One would have no idea of the wonder beyond a plain, brown, wood fence on Bluebird Canyon Drive. Once past the unassuming façade and a mostly empty brick patio, a visitor reaches Joanie Rowe’s front door. Once the door opens, it is impossible not to be drawn through the living room toward the floor to ceiling windows that reveal her garden.
This year the Laguna Beach Garden Club convinced Rowe to open her garden for their annual Gate & Garden Tour, which takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, May 5. The self-guided walking tour is the club’s major fundraiser, its proceeds benefiting scholarships, school gardens and community projects like the Sister Cities’ garden in Heisler Park, maintenance of a pocket park on Forest Avenue and upkeep of the Hortense Miller Garden in Boat Canyon.
In 1994, Rowe and her husband Ron, a retired Laguna Beach firefighter, decided to move on from garden improvements to another project. The couple bought a farm in Hawaii, cleared the land and planted coffee. While developing Roseview Farm and marketing Rojo coffee, the couple made frequent trips back to Laguna and their Bluebird Canyon garden began to evolve with the years. The removal of sycamores leaning too close to the house created room for new plants and Hawaiian influences began to creep in.
Visitors will easily imagine entering a rain forest when stepping into Rowe’s garden, number nine on the tour and described as a “tropical paradise.” Bromeliads of all sizes and colors, agaves and spotted ligularias cover the terraced slopes leading down to a meandering stream. Purple irises, bright orange nasturtiums and giant blue Pride of Maderia bushes spill onto the brick and dirt paths. Overhead, Spanish moss hangs from tree limbs and stag horn ferns cling to their trunks. Tree ferns sway in the breezes that also stimulate wind chimes, which are sometimes heard but not seen. Looking down on what seems like a wilderness, three concrete bridges across the stream allow access to the other side, terraced and covered with deep purple sweet peas, lemon trees, plumeria and hydrangeas just about to bloom.
An abstract metal sculpture from Rowe’s grandmother and a Buddha hauled over from Hawaii made their way into the garden as did chickens and doves at one time. Even with the lushness, Rowe says she’s been water wise since her days as a Girl Scout. The garden irrigation is automated with no section getting more than six to eight minutes of watering time, and Rowe and her neighbor are vigilant about catching and repairing leaks. She shut off the water this winter to comply with the water district’s request.
The story of creating this half-acre, heaven-on-earth started 46 years ago when the Rowes bought the property and began hauling every rock, brick, plant and bucket of gravel up and down the slopes of their blank canvas. Sycamore trees no larger than a broom were planted at each end of the property, which has no side fencing. Giant Birds of Paradise where placed on the slopes and frogs were imported to inhabit the stream.
The Palm Society made contributions and alders and birches were installed in the garden. So did Laguna Beach horticulturist and landscape designer Ruben Flores, who made regular contributions of unusual plants.
About 10 years into the project, Rowe’s neighbors to the east and west drew inspiration from her green thumb to improve their own yards. Her husband’s building talents resulted in three matching bridges, inset with pebbles and without rails, which now cross the stream at each of the neighboring properties.
A Tuscan inspired “patio” was added at the top of the garden after the couple returned from Hawaii in 2001 to be nearer Ron’s doctors. With his health failing, a trip to Italy was put off indefinitely, but Rowe made the patio with her husband’s guidance and direction. It, like many elements in the garden, serves to keep alive her memories of him.
In the spirit of Cinco de Mayo, tacos and margaritas will be offered at Arabella Laguna Historic Cottages, 506 N. Coast Highway, where the tour begins and visitors can board shuttles to the first garden. Agave plants and raffle tickets will be available for purchase and free homemade cookies will be served. Other gardens on the tour include a formal garden in Bluebird Canyon and several cottage and butterfly gardens on Brooks and Oak Street.
Tickets are $45 in advance. Visit LagunaBeachGardenClub.org for more information.