The Gardners’ stone garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula
The father and grandfather would explore the ravines of Altamura Canyon, looking for unique rocks unearthed by the rain
by Stephanie Cartozian
Near the end of 2012, Catherine and Dennis Gardner were in escrow on a house on Sweetbay Road. When that fell through, they entered escrow on a vacant lot on upper Cinnamon Drive.
“We were going to bite the bullet, build our dream house, and get a view,” Catherine Gardner recalled.
“Then came an open house in January of 2013 that changed the course of that-a little bit,” she said.
The open house was on Narcissa Drive. The Gardners were so charged up to see it that they arrived early, before anyone else. They were greeted by a son of Jaime Gonzalez, the previous owner, who had recently died.
The son was warm and cordial, while straightening up for the open house, and getting ready to leave. He told them his Realtor had informed the family that the new owners would most likely gut the house, which sorely disappointed the five sibling heirs. They were a stone mason family who had owned and lived on the property for three generations. The stone fireplace, the whimsical arches, the benches, the detailed stone pave work and other hardscapes had been made from local rocks and minerals by Jaime Gonzalez and his father, Jesus.
After the rains, Jaime’s son said, his father and grandfather would explore the ravines of Altamura Canyon, looking for unique rocks unearthed by the rain. All the rocks on the Narcissa property came from the immediate area, he said. On some you can see where the water ran through them. The Gonzalez family wanted the stonework to survive as a legacy to their father and to their family. The one-acre parcel had been given to the family by Frank Vanderlip, who employed them for his stone masonry work.
“We saw the house on a Wednesday, it went on the market the following Tuesday and was sold to us on Friday ‘as-is.’ After only 48 hours of negotiation, it was ours,” Catherine said. Buying a home in that neighborhood eight years ago, “as-is,” with the constant land movement was unheard of. But she feels that was one of the reasons they were selected to be the new owners. Another, more important reason was the Gardners assured Jaime’s children, in a letter that accompanied their offer, that they would keep their father’s work intact. And they have, sometimes going to great lengths to do so.
“We layered on top of amazingly good bones,” Catherine said of the house remodel. “But it’s the land, dirt and stone that pulled us in. The bucolic and pastoral.”
In Around the Bend, a history of Portuguese Bend, by Don Christy, Jaime Gonzalez recalls having lived on Narcissa Drive all his life, and how he was bound to the property.
“I never met this man. But I talk to him like he is here,” Catherine said.
They didn’t have an overall landscape plan. “We took bites at it. All of the hardscape was here and we were unwilling to change it — the arches, stairs, pathways, walls and retaining walls. We were just trying to put lipstick on it.”
Over the years, the Gardners have employed various landscape architects. “We’d pay for a few hours of their time, and then we’d do something different,” she said.
“We started in the backyard because we needed shade. We built a massive pergola. There was no level spot and we wanted to be able to place a table. So, we leveled a small area and also put in a jacuzzi. The majority of the property is gently sloping. We added a garden with raised beds. Everything is either drought tolerant or we grow it to eat it.”
There are citrus, avocados, grapes, dragonfruit, figs, Pixies and a tangerine grove.
“A garden is never complete. It keeps us engaged and active. It’s the circle of life,” Catherine said.
The Gardners pick-up compost for their garden from Los Angeles County’s free composting program, which combines Los Angeles Zoo’s herbivores waste (referred to as “zoo doo” on their website) with tree trimmings from Griffith Park. The compost is tested by Los Angeles County for safety. Catherine said they won’t put any soil on their food that isn’t first tested. The Gardners have a 15- foot trailer to pick up the compost. Dennis says the best time to utilize it is right before the spring, when plants are just starting to grow. It helps keep the soil moist, he said.
The Gardners are members of the California Rare Fruit Growers. “We meet monthly at South Coast Botanical Gardens. There’s at least 100 local members and we do garden tours at member’s homes,” Dennis said.
“We also have a horse now, named Lleu. I had a barn in Rolling Hills Estates.” Catherine said. “I was on the Equestrian Committee and active in the horse community. I thought I was well and done with horses. But I’m so afraid cities will begin to restrict horsekeeping in an attempt to have lots overbuilt to fill the entire lot. We built a barn, so if that happens, our lot will be grandfathered in. We worked closely with our HOA and built everything to their specifications. They had height restrictions and requirements that were so detailed, they included the exact pitch of the barn roof. And it had to be the same roof material as the house.
Lleu is kept in the front yard so he has the enjoyment of the neighborhood. Passerbyers stop their cars to visit him. When people walk along our fence, he walks alongside them,’ Catherine said.
“If our house is special, it’s because we were sensitive to what was here,” she added. PEN
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