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A Salute to Bill Teague, Del Mar’s Plant Whisperer
Dolores Davies | Crest Road

Editor's note:  This is the unabridged version of the piece published in the print edition of the Sandpiper.

Biil Teague.  Photo Judy Wigand

On September 29, Del Mar lost one of its most generous, kind-hearted, and creative residents—Bill Teague—who poured his heart and soul into the beautification of Del Mar. Bill was a plant whisperer and modern-day Johnny Appleseed, who designed gardens and landscapes throughout the city.

In addition to being an extraordinary plants man and garden designer, said Pat Welsh, the author of several books on gardening in Southern California, “Bill was an inspiring human being from whom one could learn much about plants and much about what is important in life. He once told me he was "on a spiritual path," but one could guess that from everything he did. Being one of Bill's friends and learning from him has been one of the great experiences of my lifetime. His understanding of plant life and his eye for natural beauty transcended the technical aspects of gardening. Bill liked doing his good deeds secretly and then driving away unseen like the good angel he was. I can imagine that now he is one of Heaven's best new angels since he already was well-practiced at doing good deeds in secret ways so no one could guess who did them. ”
Welsh and other friends and neighbors recall the days before Bill—diagnosed with ALS in 2009— became ill.  He would rise before dawn, depositing well-chosen plants in public landscapes and medians throughout Del Mar, without charge or fanfare.  “Bill did his good deeds secretly and did not care for any kind of thanks or publicity.”

Bill’s love for plants was in his blood.  He was born in 1944 in Corona, where his great grandparents were pioneers in citrus production. He met his wife, Linda, who shared his fascination with flora, in high school; the two went on to Cal Poly Pomona, where they both received bachelor’s degrees in ornamental horticulture.  They moved to Del Mar in 1978, where they raised their two children, Christopher and Susan.  In addition to his consulting on private and public garden projects, Bill had his own nursery business for 30 years.

It was 1988, recalls Marnie Mahoney, when she and a few friends first gathered to discuss the idea of forming a Garden Club for Del Mar. Bill’s wife, Linda, was one of the co-founders of the new Del Mar Garden Club and Bill quickly became an ex-officio member, and went on to guide the club in most of its beautification efforts.

“It was 1991 when we began the landscaping at the Post Office. Linda Chisari did the basic design using the idea of the dry stream bed and Bill was responsible for the installation of the boulders and smaller rocks which gave the garden the "good bones" that it still exhibits to this day,” said Mahoney. “Bill also contributed his expertise to the original selection of plants, and, over the years, would add a few special plants here and there to add color, texture and enhance the overall appearance of the garden. He had such a knack for choosing, combining, and placing plants so that they were in harmony with the site.”
“Our next project was the landscaping of the medians along Jimmy Durante Blvd. When first installed, it was his choice of plants that were used, some of which remain to this day. Often, he would put on his orange vest and tuck in plants in the early morning hours.”

“Our Club's goal is to stimulate the knowledge and love of plants as well as to contribute to the beautification of Del Mar,” said Mahoney. “Bill certainly was a major factor in achieving this goal and his many, many contributions of beauty throughout Del Mar, shall live with us for years to come. This very thoughtful, kind and gentle man will certainly live on in my heart forever.”

 “Often, Bill would discover new and outstanding plants that few people knew about,” said Welsh. “He would plant and promote them so eventually they became widely used. One example is the spectacular flowering succulent called rock purslane (Calandrinia grandiflora) which bears fuchsia-colored flowers on long stems for much of the year. One moment it was little known and then one saw it everywhere, since Bill was planting it. Another is the plant called "little pickles" (Othonna capensis). It's a succulent plant with yellow flowers much of the year. It now covers the ground in front of our public library in Del Mar as well as the Del Mar Post Office garden and many private gardens.”     
Among his many horticultural talents, said Welsh, was Bill’s extraordinary talent for translating the artistry of Japan into the language of the California garden. 
“Of course, Bill had a firm grasp of the factual aspects of horticulture and agriculture, but his understanding of plant life and his eye for natural beauty went way beyond the technical aspects of gardening. He loved combining huge boulders with plants and nestled the boulders into the ground so they looked as if they'd always been there. After Bill retired from flower growing he became a landscape designer and landscape creator. Many local gardens, including my own, benefitted from his extraordinary talent for creating a marriage of plants and design so that the effect seemed effortless and the landscape long lasting.  

Richard Jamison, a friend of Bill’s who shared his love for local boulders and Japanese gardens, recalls his fondest memories of Bill back in the days when he would deliver plants and other treats to friends in his grey Econoline van.

“Bill always knew where to find the best stuff. He made incredible pilgrimages to nurseries, quarries, and produce stands and the van was usually packed with goodies to share with his friends,” said Jamison.

“I have always considered a good friend to be someone who lets you put large rocks
inside their car. Bill shared my enthusiasm for large stones and we rolled many a
granite boulder out of his van without ever crushing a limb.”

“Prior to Susan (Bill and Linda’s daughter) and Michael’s wedding, I challenged Bill to replace his flagstone path with granite slabs. Bill eagerly accepted the challenge and, day after day, moved thousands of pounds of granite in his van from a quarry in San Marcos. The slabs were pushed into the van with a forklift at the quarry, and quite often we would have to wet saw and hand split them inside the van in order to unload them. Bill loved not only designing gardens, but he also enjoyed the physical labor required to implement a design.”

Bill was instrumental in many garden projects in town, designing the landscaping of Del Mar medians, exhibits at the Del Mar Fair, and gardens at the Del Mar Library and City Hall.  One of his frequent collaborators was Becky Dembitsky, who has directed many beautification efforts for the City and the Del Mar Garden Club.
“In the years I've been involved in Parks and Recreation committee and the Del Mar Garden Club, when we would pursue new areas to beautify in the city, all I needed to do was to mention Bill's name as our landscaper for the project and we would get overwhelming approval,” said Dembitsky.

“I know in my heart that we worked as hard to please Bill with his pursuit of beautifying the environment as for the recipients of the new landscaping.  His bright smile under his straw hat would light up with the details of the perfect plants and design for the project. The next time you notice the huge yellow blossoms of the Giant Thevetias shrubs on the island he planted at 22nd Street just north of the bridge, his favorite variety of blue Ceanothus at City Hall or the myriad of plantings throughout our enchanting village, you will know who was behind the shovel that artistically arranged and planted them.”

Bill was a naturalist who enjoyed both the ocean environment as a surfer and the land as a horticulturalist, said Dembitsky.
“He transferred his philosphy to us all through his many public contributions including the work with the DMGC and the Parks and Rec Committee. We all are brief passengers and most are not long remembered. Bill will remain special to all fortunate to have known him and to all who will continue to enjoy his legacy.” 
While Bill left an indelible physical imprint on Del Mar, it is his gentle, patient, and accepting spirit that so many will remember.
Over the last year, Mary Friestedt took Bill, confined to a wheelchair due to advance ALS, to consult on landscape projects at the San Diego Botanic Garden—where he designed many award-winning gardens— and at Del Mar City Hall and the Library. Quail Gardens, now known as San Diego Botanic Garden, became Bill’s special love, where he labored daily, designing and implementing a wide range of inspired plantings, including gardens for children, succulents, and an underwater garden, among others. Even after his health had diminished significantly, he continued the daily trek to SDBG to plan, plant, and teach others about the plants he loved. Not surprisingly, Bill died on the way home from a visit to Quail (SDBG).

“Bill Teague is the kindest, most giving human being I will ever know,” said Friestedt. “He taught me the key to happiness:  help others and make our world a little more beautiful.  Look to nature for cues-- rolling hills, rocks, simplicity. Focus on the positive and ignore the rest. The best teacher ever, Bill lives on in all the hearts of the many people he touched.”

A “Celebration of Life” event is planned Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. at San Diego Botanic Garden. Donations can be made to: San Diego Botanic Garden, Bill Teague Garden Fund, P.O. Box 230005, Encinitas, CA 92023; Friends of Powerhouse Park, P.O. Box 297, Del Mar, CA 92014; or the ALS Association (www.alsa.org)


 
 

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