The riotous garden Joe Skoby has created is one that embraces you, absorbs you, tickles you on the ear. Tall philodendrons curve to create organic archways, a snail vine wraps a palm tree in a rich stole of purple flowers, and a creeping fig pokes a feeler through the bathroom window.
“I like a place that looks like it’s been taken over by plants,” Joe says as we follow him through his house. “Like it’s from a García Márquez novel.”
To which we say, “Joe Skoby, you are speaking our language.”
This is the magical home Joe and his wife Cristiana — along with their five-month-old daughter Solea — have made in La Jolla, California. They’re less than a block away from Windansea Beach and just a five-minute walk from our house!
On a recent Friday evening, Ryan and I dropped by Casa Skoby, a hidden-away stone cottage built circa 1917. As the sun set, we drank beer and marveled at Joe’s epic chorus of staghorn ferns. Amazingly, the vast majority of the landscape is populated by plants that were given to him — whole or in cuttings — rather than purchased.
“The garden is 99 percent composed of plants that fell in my lap from one source or another,” Joe says. “So I just try to create some visual harmony from what I get. I would say there is a feeling of that filtered light/fern grotto type of look in places, which I like. The gingers, various ferns, grape vines, fig tree and the leaves of the banana trees give some broad strokes of different shades of soft green. I really enjoy that from the windows in the house you get exposure to those colors.”
How did the four of us meet? Our friendship started, the way so many interesting ones do, at a coffee shop. I’ve known Cristiana for a few years — she manages Pannikin here in La Jolla, where her radiant early-morning happiness is legendary.
I think we first bonded over our past lives in the fashion industry. Cri (pronounced cree, and as she’s known to her close friends and family), was previously the PR manager at Dolce and Gabbana in Milan, having worked her way up from intern over the course of just a few years.
But after a life-altering vacation to Portugal (involving a rented “1980 Volkswagen Westfalia hippie van” and a trip around the coast), Cristiana realized she needed to make a big change.
“I remember going back to Milan and being in my air conditioned office, which was gorgeous, white marble everything, but [thinking], ‘I want to be out there and see the world,’ ” says Cristiana, who grew up in the country in Conegliano, 35 miles outside Venice. “I needed to find myself. I didn’t know who I was besides working.”
She adds, “And I wanted to be in love! I wanted to find the man who would one day be my husband and the father of my children. So I decided to quit everything and come over here.” So in 2008 she left Italy for California — her first visit to the U.S., and without knowing anyone.
Well, she did eventually look up a former coworker on Facebook, who took Cristiana to El Pescador, one of the best fish markets in San Diego. (And our favorite source for Dungeness crab.) Joe works at El Pescador, and it was here that he met Cristiana.
As it turned out, they lived on the same block.
Joe, who was raised in Orange County, is also an ardent surfer and ceramist. “I remember seeing his pottery and his projects — this very healthy guy,” Cristiana says about the early days of their relationship. “I remember being in his garden and feeling like I was in a magical garden of Eden. You see his soul almost — he’s an old soul. It’s really rare, people like him.”
Long story short: Cri had to go back to Italy for a few months before returning to California, where she helped with the importing of the prosecco her father produces. When that visa was about to run out, she and Joe were packing for one last trip to Mexico when he proposed to her. They married in July of 2009 and later moved into their current space.
(And then I swoon, and some wild orchids cushion my fall.)
During the garden tour below, Joe answers our burning questions. He talks about those larger-than-life ferns, creating hardscape with “enchantment,” and inheriting his grandfather’s green thumb.
How did you get into gardening?
I was always exposed to gardening, and it must have been sitting somewhere in my subconscious. My grandfather was a truly amazing gardener, and I can distinctly remember always spending time outside in the garden, meandering through all the little pathways and zones he created. There also is a vivid recall I have of the smell of his gardening shed — it was the scent of good healthy soil, and still to this day it can take me back 25 years in an instant. Also, my parents were always spending weekends in the garden on various planting projects. My mom has always had a beautiful rose garden, and definitely has a green thumb.
That said, it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I got the urge to start gardening. I was living in my first real little place as a young adult, off La Jolla Boulevard. I wanted to style it out a little bit, and so I [was introduced] to how succulents work. It was amazing how easy (and affordable!) it was to take some cuttings and just stick them into soil.
Describe the aesthetic of your garden now.
Well, the garden is 99 percent composed of plants that fell in my lap from one source or another. So I just try to create some visual harmony from what I get. I would say there is a feeling of that filtered light/fern grotto type of look in places, which I like. The gingers, various ferns, grape vines, fig tree and the leaves of the banana trees give some broad strokes of different shades of soft green. I really enjoy that from the windows in the house you get exposure to those colors.
I also feel that the hardscape plays a subtle role. With the exception of the white plastic fence that borders half of the property that I don’t particularly love, the uneven brick with moss growing on them and the old grape wood fence that the landlord built decades ago add to a sense of enchantment.
I am not in any sense of the word a skilled builder, but the things I put together always need to please me aesthetically. For example, the grape vine trellis is merely a conglomeration of eucalyptus branches held together by twine. But for me it has an organic feel to it that fits right into the look of the space.
And tell us about the house?
It feels like being on a boat…there are no straight lines in the house and the ceiling is low, and doors don’t always close. And the décor seems to fit harmoniously with that.
The house was built in the late teens of the 20th century, I think like 1917 or so. Built by a Scottish man who was making an effort to build the house himself and most likely without spending too much money — might be destiny that we live there, ha ha. Perfect example of that is the fireplace, which are stones that once acted as the ballast of ships coming into San Diego. Not 100 percent sure, but we think the wood floors were reused basketball court floors.
We loved what you said about plants taking over à la García Márquez.
I really enjoyed reading 100 Years of Solitude. I remember that his descriptions of the Buendias’ house made it feel alive. I guess an ultimate goal is to create a space both in and out that my daughter will be inspired by and grow up thinking that our home had a similar mystical sense, where the boundary of reality and spirit are very malleable and undefined.
What are your favorite plants here?
I would have to say that the plants that I know the history of mean the most to me. The staghorn ferns were cuttings that my grandfather passed along to my mother and that she in turn passed to me, so those are special to me. Like I said before, almost every single plant in our garden was passed down to me so many have connections. My good friend Geraldine started me on the gingers and they have since taken off and multiplied. Another friend and talented gardener/farmer, Matt Ferguson of Griffin Farm, gave me an orchid (the one that is currently blooming) that was his grandmother’s, so anytime that blooms I feel it has much more weight than some plant bought from a nursery.
Tell us about your pottery.
I was first introduced to clay through a high school art class and I was immediately drawn to using the pottery wheel. I am currently looking for a place to fire my pieces. It has been frustrating since the closing of the UCSD Craft Center; all those pieces in the garden are unfinished due to that.
Pottery is an ancient craft that really inspires me. There is something about taking a piece of unformed earth and delicately coercing it to become an object that one might consider beautiful. It is almost as if it is given life, in a very limited sense of the term.
What are some of your favorite sources for plants and clippings?
Any plant that a friend gives me is the preferred source. The prices at nurseries are so unrealistic to my lifestyle and budget that I generally don’t even consider them as options.
How do you feel when you walk in your garden? How do other people react?
It adds so much life to our home and it basically doubles the square footage. Any time the air is warm enough, the doors and windows are open and the interior and exterior coexist. It is a constant source of potential for creativity or to just a simple enjoyment. Entering into the garden I can definitely feel a wave of peacefulness roll over me. Both the feeling inside the house and in the garden is an expression of who we are, it is our little living art project, if you will.
The ritual movements of clipping, watering and sweeping are all semi Zen practice ways to get me involved in the garden. They are work, and time-consuming, but somehow give me so much fulfillment. A good day being creative in the garden is akin to surfing or ceramics; they fill the same void. I enjoy the fact that it is so hidden from view, and I think when people come over for the first time, that hiddenness really adds to the experience. They go from this sterile lifeless environment into an explosion of color, life and warmth where they are surrounded by natural beauty. It makes me happy when people appreciate the space. The alley access is not so hidden and as people walk down the alley they get a glimpse of it. I often overhear people talking about how they think it is “cute” or “beautiful”— that always makes me smile.
Speaking of rituals, what’s your watering/pruning/fertilizing schedule?
Watering varies on what the weather is doing, but usually once a week for about ten minutes. I also need to keep the watering to a minimum due to the landlord’s request. I am just starting to fertilize, but I began using an organic one that suggested once a month. We’ll see if I can keep up on that (most likely not). Pruning is just when needed and when my schedule allows.
I will also move around umbrellas to create shade at certain times. Pretty much anything in a pot gets shifted at some point in an effort to find the perfect spot, both for aesthetics and sun exposure.
What advice would you give to a gardening newbie?
I would say to not get overwhelmed by it. Like anything worth experiencing in life: You will not be able to master it ever, and especially not at first. I know that desire for instant gratification; just give that up and enjoy the small pieces you can chew. A great way to start is with succulents — they are so easy to transplant and here in Southern California there are cuttings virtually everywhere.
Also, hopefully my garden is a testament to the fact that you can grow a garden and create a space without spending a fortune. I can always tell a home that has hired a landscaper versus one that has had an intimate presence — there just is no comparison. When you do it yourself, it is exponentially more gratifying. You will learn by trial and error how to transplant and propagate. The plant will tell you by looking bad if you are over- or under-watering or if you are giving it too much or too little sun. Gardening takes up your time, but it enriches you in such an amazing way.