Game of Thorns! Our Friend Kimberly on How She Went From Playing Polo to Tending the Best Roses on the Block

Photos by Ryan Benoit

We met our neighbor Kimberly’s roses before we met Kimberly herself. They’re bright and big and perfumey, her roses, when they’re in bloom: flashes of apricot and salmon winding around the black fence that lines her yard. “Welcome home!” they’d cheer when we turned the corner onto our street. When they’re in bloom, these roses are the talk of the block.

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In the nude, February of 2013

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Early May of 2013

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Kimberly has lived here since 1996 and we’ve lived here since 2008, but somehow we didn’t meet Kimberly Kassner herself until last year at the dinner party of a fellow neighbor. Turns out, she’s even warmer and more dazzling than her front yard’s signature flower — which shares space with lemon geranium, an olive tree, purple lobelia, euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ trumpet vines and rosemary (a more complete list in a moment) meticulously tended by Kimberly.

“I can go do a workout, come home and see something that drives me nuts like this,” Kimberly says, pointing to some weeds, “and four hours later I’m still out here. That’s what happens to me. No sense of time or commitment except for what I’m doing.”

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When we ask her how her garden reflects her personality, she says, “[It’s] eclectic. I’m very visual, so it’s pleasing…”

“The word is ‘unstructured,’” quips Dennis, her “other half,” from across the yard.

“He can describe me just as well,” Kimberly says, laughing. It’s an afternoon in very late summer; we’re in the yard drinking the unbelievably great sangria she has served us with a splash of cava, and her adopted pitbull Grady is looking on through an opening in the living room window. Kimberly adds, “I come home and I look at this and it’s just…happiness.”

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“I come home and I look at this and it’s just…happiness,” says Kimberly. Here she steals a moment with Dennis, her “other half.”

Back to those traffic-stopping roses: The plant is over 50 years old, Kimberly says. Alas, this year it’s been hit by some kind of infestation, and the blooms that usually appear around now have been a no-show. (Thankfully, a second plot of roses closer to the house is thriving.)

“I need the rose doctor this year,” she says. “Someone told me there’s someone [locally] who specializes in ill roses. Hopefully he can bring it back.”

Adventuresome jobs are nothing new around here; Kimberly — who was born in San Diego and raised in Wisconsin — began riding horses professionally as a kid, and later played polo for sport. She still rides as a pastime; her horse, Beau Coup, is a 16-year-old Argentine polo pony. Kimberly has also lived in various points abroad and worked in retail, including as a fragrance buyer for Saks. Her scent? Chanel’s bright, spicy Allure Sensuelle (“I have to order it online”) when she isn’t pinching canisters of Dennis’s Bond Street talcum powder.

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We sat down with Kimberly to talk roses, gardening barefoot, and that moment when you learn to “just enjoy your space.”

What are some of the plants you grow inside your garden?

Hebe ‘Wiri’ bush, roses, lemon verbena, lemon geranium, trumpet vine, rosemary, gerbera daisies in orange, yellow and white, purple lobelia, echeveria, Japanese elm, roses, duranta sapphire, fig, kumquats, passion vine, morning glory, an olive tree, epidendrum orchids, privet along the backyard border, grass, large purple salvia, buddleia butterfly bush (you see this a lot in La Jolla), euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ and a palm tree I light up at Christmastime…

Such much of the garden is layered. All the plants seem to harmonize together.

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In the front yard, ‘Wiri’ hebe, rosemary and geranium form a plush border around the grass.

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TGIF(ig season)!

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Daisies and purple lobelia pop against the gray brick planter box in the front yard.

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When do your roses come into bloom?

The front roses are most abundant [in the] first bloom, by April 21, which is my son’s birthday. He was always so sad when I cut back, usually January. To answer the question: Basically April through November. Alex felt the bush was celebrating his birth.

The side rose garden is a collection of white, two varieties tall and short; yellow tall and short; and new this year is a pink hybrid. I’m not really a pink gal — but the fragrance! I would plant another but do not have the room.

You’ve done Grand Prix hunter-jumper horse riding professionally, and polo for sport. How did it all start when you were growing up in Milwaukee?

I went to a little private school and rode horses. I’m one of four, and my parents said, ‘Ohh, this is way too expensive of a hobby,’ so I said, ‘You know, I’ll have people pay me if you can’t.’ And I was really tiny and rode ponies and I got paid. And I just kept getting better and better. I moved, even as a kid, to Chicago and started riding for a farm professionally. It was much to my parents’ chagrin, but they had three other kids, and they didn’t need to worry about me. And then we came back here [to San Diego] when I was 17. I never really went to high school — I was tutored on the road. When I got back here, I was done with school.

How did you get into gardening?

You know what? Luckily. Everything grows here. I’d see something I like and four years later, it’s taking over. Like my trumpet vine — I mean, that [started as] a five-gallon container.

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Sculpture and lighting mingle with the trumpet vine and a second area for roses that bloom in white, yellow and pink.

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The trumpet vine, originally planted from a five-gallon container, has “taken over” the garden.

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“Gardening is very physical. I’m not an inside person — you couldn’t put me in an office.”

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This sangria, by the way, is delicious. What’s the recipe?

Wish I could take credit for the yummy sangria, yet it comes from a bottle. World Market was having a special on all Spanish wines. The name is Castañeda: I believe they have a red and white version. Both fabulous to enjoy in the garden. I will take credit for marinating some lovely very ripe plums, oranges, and frozen grapes to the mix. And topping it off with a splash of cava.

What’s your favorite gardening tool?

My hands! The strength of my body, arms, shoulders, legs and healthy knees! I suppose some clippers, long and short. And an oversized floppy hat.

"That barn smell is my aromatherapy" bumper sticker

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What about those wellies we saw by the door?

The boots are for the barn; mucking out stables is not a pretty job. Yet I derive the same pleasure as I do in the garden. Gardening, I generally am barefoot. Love the feel and smell of grass.

Where do you like to get your plants?

I like Green Gardens a lot in Pacific Beach. They are family-owned and -operated, been there a long time; stunning Zen surroundings. Gorgeous selections of fountains and containers too. I like to support local small business. I do occasionally go to Armstrong; they have great specials.

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Grady, Kimberly’s handsome and sweet pitbull, turns six years old next month. Kimberly adopted him at four months from the Humane Society.

What’s the strangest plant behavior you’ve ever seen?

A constantly returning type of geranium I have tried to eradicate for years. Seems to arrive every summer and completely monopolize.

What’s the best bit of gardening advice you’ve ever received?

Hm…I’m basically self taught…I suppose [it’s to] contain. I have a tendency to let things become a bit overgrown, I hate to cut, yet [it gives] a cleaner result, [and] is beneficial to the plant, vine, or tree’s health.

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Kimberly, who used to ride horses professionally, has also worked as a fragrance buyer for Saks. Here she offers us an ultra-aromatic lemon geranium.

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Next to the outdoor shower (with hot water!) Kimberly has planted white asters in repurposed Cafe la Llave cans, which originally held the beans she uses to make her daily cappuccino, espresso and iced coffee.

Who are some of the critters that visit your garden?

Snails! Aphids, spiders, inside and out this time of year. I have lovely hummingbirds that eat and drink from the fountains. Butterflies, and at night, possums. Grady has killed two, yuck. That is Dennis’s only participation in the garden: getting rid of the kill.

When you’re not gardening, you’re…?

I’m very physical. I do yoga, I ride, I swim, I like photography, I like design.

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In the backyard, excitement among the succulents.

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Behind the house, the flora gets more tropical. Here, a red passion flower grows in tandem with a sword fern.

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Epidendrum orchids are also running wild. They’re the offspring of a single plant purchased at Von’s supermarket.

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Duranta sapphire.

What’s your favorite season in your garden?

I am happy in my garden all times! Certainly we do not experience seasons as other parts of the country. Of course I enjoy the longer days of summer, yet love the twinkling of holiday lights on trees and in yards of winter. I think fall in La Jolla is ideal — great citrus — but I suppose my favorite would be spring, late April, when my roses are at their most copious!

I think we’re out of questions…Is there anything we missed?

This is my first time, in my mid-50s, that I’m like, ‘I like where I’m at.’ I don’t feel like I need to be in Paris or need to be in Argentina. Dennis is a big part of that, because he’s a big homebody and very easily content. So I’m learning, wow, just enjoy your space, you know?

—TH

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  • Tom Ogren

    A beautiful garden, a very interesting lady, and a photo story told with a great deal of skill…..nice work!

    • Thanks, Tom! We were enchanted with Kimberly’s space from beginning to end. So much personality at every turn!

  • Jane Scunthorpe

    I feel I know Kimberly now ! Love her roses …