Rocking Out on Lake Hodges: Garden Tour MPG (Multi-Purpose Garden)

An interview with owners Joe and Laurie Ferguson

Driving just a road snippet up from Lake Hodges, one doesn’t enter the tour garden, MPG (Multi-Purpose Garden) from a front yard. Instead a back street will open onto a separate property behind the house. The owners, Joe and Laurie Ferguson purchased a half-acre lot behind their house, a completely bare space, to create an area for their 3 small children with no playgrounds in the neighborhood. After doing some major grading with the soil to create a flat play area, they tried tropical plants and banana trees, but nothing really fit.

Then, Joe ran into Greg Rubin, the renowned California native plant landscaper in San Diego County. The Fergusons were about to put in the same 20 landscaping plants you see across San Diego but Greg persuaded them to try California natives. And thus 600 native plants were installed in 2001.

The Fergusons did and continue to do 95% of the work of planting, watering, and maintenance. For them “it is fun, a way to get away from the kids” they say, laughing. Laurie would point out areas in the garden that could become a design feature. She is the originator of many of the built-out garden features. As the ideas grew it became “Now let’s do this, now let’s do this.” Today, viewing the expansive landscape filled out with native plants and still including the flat play space, the hard work has paid off richly.

The palette of green opens up here and there into many garden features: sculptures, twisted wooden trunk furniture, an enormous outdoor stone fireplace for the cool nights in Escondido, and most notably, on the ridge, a playful cabin that dropped from a fairytale.

Joe tells me right away he had no idea he was going to enjoy the landscaping so much and his biggest thrill has become the rock work he has done. He designed and built the fireplace himself. He twisted rebar into the frame and mixed some concrete to bring it together. He decided to skip a planned rock inlay in the chimney and went with the beautifully textured, terra-cotta stained concrete instead. Everything that one can see seated at the fireplace, minus a stand of bamboo, is native plants.

“If I see a rock, I’ll stop. If I find an incredibly gorgeous rock like this (looking down) I’ll take a cart and drag it half a mile to the truck.” The Fergusons could bring in a couple enormous rocks early on because the space was so bare, having no obstacles. As Joe brought in rocks, with permission, from high desert areas, the Fergusons found that the rock work complimented the plants wonderfully, a not entirely-anticipated result. In a do-it-yourself project, certain results carry this kind of pure surprise.

Up on a small ridge, we check out the cabin, built with the children in mind to be a clubhouse escape. Joe is still amazed that the cabin arrived as a kit that could be fully assembled on the premises. Because the cabin had no plumbing and electricity, the kids never turned it into a clubhouse. With an extension cord the parents moved in on it for weekend evenings as their own escape with a TV and an ultra-utilized Scrabble set. Over the years, where the cabin was once a lone sentinel on the ridge, all the vegetation has grown up around it and it has the feel of a haven now. Next to the cabin, a beautiful semi-circular stone bench that could seat a dozen people looks onto a Palo Verde ‘Desert Museum’ tree. One section of the bench has a stone ‘lounge seat’.

Joe is a licensed veterinarian and because he grew up on a dairy farm outside Philadelphia, he became a dairy veterinarian. Besides the work he does with the 3 remaining dairies in San Diego, Joe travels to other dairies in California. Over the years he has collected discarded float balls from livestock watering troughs with their variegated copper patina and built a beautiful gateway door next to the stone bench.

We continue on the ridge through a corridor of Cleveland and Munz’s Sage on one side and Eriogonum giganteum, much of it volunteer, and Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata) on the other. Bees cover the manzanitas as we walk by. I ask about birds. The Fergusons see a lot of California Quail on their property along with many other species of birds since nearby Lake Hodges is a bird sanctuary. Bluebirds streak across the trees on the property while we are talking. Further ahead, a Coast Live Oak, original to the property, provides a haven that cools one down in the heat of the day by at least 20 degrees.

Exiting the ridge, Laurie shows me where she has newly planted a succulent garden. We talk later about perhaps dotting in a Louie Hamilton Apricot Mallow of which a shining example stands on their front patio. Next to the garden, a deep indigo, variety unknown to the Fergusons, Ceanothus should be in full bloom by the time of the tour. Near it are Ray Hartmann and Frosty Blue Ceanothus specimens.

Why do all the research and plant California natives? Joe points out that although California native plants are not always across the board the MOST striking flowers, etcetera, he plants them because “I have an affinity for them. I wouldn’t have it any other way- it’s like rooting for the home team.”

When first planting, Joe bought a jackhammer to dig out the soil since neither a shovel or even a pick would work in the tough, dry soil. He was surprised to find “They actually thrived in what I would call stinky, horrible soil.” He was also surprised that some plants came back after dormancy. Coming from the Northeast where the dormancy period for plants is the exact opposite time of the year, it took a little while for that concept to sink in.

I ask about the successes and failures of creating a California native garden. Joe says he can answer that quickly.

The biggest success was: slow spinning overhead-watering irrigation heads. They worked great for starting up the garden because the heads disperse water into all the areas the roots would move into. Once the plants were established, Joe dismantled these irrigation heads.

The failures he encountered were probably due to overwatering. Laurie points out it can be difficult figuring out when to and what time to water. Is it too hot, do the plants have enough water, are they in dormancy?

One of Joe’s realizations over time is that he likes the native plants that are evergreen and would almost prefer to lose the robust sages that take a lot of work to prune back after flowering.

“I’m what I now call a binge gardener. Some people like to sit and watch Netflix all weekend, I’ll be out here all weekend. I can’t wait for the morning to come so I can get out here and get going”

We finish the interview and tour with Joe posing under one of two Dr. Hurd manzanitas at the entrance to the garden-the same revived manzanitas that were almost ripped out when everyone thought they were dead from a heat blast. We check out the seating area at the front of the house which has some traditional patio plants along with a large potted Baja Fairy Duster and a clearly-flourishing potted Louis Hamilton Apricot Mallow. Joe asks if I still have 15 minutes and we ride in a golf cart up the street to an overlook of Lake Hodges. As we look out at the blue vista with boulder-pocked hills climbing over the lake, both of us know in the certainty of the moment that this is the most beautiful and enchanted place anywhere.

Interview and photos by Joseph Sochor


See MPG (Multi-Purpose Garden) on the
Sixth Annual CNPS-San Diego Garden Tour: 

"Native Gardens of Beauty and Sustainability"
Saturday and Sunday, April 14 & 15, 9:30am-4pm
Location: North County