Ramona’s garden and other marvels


Except that it isn't really her garden and that these aren't
really marvels unless you haven't seen plants growing outside for 4 months.

Like a jewel in the relentless tchotchke cacophony that is
Old Town San Diego, the Estudillo House actually offers nothing for sale (that
I noticed). It is an early 19th century residence built for a prominent citizen
of Mexican California, Jose Maria Estudillo. In 1908, entrepreneur John
Spreckles, with the help of prominent local architect Hazel Waterman, transformed
it into a tourist destination/outdoor wedding chapel based on a fictional
character, Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona, who may or may not have been married
there (but didn't exist in any case). It was then that the garden was transformed
from the fruit trees and other more utilitarian plantings of the Estudillo era
to an ornamental garden of flowering succulents, shrubs, and perennials. In recent restorations, the garden has become a hybrid of the Ramona and Estudillio eras.

Though small, this is a well-planned, fragrant
respite from Old Town's bustling tourism. I am not familiar with many of the
plants, but there are sapote, loquat, and mulberry trees, as well as some
lovely agaves and vines. And opuntia, of course, as well as roses. The show
must be even more splendid later in the season.

Helen Hunt Jackson isn't a name many of you will have heard;
in her day, however, her novels were more well known than those of Melville or
Hawthorne. She was one of Hawthorne's "damned mob of scribbling
women."  That's another
discussion. Regardless of its resemblance to whatever garden may have existed
in Mexican times, I was happy to see this semi-literary oasis with its quaint
story in the middle of tourist central. It's intriguing too, as an example of how and if historical gardens can be restored. 

I was equally happy to see the striking landscaping of the
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, an example of which is shown above.
But then, I haven't seen much of anything green outside for some time now. 

(phone photos)

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. You can tell I’ve been reading kid books- when I saw it was Ramona’s garden, I thought Ramona Quimby, and thought you must be in Portland.

  2. I was surprised and disappointed to read your description of Old Town San Diego. Old Town is at its best in Spring/Summer when the gardens that form the backdrop of the “relentless tchotchke cacaphony” are the true jewels. Imagine the colors of giant hibiscus trees, bougainvilla, princess flowers, lantana, coleus, jacaranda,euphorbias, cacti, succulents and birds of paradise in joyful abundance. One of my favorite things to do there is to sit on one of the outdoor patios, under a flower covered arbor, eating warm tortillas with fresh salsaas birds hop around at my feet, catching crumbs. splendid! Who cares if tourists surround me? I’m happy to be one of them.

  3. In some states the ability to say “tchotchke cacophony” three times fast is used a test to for those suspected of gardening while intoxicated.

  4. Somehow I have never read Ramona. Which is surprising because that is the era of fiction I like best. So I looked it up on Wik. Fascinating. Ramona spured the whole Mission style and soCal. look and feel. A tourist industry grew up because of the story. Jackson wanted this book to do for the plight of the American Indian what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the African American.

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