In The Garden Show and Tell

Advice from gardening experts and frequent visits to Landscapes Southern California Style helped Nan and Bob Simonsen put together a first-class garden using the ideas they saw along the way.

August 1, 1998

By Dena J. Rosenberry
The Press-Enterprise

Some people call gardening work. Nan Simonsen calls it a thrill. Her idea of relaxing over the July Fourth holiday weekend was to plant an estimated 150 shrubs and flowers in her new California native plant garden.

"People kept calling and saying, `Let's get together and we'll barbecue,'" says Simonsen, a lively, petite brunette. "But I just couldn't leave those plants. I was too excited."

The native plant area, planned by Simonsen and landscape designer Susan Frommer of Plants for Dry Places in Menifee, is set on a plateau above a riparian gully. It is but one "room" in the 21/2-acre "park" Simonsen shares with her husband, Bob. Their only son, Erik, is a junior at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. When they purchased the house off Alessandro Avenue in Riverside about four years ago, the expansive grounds were ragged and overgrown. Honeysuckle had overpowered the previous owner's few plantings.

But the Simonsens, whose previous backyard "plot" was a mere 6 feet by 9 feet, saw potential.

"We started studying - literally reading garden book after garden book," Nan says. The couple drove to flower shows and plant sales and public gardens, including the Huntington and Descanso.

And they strolled through Landscapes Southern California Style, a water-wise demonstration garden run by Western Municipal Water District and University of California Cooperative Extension.

"That was invaluable," Nan says. "Everyone there was a great help. We went back every weekend, and watched and learned what things to do.

"If they pruned (at the demonstration garden), I pruned," says Nan. "We wouldn't have come so far in such a short time without that garden and the people there. I learn something every time I go."

Melanie Nieman, garden specialist for the water district, is flattered by Nan's effusive response to the demonstration garden, which is open daily to the public.

"Nan is our perfect student," Nieman says. "I think we learn as much from Nan and her garden as she does from us."

The Simonsens' first step was gutting the landscape.

"We just ripped out the old growth, made a blank tablet, and started writing on it ourselves," Nan explains.

Nan longed for an English garden and set to work on that project first. "I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know how to get there," she says. Landscape architect Brenda Prince-Tousley designed the garden, and the Simonsens took the plan and went to work, adapting it as they began to gather plants.

Bob Simonsen, a former engineer and surveyor, then walked out to the yard's large, west-facing slope and began cutting into the earth, creating random pathways.

"I really enjoy that creative part," he says. "I got a great sense of self-fulfillment from creating the paths, trails and steps."

The hillside, stretching from the irises growing in the shade beside the creek to the eye-popping perennials that surround the backyard pool, is planted in swaths of color. Some areas reach out with orange and yellow, while others sing the praises of purple and pink.

"I like to see drifts of color as I walk through a garden," Nan says. "I like to frame certain views and have some sort of surprise at every bend."

The Simonsens included specific plants and flowers to attract birds, other animals and insects, including Monarchs and other butterflies, and was designated a Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.

"I wanted to attract anything that wanted to live here," Nan says. "We don't use pesticides, so it's a safe environment. The animals pretty much control each other."

In addition to the animals that drift on and off the property, the Simonsens' dogs and chickens have full run of the place. The Simonsens collect the chickens' eggs. Their manure and that from two rabbits join kitchen scraps and yard clippings in compost bins to be recycled another season.

"We wanted to create something beautiful," Nan says, "but we also wanted to plant a lot of natives and be water-wise and let the garden tend to itself."

And, largely, it does. There's a small turf lawn that requires mowing and a couple of hedges that must be trimmed. Nan spends an hour or so each morning walking along the paths, shears in hand, snipping and clipping and trimming. Bob and Nan spend most of their weekends in their garden, largely out of desire than necessity.

"It's a labor of love, for sure," Bob says. "It's almost never-ending, but it brings a great deal of mutual enjoyment."

There are plants for eating, plants for gathering in colorful bouquets and plants that provide heaven's scents; one room features eight different types of lavender. Dotted throughout the grounds are places to rest, benches where one can sit a spell and simply look and listen.

"This is the first thing we've done on a major scale together in our marriage," Bob says, "and it's really helped bring us closer together."

The garden brings the Simonsens closer to others, too. Nan shares what she's learned, talking to garden groups about native plants, water-wise irrigation and pest management. The Simonsens have played host to tour groups, and the gates are open to neighbors, who often stop by with their children and friends. Most of the plants are labeled, which allows guests to write down the names of their favorites for later reference.

"I want people to be able to learn all they can while they're here," Nan says. "This garden has given me so much joy; I can't keep that to myself."

She often works from home. The Simonsens' Tupperware distributorship is one of the highest in sales nationwide, and Nan feels fortunate to have created a serene place where she can both work and live and pursue her dearest pastime.

"When I've been in the garden all day long, I can go to bed and rehash all that I did in the garden that day," she says, "and I really feel good."