Globetrotters: creating Pikake Botanical Gardens

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By Nan Sterman host of ‘A Growing Passion’ on KPBS San Diego

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Clyde and Connie Childress had a favorite weekend drive. They would head south from their home in Laguna Beach. First, they would visit the San Diego Wild Animal Park to admire the amazing array of animals. But even more than the animals, they admired the beautifully landscaped grounds. From the Wild Animal Park, Clyde and Connie would drive to Julian for pie before returning home. Between trips, they would dream of moving to San Diego to build and landscape a park of their own.

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Clyde and Connie Childress

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As the 1990s drew to a close, the couple decided it was time to fulfill their dream. They purchased a parcel nestled in the foothills of Valley Center. “This was the perfect property,” Clyde says. “It had perfect topography, good air, good soil drainage and was nearly frost-free.”

Finding a frost-free spot was critical to Clyde’s vision of his park, which included a tropical jungle.

What the Childress’s created, though, is far more than Clyde’s tropical jungle. In just under a decade, they have created Pikake Gardens, a private botanical garden that covers seven and a half acres. Pikake actually is a collection of themed gardens, each created by Clyde and Connie in collaboration with Vista Garden Designer Bryan Morse.

Areas now include a Tropical Fruit Garden, Formal Rose Garden, Desert, Protea, English, Pan-Asian and Mediterranean Gardens, plus a forest walk and even a Prayer Garden.

“Bryan is one of the most talented people we have ever found,”  says Clyde Childress. “He is an artist and a contractor. He made our dream a reality.”

With Morse taking on technical and design duties, the park began to take form. Rather than creating a master plan, Morse worked from garden to garden, creating an initial set of drawings and then working with the Childress’s to refine the plan. Over time, Connie and Clyde became clearer in their vision, telling Morse what they wanted. From that point, they all would go out into the garden with cans of orange contractor’s paint and mark out each garden area.

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Pan Asian Garden Pond and Bridge with Lotus Blooms in the foreground

Tropical Garden

The tropical garden, which Clyde calls The Rain Forest, came first. It was an iterative process of laying out paths, which resulted in a series of winding trails with each turn leading to a new “feast for the eyes,” as Clyde likes to say.

The jungle trails lead past a series of shallow lagoons and tall waterfalls fed by one of two deep wells that supply the gardens. Water flows over the tops of enormous boulders that look as if they have been on site for eons. In truth, Morse fabricated the boulders using the same method used to create rock features in amusement parks.

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Bog created to filter and clarify the Koi ponds in the Pan Asian Garden

For each set of boulders, Morse first constructed a structural steel cage. Each cage is pumped full of concrete and shot with a concrete surface. A three-quarter-inch or thicker finish coat goes over the surface and is imprinted with latex molds that Morse makes from natural rock. Morse carves the surfaces to create cracks in the finish. Finally, he paints the surfaces with a special acrylic paint. The end product looks so real that one has to get up close to see that they are not true stone.

The higher elevation of the tropical jungle abuts the Childress home. In that area, the jungle is mostly rare and exotic ornamental trees and shrubs. Buddha tree (Ficus religiosa) and Zulu fig  (Ficus nekbudu)  are two of the more stately and unusual canopy trees. The air is perfumed with the fragrance of shell ginger, kahili ginger and plumeria that grow in the under-story. There are 50 kinds of bamboos and as many palm varieties.

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The path soon winds downhill through a large grove of tropical and subtropical fruits. The Childress’ collection includes more than 20 guava varieties, a dozen kinds of mango, bananas, coffee trees, allspice, jujube, kiwi and passion vines. Grapes and figs, avocado and citrus cover the slopes, creating a veritable fruit feast for anyone passing by.

The largest of the garden’s lagoons sits at the base of the slope. Covered with graceful water lilies, the 80-by 150-foot lagoon is fed by water that spills over a 10-foot-tall, vine-draped ledge. In his design, Morse created a small footpath and shallow cave behind the falls. There is enough room for someone to stand behind the water and look out through it. It is a magical spot, especially in the heat of the summer when mist from the falling water cools the air.

Morse and the Childresses intentionally over planted the tropical garden to give it the jungle feel they desired. Soon, it evolved into more than just a jungle – it became a tropical rain forest. As they scoured nurseries in search of the rare and unusual, Connie and Clyde became avid plant collectors.

Theme Gardens

Once the tropical garden was under way, the Childress’s considered the rest of their property. “We had the tropical garden,” Connie says, “but we still had all this space to fill.” The question was: What to fill it with?

Connie and Clyde came to their garden from very different approaches. Clyde had been a garden lover and observer. He had traveled the world during his career as a Marine pilot. He had visited South Africa where he was taken by the native landscape and the diversity of plants, largely those in the protea family.

In Japan, Clyde had visited formal gardens where he was fascinated by the way space was used. Japanese gardens made him realize that a garden is more than a collection of plants, it is a virtual “palette for the eyes.” Clyde decided that he wanted to add a protea garden and a Japanese garden to the collection.

Connie had grown up gardening with her mother and grandmother. She was accustomed to digging and planting and getting dirty. Her goal was to have a nice rose garden.

With the purchase of an adjacent property, the Childresses inherited a small olive grove, which seemed perfect for a Mediterranean garden.

It soon became clear that Childress’ “park” would consist of theme gardens, each representing a different geographical region of the world. All the gardens together would make up Pikake Gardens.

Over time Morse and the Childresses brought each theme garden to life. They created an English Garden, a Prayer Garden and a Desert Garden. With help from protea expert Ben Gill, they created a garden of plants in the protea family, native to Australia and South Africa. And, of course, Connie got her rose garden. Her initial thought was to plant seven or eight roses. Instead, Connie’s rose garden has more than 300 roses, all arranged in an octagon and surrounding a central fountain.

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Heliconia in bloom

The Mediterranean garden features plants native to the Mediterranean basin and includes a pavilion modeled after traditional Mediterranean pergolas.

The Pan-Asian garden is one of the most impressive of the Pikake Gardens. It is also Clyde’s pride and joy.

The three-quarter-acre garden is modeled after Japanese gardens and incorporates many of the traditional elements – trees, shrubs, rocks, hills, ponds, and flowing water – all arranged in a way that imitates nature. As the garden developed, elements from other Asian countries were added, hence the “Pan-Asian” moniker.

Entry to the Pan-Asian garden is through the round Moon Gate Morse built of stone quarried from the site of Cal State San Marcos.

Through the gate, Morse built a rock waterfall that feeds the first and smallest of three ponds in the Pan-Asian garden. He edged it with papyrus, bamboo and a variety of water-loving plants.

The ponds are the central feature of the Pan-Asian garden. Water from the falls flows through the small pond, down to a medium-sized center pond and eventually makes its way to a 60 foot-diameter pond at the bottom.

Along the way, water passes beneath a tall, arched Edo Bridge with bright-red rails. The bridge separates the central pond from the lower pond. At the same time, it links the lushly planted banks to a lovely pagoda whose roof is made of authentic black tiles traditional for a Japanese garden structure. “I sent the dimensions of the roof to Japan,” says Clyde, “and they made the tile to fit the roof. The roof is curved and each piece of tile has its own position, just like a puzzle.”

Willow trees drape each pond. The fine foliage is the perfect contrast to vast patches of round, green lotus leaves. Int he heat of summer, delicate pink and yellow lotus flowers dot the foliage. Large koi slip in and out between the lotus stems, coming ro the surface for a nibble of fish food and then dipping back down to avoid hungry herons and egrets.

Simulated Bog

A zigzag Yatsuhashi Bridge spans the lower pond. Clyde explains the jagged shape ensures that evil spirits trying to cross the bridge will fall off and drown.

Evil spirits may not survive but ducks, dragonflies and birds are present in abundance. Though there are two sets of mechanical water filters, waste from the fish and birds made the water too murky to see much deeper than a few inches. Solving the clarity problem was one of Morse’s greatest challenges.

Morse plumbed the ponds so that water from the lowest pond is pumped back up to the waterfall at the top, an elevation change of about 25 feet. What opportunities, he wondered, did the situation offer for novel solutions? How could he supplement the mechanical filters to clarify the water?

Morse thought about bogs. A natural bog is a wetland filled with plants that pull nutrients from waterlogged soils. So, Morse reasoned, why not create a simulated bog as a natural filtering system to clarify the water?

One hundred tons of gravel and countless water plants later, Morse had created a 50-foot-by-30-foot bog densely planted in cannas, horsetail, papyrus, taro, yellow and blue flag iris, water hyacinth, watercress and more. As water is pumped through the gravel, the stones and the plant roots draw out the particulates. The more the water is pumped through the system, the clearer the water gets. The result pleased Morse immensely. The Childresses were pleased as well.

Botanic Garden

With its diversity of theme gardens and plants, Morse says he told Clyde that he considers Pikake Gardens more a botanic garden than a park. The observation surprised Clyde. “I never thought of this as a botanical garden,” he says. “I thought of it as a park. The rest grew as it took a life of its own.” Once the idea was planted, Childress had Pikake Gardens certified as a private botanical garden.

Building Pikake Gardens is an ongoing process with challenges and successes, discoveries and delights. “The benefits have far outweighed the challenges,” says Connie, “We’ve met some wonderful people. It has been a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”.


Artist & Contractor: Bryan Morse, Expanding Horizons (760) 505-5450-7900

Electrical: Steve Hill  (760) 749-7279

Protea Garden: Ben Gill, California Protea Management  (800) 423-6445

Wood Structures: Mahlon Morse, SF Renovation & Custom Built-in Woodworking  (415) 931-5500

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