Steven Gunther

Scruffy to sensational: A garden retreat

Sunset  – November 17, 2004

TIME: Less than two years

COST: About $5,000

You might call this small (35- by 19-foot) outdoor room the yard that gave birth to a gardener.

When Alix Olson bought the Encinitas, California, property in 1986, tending plants was not on her to-do list. “I had neither the money nor the inclination to landscape,” she explains. “So I kept the weeds, mowed when it rained, and ignored the ugly green chain-link fence.”

But Olson knew she wanted greenery around her. Memories of her two-year stay in barren Saudi Arabia were still too fresh, and the idea of lush trees, flowers, and grass too appealing. Little by little, she began improving her land.

 “I built a patio off the kitchen with French doors leading to it. I started watering the grass. Then I planted bougainvillea to hide the chain-link fence.”

 After a few months, Olson decided that a garden along the fence would be nice. She visited nurseries with her friend Sara Lynch to learn about plants. “I began to enjoy digging in the dirt,” she recalls. Flowers lived and died, trees were planted, transplanted, lived, and died. ”I finally decided the soil–rather hard, packed clay with no drainage–was a problem. So last fall, inspired by magazine articles on small gardens, I ripped up the whole thing except the bougainvillea and the only tree that was happy with my haphazard care–an Australian willow. 

“I attacked the crabgrass, rototilled the soil, added every amendment the garden books recommended, put in a watering system, a pond with a solar-powered waterfall, and a flagstone path. I planted chamomile and thyme ground covers between the pavers, and waited for results while daily plucking tiny crabgrass sprouts with a paring knife.”

Now, Olson says: “I have become a gardener. I can’t stop. I go out in the morning and find myself still deadheading at noon. I have even started landscaping around the mailbox.”

The second step in the garden remodel was covering an ugly chain-link fence with bougainvillea.

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