimate. As you enter the garden, large clumps of the slender lady palm,


1. House

2. Greenhouse

3. Clivia collection

4. Outoor orchids

5. Cobblestone alcove

6. Decks

7. Cycads, palms & ferns

8. Koi pond

9. Cascade

10. Small pond

Two bromeliads-a neoregejia hybrid (red) and Vriesea ‘King David Kalakaua’ (purple)-line one of the brick paths; the cycad on the left is Macrozanria johnsonii.

Rhapis humilis, with huge, divided, finger-like, dark green leaves, tower 15 feet above your head, casting shade upon an enormous Zamia furfuracea, commonly known as the cardboard palm but actually a cycad. Nearby, an outstanding specimen of Schefflera pueckleri ‘Variegata’—a tall-growing relative of the umbrella tree, commonly grown as a houseplant—spreads its branches, clothed with marbled green and white leaves. To complete the scene, a luxuriant canopy of Brentwood tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi ‘Brentwood’) filters the sunlight, casting a glow over the massed greenery.


While these large plants give the garden its essential structure, much of the garden’s fascination comes from smaller-growing plants that visitors from colder parts of the country have probably only glimpsed before in greenhouses. Here, however, they thrive outdoors as if they were growing in their native haunts. Among Ron Chamberlain’s pet plants are tillandsias, members of the bromeliad family that are able to absorb atmospheric moisture through their leaves, thus freeing them from the need to be rooted in the soil. Their gray, spiderlike rosettes of foliage adhere to the trunks of a Cussonia spicata, an African tree with intricately lobed gray-green leaves that rises to over 20 feet, as well as to the bamboolike stems of Chamaedorea pochutlensis, a palm from Chiapas, Mexico. In fact, these epiphytes can be found clinging to just about every tree and palm throughout the garden.

Among the most striking nonwoody plants in the garden are the many red-leaved philodendron hybrids, including P. ‘Anderson’s Red’, P. ‘Mahogany’, P. ‘Carmen’, and P. ‘Cambria’. Although today these philodendrons may be thought of as common, they owe their existence to the seed-collecting efforts and hybridizing genius of Mary’s late husband, Horace Anderson, whose innumerable contributions to horticulture earned him a place in the California Ornamental Research and Education Hall of Fame.

Mary has also left her mark on the horticultural world. Almost everyone today recognizes the thick-plumed asparagus fern, Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’, but few realize that it owes its popularity to Mary’s sharp eye. When she first encountered it, in the days when she was running a successful florist business, she knew instantly it would be a valuable addition to her floral arrangements. The popularity of those arrangements caused the fern to become a florist’s classic.

Mary’s contributions to the garden began when it was first being formed, over 40 years ago. She designed the dramatic cascading koi pond by laying out a garden hose in the shape she wanted, and spotted the river-worn granite rocks that gracefully line the pond’s edges on the site of a future fruit orchard. A few of the original koi are still living in the pond today.

The pond provides yet further opportunities for horticultural wizardry. Standing behind the pond is a 20-foot-tall specimen of Aloe bainesii, looking more like an exotic sculpture than a giant succulent. Along with the gentle sound of flowing water, under-plantings of three different cycad species—Cycas revoluta, Dioon mejiae, and D. spinulosum—add to the mesmerizing effect.


While most of the Chamberlains’ subtropical plants grow directly in the ground, container specimens also play an important role. In fact, Mary designed the multilevel wooden deck that extends the entire

Talking about Design

Making a naturalistic cascade or waterfall look truly natural, as the Chamberlains have done, is a challenge. Here are some tips on how to do it.

ROCK COLOR AND SHAPE: For visual consistency, the rocks should all come from a single, preferably local source, and their color should harmonize with the surrounding vegetation and other garden features (such as nearby paths or paving). If possible, choose rounded rocks, which look as though they have been gradually shaped by the flow of water.

CONCEAL THE ARTIFICE: If you’ve used plastic liners to create your cascade, arrange the rocks and plants so that the edges aren’t visible. Also, make sure the electrical outlet, pump, and recirculation mechanism are well hidden.

length of their house in order to provide a generous staging area for their potted plants. Some of the outstanding specimens here include other striking bromeliads such as Hohenbergia stellata, with its spiky red inflorescence, and the tubular Billbergia amoena var. rubra, whose rosy leaves are marked with white and yellow spots. Mary pays attention to the look of the containers she uses as well as to the plants that grow in them. When she was searching for something out-of-the-ordinary, she had the idea of purchasing an entire truckload of gnarled cedar stumps from Washington State. Dotted throughout the garden, they now help reinforce the overall Jurassic feeling.

But perhaps the most spectacular container display is a long brick walkway lined with Clivia miniata hybrids in every nuance of color from yellow to red. When the clivias bloom in spring, they are the garden’s undisputed monarchs.

The clivia walkway leads to a 20-by-30-foot greenhouse built onto the back of the house. Here, Ron can often be found working with his orchids—a dazzling collection of dendrobiums, phalaenopsis, cattleyas, and several species orchids. Although he has produced a number of his own hybrids, none has yet been introduced to the trade. In addition to the orchids that receive VIP treatment in the greenhouse, Ron also grows what he calls his “tough” orchids—mostly Australian dendrobiums—outside in a lath-covered shelter, where they receive sufficient moisture from the natural dampness and humidity. When in bloom, they fill the surrounding air with their sweet fragrance. Yet another group of “tough” orchids—a veritable rainbow of Epidendrum species—lines the end of the house, providing color most of the year.

Above left: Bromeliads and dwarf trees thrive in Mary’s carefully chosen collection of containers. Above: Ron and Mary Chamberlain near the koi pond.


While the garden may give the appearance of being a natural paradise, maintaining this illusion requires both foresight and artistry, especially considering the remarkably fast growth rate of many of the plants. Ron works closely with Howard Vieweg, a local landscaper who has become a trusted friend. Under Ron’s guidance, Howard removes a pickup truck full of thinned vegetation almost every week—otherwise, the garden would soon disappear under an advancing tide of Boston, sword, and asparagus ferns. The large, heavy fronds of several 30-foot-tall king palms (Archontophoenix alexandrae) also need to be watched closely and removed before they fall and crush the underplantings below.

A poem inscribed over the Chamberlains’ garage door enjoins the reader to think not only of bodily necessities, but also to “buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.” If we interpret “hyacinths” to mean plants generally, then the Chamberlains must have very rich souls indeed.


For more on prehistoric plants, visit www.hortmag.com/features.

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