SAN DIEGO — On a Thursday evening this summer, the U.S. Navy notified Ryan Benoit that instead of tracking the $150 million overhaul of the Essex, an 844-foot-long air and amphibious assault ship, he should probably water the drooping lettuce in his planter.
This being the year of the Great Congressional Sequester, the next day was Furlough Friday. And Benoit, a 37-year-old civilian port engineer and a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, would be spending the accidental holiday in the garden.
Orders are orders. But there was work to be done at home, too: a renovation of the yard that is almost as ambitious as the warship's and only a little less reliant on industrial supplies.
For the last four years, Benoit and his wife, Chantal Aida Gordon, 30, have been creating the quintessential outdoor room, a couple of blocks from the surfers' paradise known as Windansea Beach in this city's La Jolla section.
The house? A two-bedroom, one-bath rental. A little over 750 square feet for $2,200 a month. Speak of it no more.
As for the yard? This will be a place to host dinner parties and screen Chargers games and stash a shortboard and shower off and plant cactuses and harvest guava and blend cocktails and sleep off a hangover and catch up on back issues of The New Yorker. You know, that kind of space.
It will also be a place to blog. As of this spring, the design project has turned into a new garden-and-style site, TheHorticult.com. The yard is now a backdrop for photographing DIY delphinium garlands and Wellington boots by Le Chameau.
It's a lot to ask of a 55-by-44-foot, concrete-covered lot. And to the extent that the couple is building practically every piece of furniture and planting every container, it's a lot to ask of themselves. You might say that Gordon and Benoit are not transforming the garden so much as the garden is transforming them.
Julian Mackler, a longtime friend who photographed the couple's wedding, has watched this change take root. “Some people want to stay on the sidelines, and some people want to get their hands dirty,” he said on the phone from New York. “I never see people my age take such care of a garden unless they're a straight-up hippie.”
Two jobs: work and home
Gordon moved from New York University to an editorial-assistant post in the West Coast office of Vogue. (You can see her introducing Lauren Conrad to the copy machine in the first few episodes of MTV's docudrama “The Hills.”) Benoit attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, in Kings Point, N.Y. And for a couple of East Coast transplants, the quest for a classic Southern California space has inspired a shift in consciousness.
“At work, I'm in an industrial environment: no plants, no nothing, just a steel structure,” Benoit said. “It's the opposite of when I come home.”
Gordon looked at her husband sympathetically. “Don't you think some of those old guys grow some tomatoes?”
The blog has revealed the earthy proclivities of many of their urbane friends. “I couldn't believe the number of people who got excited about the jacaranda story,” she said, referring to a post about the omnipresent San Diego trees that bloom purple in late May. “Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to spot a jacaranda.”
Benoit said, “Four months ago, I wouldn't have been able to recognize a jacaranda.”
Gordon added, “It just deepens your experience when you're walking down the street and you know what a tree is.”
Before Gordon was a gardener, she was a writer. She volunteered at a community garden in New York to research a coming-of-age novel, which her agent is now shopping. Titled “The Fame and Exile of the Lotus Eaters,” it chronicles the escapades of a “teenage nerd” who discovers a new lotus cultivar.
“The flower becomes an overnight hit in Manhattan, the way those things do,” she said. “Things go downhill when her friends start using the flower as a study drug.” (As a day job, she works anonymously as a copywriter for a business strategist.)
Before Benoit was a gardener, he was a photographer. On his travels as a reservist, or with Gordon, he would fill up memory cards with botanical photos.
Not infrequently, he has coaxed his wife into these pictures. In botanical terms, Gordon would classify as willowy, with rufous hair and a slightly maculate complexion. Put plainly, she has the kind of looks that might stand out in a nightclub, which happens to be where the couple met.
“You're easy to photograph, babe,” he said.
“Thanks, babe,” she said.
The house the pair moved into as newlyweds six years ago was virgin ground. That's probably too generous a description. As their friend and across-the-street neighbor, David Deitch, said, “That house, before they moved in, was a shambles.”
Gordon recalled, “Our neighbor's ficus was growing into the yard.”
Benoit added, “There wasn't much here to work with.”
Whatever the couple's aesthetic was at that point, it wasn't the shaggy look. They discovered an expression of their nascent style on weekend trips to Palm Springs, Calif., where they basked in spots like the Ace Hotel (rehabbed by the Los Angeles design firm Commune) and the Parker Palm Springs (by Jonathan Adler). Every room and patio seemed to showcase a different material. Ceramics and tiles butted up against leather ottomans and Navajo rugs.
Gordon described the style as “a riot of different patterns and colors. You don't think it will work, but it makes a lot of emotional sense.”
She and Benoit began to reimagine their midcentury ranch house here as it might have appeared in a 1960s photo spread from Sunset magazine. Benoit fell under the design influence of Southern California philosopher kings like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
“We liked the idea of being able to step outside and just have it be another living space,” he said. Alas, there was no seamless glass membrane. “If we owned a place ourselves, it would be nice to be able to open the space.”
Benoit said, “So you can see straight out of the other side to the pool.”
Of course, there was no pool, either. And however much the couple appreciated the vintage furnishings in the boutiques of Palm Springs, Benoit said, “We couldn't afford any of that stuff.”
The furnishings the couple could afford, Benoit recalled, were junk. Specifically, industrial surplus from a warehouse near the shipyards where, he said, “they sell stuff for just above scrap.” This is how they ended up with a planter made out of a ship's horn, the size and shape of a sousaphone.
Or take the outdoor bar table where Benoit was sitting. “I call this a rolling entertainment arbor,” he said.
Over the course of a day, you could make coffee on the 41-inch-high Douglas fir tabletop, transplant a few succulents and then plug in the laptop. And it was an ideal spot for a light dinner.
At that prompt, Gordon disappeared gracefully to put together a plate of ceviche and chips, takeout from Oscar's Mexican Seafood down the road.
“Do you want any cava, babe?” she asked.
“Yeah, babe,” he said.
The frame for the piece came from two industrial stepladders. “I think I bought them for a total of $60,” he said. And the whole battlewagon rolls on eight beefy industrial casters.
Benoit rose from his stool, as if to give it a spin. Then he grabbed on to the rafters overhead and pulled himself halfway through a chin-up. “I like garden design that's a little bit more heavy and masculine, in general,” he said. (He has started to post prototypes on a separate site, Ryan Benoit Design.)
A feminine balance, he said, came from the plants the couple liked to install in his furniture. This is mostly Gordon's portfolio, and she wandered over to what they call the “living table,” a coffee table fitted together out of $50 worth of Douglas fir two-by-sixes. A cruciform shape at the center makes an inset planting bed, rather like a sunken living room for '70s swingers.
Gordon knelt down to pet a few favorite specimens. The Lithops marmorata, a clumping succulent, resembled an upside-down unicorn's hoof. Far-fetched, perhaps, but then Gordon's favorite plants often possess a quality of fantasy. It's no accident, perhaps, that one of her most popular springtime blog posts cataloged the botany of the Seven Kingdoms on “Game of Thrones.”
Desert plants are nothing if not permutations on the improbable. “It's like buying a little living sculpture,” she said.
By contrast, the couple is happy to leave the food gardening to the professionals, Benoit said. “To be honest with you, we don't grow vegetables, because I don't really like the way they look.”
He pointed to a silver-colored form nestled beneath the woolly rose (Echeveria Doris Taylor). The common name for this species was galvanized pipe, and the black shoot under the cap was an HDMI cable. To be clear, this was not a plant but the hookup to the outdoor projector for the “hideaway theater.”
The screen is camouflaged, too. Benoit circled a neatly trimmed rosemary shrub and stopped at a trellis frame in the shape of a window. Reaching behind the fascia board at the top, he pulled down a 91-inch-diagonal screen.
The rosemary released a puff of perfume where he had brushed against it. Sitting on the chaise longue, made out of wood salvaged from Gordon's old futon, you could see the foliage shadowing the bottom inch of the screen like a movie curtain.
Benoit has also found a way to backlight the hedge, with a strip of LEDs. “I call it garden stadium lighting,” he said. “There's not a lot of stylish lighting options out there. I learned to solder to do these.”
He added, “I love bringing technology to the garden, too.”
The Horticult blog has shaped up to be something of an IT project as well. The beauty shots on the right rail of the front page fall under the heading “Plants We're Loving on Instagram.” And for many species mentioned on the blog, the couple harvests hashtags to aggregate in Instagram galleries. Search the term #octopusagave, for instance, and The Horticult rakes up a scrapbook of undulating leaves.
They call this page the Community Garden, but the phrase is somewhat aspirational. There isn't a lot of personal horticulture going on in the community itself. Deitch, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, who has lived on the block for more than 20 years, guessed that only two or three families maintained their own yards.
In La Jolla, as in so many other fashionable neighborhoods, gardening is something you pay someone else to do.
The last time Benoit checked Zillow, their rental property was estimated to be worth $1 million. “Ideally, we'd like to be able to own this place,” he said.
Gordon said, “We go to open houses.”
Built to move
Their friends wonder aloud, “Why are you doing all this to a yard that isn't yours?” Benoit said. “In truth, 90 percent of this stuff is coming with us.”
The built-ins could be termed built-outs. Almost all the furniture is modular or sits on wheels. Everything moves: the Preway fireplace (Craigslist, $300), the outdoor kitchen with the sink and cabinets, even the deck. “Most of this stuff I can have in the driveway in three hours,” he said.
Gordon served homemade cantaloupe ice pops, with garden mint that grows in their ammo-can herb planters. The garden lights were glowing, and bossa nova was humming from the outdoor speakers. Benoit was drinking riesling now. And the “babes” rolled off the tongue with a Parisian lilt, bébé.
The couple has designed the yard for entertaining, sure. But at a certain point in the evening, it seemingly becomes something else: the couple's private nightclub.
It was 1 a.m. when Benoit finally rose from the picnic table and wandered off to someplace totally unexpected. For the first time in six hours, he stepped inside the house.