(Un)common Ground: Grand Tradition Opens Its Eclectic Estate to Garden Watchers

PHOTOS BY RYAN BENOIT

Great news, garden tourists! You no longer have to be a wedding guest (or wedding crasher) to see one of the most startlingly diverse landscapes in Fallbrook, California. Grand Tradition Estate and Gardens has opened its property to the general public, which can now tour its Victorian, tropical and Mediterranean grounds seven days a week. Lunch is optional, but trust us: It’s all a must.

We went there on a recent sunny Sunday. After following a path of simplicity roses and petunias, we tucked into the brunch menu at Grand Tradition’s Veranda restaurant. Items included the Garden Docent sandwich stuffed with greens and avocados grown onsite, burgers on Amish buns, and the best pea salad we’ve ever had.

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The Veranda, Grand Tradition’s restaurant, is open Tuesday through Sunday — for lunch on weekdays, and brunch on the weekend.

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Simplicity roses and Potunias (a variety of petunia) line the path along the side of the mansion leading to the dining room.

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Hanging geraniums underscore the view of the lake.

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The Chambord and champagne helped us decompress after the drive to Fallbrook.

Avacado Egg Roll

The deliriously tasty egg roll includes avocados harvested on the property. Avocados are Fallbrook’s most famous crop.

The BLTA

The pea salad, served on the side of the BTLA, is the stuff dreams are made of. Not shown (because we took it home and devoured it): Grand Tradition’s out-of-this-world bread pudding.

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Outside Beverly Mansion, white floribunda roses add to the garden’s Victorian vision. Grand Tradition CEO Don McDougal gives us the tour.

“People from all over come here and say they’ve never heard of Fallbrook, never heard of the Grand Tradition, and they’re just amazed at what’s been created,” said CEO Don McDougal, a North County native with warm words for every visitor he encounters. “They’ll be back two weeks later with other people, and then those people will come back — and it just keep growing and growing and growing.”

After a brunch of Chambord-and-champagnes, a delicious avocado egg roll with chipotle aioli, prime rib sandwich and a BTLA, Don gave us a tour of the no-longer-so-secret garden.

Icelandic poppies were in painterly bloom. Orchids bloomed between branches. Cycads overflowed with bubblegum petunias. There were also single- and double-bloom hibiscus; white floribunda roses; and golden trumpet vines that perfume the night — just to name a few. Trees included majestic Canary Island palms, corals, an African sausage, sycamores and liquid amber, and a pecan tree planted in 1896 that Don’s mother went to dramatic lengths (“she said she would chain herself to it before she let them cut it down”) to keep standing.

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This coral tree will be in full bloom this summer.

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The saffron flowers of the silky oak stand out against a skyline filled in with sycamores and liquid amber whose leaves change in the fall.

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This pecan tree was planted in 1896, on the farm that originally stood on the property. “We had a contractor who wanted to cut it down,” Don said. “And my mother said she would chain herself to the tree before she let them.” – Photo courtesy of Grand Tradition

Icelandic Poppies

Icelandic poppies.

Petunias

Bubblegum petunias add sweetness to nearby cycads.

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Now on view at Grand Tradition: the June Bloom event held in collaboration with plant powerhouse Proven Winners. The estate is one of three in the U.S. to win a “Signature Garden” title.

Our visit also shed light on the evolution of the garden itself, which Don took over from his parents in 1996, growing its spread from 15 to 35 acres.

For the stateliness of the mansion, the vibe that day was relaxed. From outdoor tables, young couples drank in mimosas and bloody marys and that view: The mansion’s heart-shaped lake is crowned by a weeping willow and gazebo that would host a wedding (horse-drawn carriage, white chairs, relaxed bride) later on that afternoon.

Garden tours started last September in conjunction with the opening of the Veranda. Admission maxes out at $7.50, with lower rates for kids and Fallbrook residents. Don gives much credit to his wife Pat and son Mark for the design and plantings of the landscape, inspired in part by the generous beauty of British Columbia’s Butchart Gardens, where “every time you meander through a pathway, go around a corner,” says Don, “it’s another flowerbed [that makes] you say, ‘Wow, look at that.’”

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The Mediterranean-themed Compass Garden was designed by Don’s son Mark.

In fact, you might want to make a beeline to Grand Tradition right now, while its June Bloom event is still in full floral swing. Done in collaboration with Proven Winners, June Bloom features a selection of species brought in by the plant powerhouse — petunias, coleus — growing throughout the property. Fourth of July will bring a band and fireworks. And the Patio Lounge, an outdoor drinks-and-appetizers spot, is slated to open this summer beneath the canopy of a Canary Island palm.

Speaking of those expansive Canary Island palms, Grand Tradition has got several. “We have 30 varieties of palm here in the garden, but I love, I just love, the canopy from the Canary,” Don says, noting that the tree is his favorite plant on the property. It’s even depicted in the company’s logo, which, in an early version “looked like a marijuana leaf instead of a tree.”

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Coming soon to the Compass Garden: a lounge serving drinks and light bites under the canopy of a majestic Canary Island palm tree.

He pointed up to the one outspread above our heads. “We bought two of them from a gentleman north of Fallbrook. The trunk was all the way solid with fronds that hadn’t been trimmed. They were hanging down to the ground. They came in and did what they call ‘pineappling’ — trimming the trunk down so you just have that pineapple up top. Both trunks turned out to be perfectly straight. I paid $2,000 a piece for them, and then it cost me $5,000 a piece to move them. You’ve got to dig the rootball, get a crane to lift it, and get a semi to load it on then unload it.”

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Yellow bamboo mixes with its common counterpart.

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An arid pocket includes succulents like agave and firestick euphorbia.

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Inside Arbor Terrace garden, the flora gets tropical. The speed of the waterfall, surrounded by various fern species, can be adjusted during events.

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Another waterfall shot from Arbor Terrace. Couples can choose to marry facing the falls or the lake.

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Not for nothing do they call this a sandpaper vine. Its leaves could polish a diamond!

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From bottom to top: coleus, vertigo grass and palms.

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Bare as it was, we were still amazed by the African sausage tree, which develops purple flowers followed by outlandishly long seedpods.

Weddings are guaranteed their privacy. Couples can marry in the Compass Garden, on Beverly Mansion’s Victorian/plantation-style slopes, or inside the Arbor Terrace tropical garden that surrounds a waterfall, which has attracted parties from Hawaii. (It also helps that Fallbrook is a balmy midway point between the East Coast and the 50th state.) Further down the line, visitors can expect a Southwestern section and a Japanese garden and teahouse to be added to the tour.

Geranium Baskets on the Veranda Patio

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The bride enters on horse-drawn carriage, which will wind its way around the lake and to the gazebo where guests and groom are waiting.

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A moreton bay fig stretches its branches above the garden’s visitors. When mature, this tree can grow a canopy up to 150 feet wide.

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The boulders were sourced locally in Fallbrook.

Even the rocks that stud the water features are native to Fallbrook. After flagging down a truck with a boulder in the back, Don learned that a nearby construction project was paying to have solid rocks hauled away. “I said, ‘I’ll take all you have,” he said. “I got 100 truckloads of these boulders for free. We dumped them out on the property because I knew I wanted to do some water features.

To walk through the Grand Tradition’s estates is to experience a fragrant diversity presented in an accessible way. But, for all those turn-by-turn moments of discovery, something more nuts-and-bolts holds it all together. “We know how many square inches each flowerbed is,” Don said. “We know what was planted the year before, and what worked and what didn’t. Everything is on a grid on AutoCAD.”

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Another big draw are the estate’s picnic baskets, which can be reserved 24 hours in advance. It’s a favorite for couples who married here and return on anniversaries. Above, a weeping willow overlooks the lake.