Sin Jen recalls a disaster that struck San Diego before the war: When the water from Hoover Dam was first used in California, it was too salty and killed all the begonias and acid-loving plants.
The “romantic garden” began in the late 18th Century. The 17th-century parterres and straight allies gave way to the illusion of open-ended space and the pleasure of being inside an ideal yet natural environment where lovely surprises greet you around every corner. The creation of distance in small plots became an issue (as it was already in Asian gardens). Perhaps the most famous romantic garden in the USA is Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park in New York City. Southern California’s jungle paradises are our local offering to the genre.
The Durrants' garden. Sin used pine needles to cover the paths — an entirely pleasing surface that costs nothing, has a beautiful scent, and is a treat to walk on.
The romantic gardener is a mysterious being, not quite human, who bends trees and scatters hills and ponds in a natural way, like God. If I wanted to locate this majestic being, I could find no better deity than Sin Jen, who has been planting private gardens on all scales in and around San Diego since 1928. Sin Jen is his last name (St. John); he abandoned his first name long ago. I will call him Sin, since everyone else does. Sin is extremely tall, broad-shouldered, very handsome. He has influenced generations of gardeners and, at 87, continues to design and consult. Despite losses to age (bad eyes) he possesses remarkable energy, and the fires of life burn strong.
We talk for a while in his own garden in Ocean Beach. Our conversation is occasionally punctured by the deafening roar of aircraft overhead. “That’s a great bird of paradise,” I exclaim. “I’ve never seen this!” The leaves are just short spikes, so the orange flowers float on their long stems, almost airborne.
“Well, you know, there may be a few things at your delicate age!” His German accent conveys a glamorous familiarity. “Strelitzia reginae pavafolia — ‘poor foliage.’ You can look through it and its leaves don’t block the view. Stunning!”
The garden is seriously overplanted and aggressively pruned. Trees and shrubs play havoc with perspective and paths twist out of sight, so it’s hard to get a sense of the garden as a whole. You could never guess the size (40'x 100') from the front of the house, or even from inside the garden.
“I only have 50 camellias here — only 50. Here’s one that needs lacing. Lacing means opening up, or filigree work.” That’s Sin’s signature; he takes a dense bush or tree and prunes the daylight into it, which allows us to see through it.
Like his garden, Sin’s response to a question might begin anywhere and lead in a number of directions. The following is his answer to “Do you have a garden philosophy?”
“I grew up on the Baltic, in Northern Europe. When saltwater freezes, you know it’s cold. My father died in 1921. If he had lived, I wouldn’t have left Europe. He wouldn’t have allowed me to go to America. Under those circumstances. Hitler would have killed me. He killed one of my brothers, and the other was due for the chopping block when the British moved in. My family was against Hitler — they were feeding refugees, they had a whole houseful. I left Europe in 1928, when I was just 20, and I’m still here.
“I had an uncle who came here during the late ’80s — and now we’re on the other end of the century! I’ve never regretted coming over here, not even in the first days. My aunt said, ‘Sin, aren’t you getting homesick?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m home.’ I’d been here before. I believe in reincarnation and that sort of thing — metaphysics is a better term for it. I lived here many eons ago when this was a semi-tropical climate.”
Yes, I think. Sin reproduces the tropics to duplicate his previous existence! Just as his gardens are overplanted, one life span does not seem to contain enough life for this extravagant being. A plane roars overhead. I can’t quite make it out, but Sin seems to be predicting a tidal wave caused by an offshore volcano. He concludes, “It’s sort of fascinating, really, when the tidal wave comes.
“I was a soldier here for five years, and I bought this house in ’45, when the war was over. It was a shack. At that time, you would take a boat from San Diego, land on the other side of the water, then leave the boat there and hike across for the weekend. Can you imagine that?”
“How do you go about planning a garden?”
“It’s an illusion, and you bring it to the fore and into fruition. That’s so simple. But you can’t learn it in ten minutes or even three years or four years. Like a sculptor, you have to know just exactly what to cut away to get that gorgeous girl out of that rock, imprisoned there for millions of years — imprisoned! That’s how I feel about the garden.
“Take me to your yard. I see it finished already. Let's get a few big plants that cost a few dollars, and we put small plants between them that grow by degrees, and we will use ground covers. Have a big patio, brick and flagstone. Mowing a lawn and cleaning around on your knees — the hell with it!
“This climate is the closest you can get to a tropical paradise — il paradiso. If you say il paradiso to the average America, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about. He doesn’t learn much in school, does he?
“You know Nostradamus predicted Hitler would come 400 years before he ever lived! Hitler fell into place, so did Mussolini, so did Stalin, all that murdering” — a plane drowns out his words — “so I always wanted a tropical garden.”
How wonderful, I think. A leading garden style in San Diego may be a response to the frozen Baltic, a previous life, and the bloodshed of our century. What is a tropical garden? A haven for abundant life and continuous bloom.
“For instance, these anthuriums. I’ve had those for 12 years; they never stop blooming if you keep feeding them. Eating and drinking keeps body and soul together, see how simple it is? It’s really quite fascinating. Bromeliads: they bloom for months on end, they always look neat. A few dead leaves here and there, it doesn’t bother me. The camellias bloom for six months, from October to April.
“I had a pool over there with tropical water lilies. I had lights on them — they’d bloom from seven o’clock at night till ten in the morning. And blossoms stood this high out of the water. Stunning! Shall we say il paradiso?"
Sin and I talk about euthanasia, killing in wars, genocide of American Indians, dinosaurs, Anglo-Saxons, previous lives, hermaphrodites, the Louvre, the Flood: all these matters relate to his garden. He has a philosophy of relation and synthesis.
We walk through his jungle of cheiranthus, clerodendrum, hosta, cycad, palm, and clivia. Many plants are beyond the province of the Sunset Western Garden Book— it’s that specimen with the variegated leaf, the slow growth, the pendulous flower you’d find in Exotica or Tropica. Sin uses ferns as ground cover, western fern (blechnum occidental) and maiden hair, which is thriving. He rattles off botanical names, declining to use such monikers as sword fern, wallflower, and sorgo palm.
The walkways are serpentine, so we are in a continual state of arrival. Sin recalls a disaster that struck San Diego before the war: When the water from Hoover Dam was first used in California, it was too salty and killed all the begonias and acid-loving plants. His weak eyes make him a bit unsteady; he uses my shoulder with charming bonhomie. “See, I’m only 87, just a kid.”
We pass the leafless skeleton of a strelitzia Nicolai, a giant bird of paradise that grows like a tree. Sin attached a staghorn fern to it. “Have a little of the old and the new. 1 believe in the oriental philosophy, the past, the present, and the future — then everything looks fine. When everything is done to perfection, it looks commonplace.
“I have a camellia over two stories high.” It’s one of his treasures, pruned like a giant’s bonsai, and part of his upstairs view, where new growth produces blossoms throughout the tree.
Sin has hundreds of gardens all over the county, many in Point Loma and Rancho Santa Fe. These are the staple of garden club tours.
After you visit one or two, you easily recognize others as you drive around. Sin seems to become part of the family of those whose gardens he takes on. That is, after a series of interviews to establish compatibility, which often amounts to a lengthy seduction, Sin consents to take on the owners along with their plots of dirt.
I have talked with a few of these lucky people. They regard Sin with affectionate wonder and tell stories about his skill and the strength of his vision — tales of plant identification, coaxing branches down to the ground, daredevil pruning. In a garden in Point Loma, he grafted a red leaf plum onto an apricot because he wanted the color, then hung bricks from the limb to train them over a path.
He trains the owners of his gardens along with their branches and vines. With so much overplanting, you learn to lace plants into each other, or your yard becomes an overwhelming block of solid green. Sin is demanding, yet he inspires a fierce loyalty, which I also feel after our brief acquaintance, a loyalty that fuels my attempt to do justice to this extraordinary plantsman.
Sin and I drive to another house in Ocean Beach. We are greeted by Louise Durrant, who graciously shows us the garden Sin designed. Her husband, John, is a sculptor, and his large, peaceful animals — mountain lion, rhino, ibex — repose in satiny redwood around the yard.
This lot is 60' x 150'. Typically, the path goes off in two directions, with a large planting in the middle to frame and control the distance. Although there is the same overplanting (he might put a camellia and an azalea in one planting hole), there is also a formal clarity to his groupings. A Canary Island pine in the center of the yard dominates the space around it. Beneath the pine, a huge asparagus meyeri waves its fronds in underwater slow motion. Sin used pine needles to cover the paths — an entirely pleasing surface that costs nothing, has a beautiful scent, and is a treat to walk on.
The second focal point of the garden is not high but wide, a Japanese black pine that Sin pruned into knotted antiquity in only ten years. This visitor from a Japanese scroll sits on a small knoll, but the effect is surprisingly grand.
Sin showers praise on a pittosporum, one of his trademark plants. “Here is a pittosporum tobiara variegate — you usually see them as butterballs, but look how dramatic it is; see the depth it gives to you.” The garden is all movement and arrival. He likes acalypha, which, he says, looks so much like a slab of beef that butchers plant it in front of their stores. Now he is knife-wielder, opening up this red leaf shrub. The Durrants had a sycamore, but Sin instructed them to “give it to someone with a canyon.” Again, he uses ferns as ground cover, along with pendulous trees, dramatic flowers, and all kinds of exotics.
Both Louise and Sin relish the memory of the labors he heaped on the Durrants: the digging, the bricklaying. Sin says, “John is a holy man — you know what a holy man is? One who digs holes!” Louise looks up into Sin’s handsome face. Their affection for each other is the garden’s most beautiful flower.
I hope I have conveyed some idea of the sweetness and grandeur of Sin Jen. In my mind, he is the archetype of the romantic gardener and a leading proponent of the aesthetic position that San Diego should bloom like a tropical paradise. He has made a significant contribution to the culture of Southern California. If I had an award, I would give it to him.
I thank gardener and photographer Jim Stelluti for putting me in touch with Sin and for discussing his work with me. Should you want to see Sin Jen’s gardens, call the Point Loma Garden Club, or any of the other garden clubs that conduct tours.