In November of 1983, Maryly Benzian, living in Los Angeles with her two- and four-year-olds at the time, received a call from her husband Peter letting her know he’d just bought them a Coronado home at auction on the San Diego Courthouse steps. (The family was planning to relocate after Peter became head of the litigation department at San Diego Latham and Watkins.) Having never seen the house and knowing little about Coronado, Benzian headed south with her brood and beheld the Irving Gill Cosset Cottage on Star Park Circle, built in 1896.
“It was a huge shock,” she said of her husband’s surprise purchase, “but it turned out to be one of the best things Peter’s ever done!” The home, which had been renovated in 1980, was surrounded by nothing but dirt when the family moved in. But, with a vision for its outdoor potential, Benzian got right to work. She started by planting some of her ficus houseplants around the side of the property and began finding immense joy and refuge in gardening. And, “with the sea air,” she said, “along came [her two youngest children] Clare and Jake.” “I was juggling four children,” Benzian reminisced. “Going out into the garden became my solace, and the kids could play outside with me while I tended to the flowers.”
Today, bricks engraved with her children’s names are embedded in the front walkway of her home along with a geode her older son brought home from a family vacation. “Their presence is always felt in the garden,” Benzian said.)
Three decades later, the ficus have grown into a verdant, towering canopy of trees. Benzian has planted more than 30 additional trees around the property, including an apple tree that produces fruit almost year-round and lush palms surrounding the family’s pool. She has also planted 94 roses that she lovingly tends all year. “My kids accuse me of liking my plants more than them,” she joked. While that’s certainly not the case, she does love the art of gardening. “I work in my garden every single day — I just love that nature is a painting and there are always surprises.”
Gardening has always been an important pastime to Benzian (her parents had huge vegetable gardens growing up). Today, a walk around her family’s property boasts colorful beds of primrose and sweet peas (one of Benzian’s favorites — she saves the seeds and replants them every year), beds for seasonal vegetables such as corn, artichokes, and cabbages, a charming gazebo surrounding by boxwoods, and trellises draped with morning glories.
Shortly after Benzian moved into the home in the early ’80s, she noticed a very pregnant woman next door hacking away at a stubborn shrub and thought to herself, “Oh, I’m gonna like this woman!”
That neighbor turned out to be Pam Keil, and the women did indeed hit it off. Benzian and Keil became best of friends and shared a love for gardening and flowers. In the early ’90s, the two took a trip to England and Wales to study English gardening. “We were both passionate about horticulture,” Benzian said. “We read every book in the library about garden design, memorized all the Latin names and used our own gardens as laboratories. We had fallen in love with gardening for life.”
Benzian and Keil took their green thumbs and newfound knowledge to First Street, where they opened a nursery. They called it “Baby Bloomers” at the suggestion of Benzian’s friend Doug St. Denis, in homage to the fact that at that point, the two women had seven children between them.
While at Baby Bloomers, Benzian and Keil had the idea to design some gardens and donate them to the town. Just as Benzian had seen the potential in the empty dirt surrounding her home the decade before, she saw the Orange Avenue medians as the perfect spot to plant.
The duo got out some graph paper and drew out their ideas. They made copies, wrote up their goals and took everything to city council. Prior to this, there had been a community group working on the Business Areas Development Plan. According to Coronado MainStreet Director Rita Sarich, resident surveys had shown that people wanted more color downtown to add to the vitality and pedestrian friendliness of the business district. “It was perfect,” Sarich said. “A match made in garden heaven.”
At the encouragement of Mary Herron, who was mayor at the time, Benzian and Keil got together with the board and staff of the newly formed Coronado MainStreet, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the district. The group asked and received permission to install initial gardens as a pilot project from the city council. Benzian and Keil founded the MainStreet Design Committee and became the visionaries for the beautification project. “We consider Maryly the ‘mother’ of the gardens,” said Sarich.
To address the funding issue — “Money is always hard to come by,” said Benzian — she hosted the first three MainStreet Garden Parties at her home and raised the money to plant the first three gardens. MainStreet still hosts an annual Garden Party held in the yard of a historical home on the island. The proceeds, along with donations from the city and community, keep the gardens alive. This year’s event is on Sept. 6.
Benzian and Keil dug and planted the initial gardens themselves. The community embraced the concept and donations started flowing in. Many donors wished to honor loved ones and requested to have memorial gardens planted.
Sarich said that the committee decided to make some of the garden components, such as brick and boxwood borders, the same to add consistency and identity, but to also accommodate the wishes of the donors in design aspects including shape, types of plants and colors. (It hasn’t always worked out — many will recall the infamous bronze elk statue in one garden that caused quite a stir among locals. The elk now resides on a ranch in Wyoming.)
Today Orange Avenue is awash with the colorful blossoms of 16 verdant gardens. Sarich loves the garden across from Bay Books: “Many probably wouldn’t notice that it’s shaped like two open books in honor of longtime Bay Books owner Shirley Muller,” she said. “It’s like a secret garden right out in the open.”
The gardens are cared for weekly and renovated and replanted twice a year by MainStreet professional gardener Juan Flores and his crew. Benzian walks the gardens frequently with friend Caroline Murray (who did the interior design for Benzian’s home as well) and the two assess what needs planting and pruning. Benzian donates many of the flowers herself and helps with everything — planting, tree trimming, pruning, fertilizing and more, all pro bono. “They are a living work of art,” she said. “I love them and have put in my blood, sweat and tears. I’ll make them even better someday when I win the lottery.”
Sarich gets calls every year from visitors who have traveled to Coronado and enjoyed the gardens or want to know the variety of a certain tree, rose or plant. “The gardens are part of Coronado’s public art program,” said Sarich. “We consider them our gift to the Coronado community — the more than 2 million visitors who travel here, the business owners and employees that work here, and our fortunate residents.
“We all benefit — and we have Maryly to thank for making her downtown dream become a blooming reality.”