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President of Laguna Beach Garden Club, Nancy Englund: The more you look, the more you see


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Nancy Englund’s garden feels alive with motion: plants wriggle, float, and dangle in the air; succulents burst from the ground in an abundance of shapes, textures, and colors; they coil, cavort, and wrangle for space beside tipped amphoras, a koi pond, a fountain, and ceramic fish and figurines. 

The controlled chaos of Nancy’s garden is breathtaking, her penchant for whimsy evidenced in fun touches including a life-size treasure chest. Her enthusiasm, and her laughter, is infectious.

Nancy’s love of plants stems from her early experiences with her grandfather, a keen gardener.

“I’d toddle after him as he worked, and he’d twist me a fragrant crown out of jasmine,” she says. “My grandmother was blind, so he chose plants with wonderful scents, like yellow roses and lamb’s ear, and different textures, smooth or nubby or hairy, so she could enjoy them through smell and touch.

“Through him I learned something magical – that you can make plants from other plants. You don’t need seeds or a trip to the nursery.”

No surprise then that Nancy became a member of the Laguna Beach Garden Club, has headed up its Gate & Garden Tour for fifteen years, and is now its president. 

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Green-eyed Nancy Englund

Nancy’s choice to celebrate profusion over precision doesn’t mean that her decisions are random: quite the contrary, each plant earns its place among the others.

“Without some organization, the garden would look like tossed salad,” she says. “I purposely pick out plants with odd shapes that somehow complement each other.”

So it is that each part of her garden is differently dedicated and named, as in the section Fifty Shades of Green, showcasing every hue from olive to emerald to jade as well as Nancy’s great sense of humor.

Then there’s the blue and brown garden, the moonlight garden – where once a month, viewed from her kitchen window, the full moon is framed beneath the fronds of a palm – and a mermaid garden.

“I was inspired by the ocean because I was writing a live action screenplay about two mer-people,’” Nancy explains. “So I chose branches that resemble the shape of a coral reef and plants with wavy leaves and added ceramic octopuses and shells.”

Nancy created “portholes” through the vegetation alongside at a child’s height, so that any kid descending the stairs to the street is able to glimpse what looks like a magical underwater world. 

president of mermaid

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Nancy’s Mermaid Garden bursts with color

“It helps to have a sister who is a realtor, so she goes to lots of estate sales and she brings me back interesting stuff, like an old diving mask.” Then Nancy uses her imagination. She points to a large blue bubble-like item. “That was her bowling ball.”

Every part of the garden tells a story – and keeps a few secrets

Each part of Nancy’s garden feeds the senses; each is a marvel of imagination; each tells a story.

And several hold secrets. For example, an item which shall not be named, but which relates to her husband’s notoriety for his role as Freddy Krueger in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street – considered one of the greatest horror films of all time – is hidden next to one of the paths near a red-striped garden.

“I’d be surprised if many people in the Garden Club know I’m married to Robert Englund,” Nancy says, “Or maybe they do. I often used my maiden name when I joined clubs or attended events, only because I was terrified I might let something slip out about my husband that could be misinterpreted, or taken out of context and written up in the media.

“So one day, a new friend came over to my house and walked into the study where we’ve got dozens and dozens of photos of Robert and other memorabilia. She said to me, ‘My, you must be quite a fan.’ I had to confess I was married to Freddy Krueger.”

Turns out that Robert is quite handy in the garden, likes snipping at things…but not with a bladed leather glove. “He leaves the broad strokes to me but often brings home odds and ends – like this iridescent beetle – and he’ll create little scenes within scenes,” she says. “It’s perfect.”

Robert still travels quite a bit, to conventions and other movie events, and Nancy joins him when the destination appeals to her.

Naturally, she visits arboretums while on the trips. One favorite is in Dallas, Texas.

“Predictably, so many things are huge: topiaries, and a 20-foot peacock made out of flowers. When I visited, there were also lots of girls being photographed for their Quinceanera, so that made it quite spectacular.”

Another favorite is the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

“One section was given over to succulents, which is the last thing you expect in Scotland, but the best was the sanctuary containing more than 100 carnivorous plants,” she says.

So Nancy loves plants that kill, kidnap, and steal; that drug, drown, and devour meaty insects in their maw?

Which makes one wonder – does she have a little of Freddy in her? Has A Nightmare rubbed off on her?

Especially when you learn that cemeteries are among her other preferred sights to see, especially while traveling.

Favorite sights to see include cemeteries

 “I love the Monumental Cemetery in Milan, Italy, where people were buried in the 1800s,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see the play of light across the funeral art, the angels and other monuments.”

According to its website, the cemetery is “a stunning example of Art Nouveau and Symbolism achieved from a perfect meld of sumptuous Byzantine, Gothic, and Romanic traces, together with delicate color contrast obtained by the combination of pure white and greenish-grey marbles.”

No surprise there’s a bit of green in there to appeal to Nancy.

president of agave

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Nothing better than messing around in a garden

She also likes Brompton Road Cemetery in London, with its more than 200,000 resting places. Nancy is fascinated by the architecture of the monuments, who is buried next to whom, and the stories that the graves tell about that time in history.

And as evidence of her contemplative nature and enjoyment of art, she is impressed with the fact that Gothenburg Museum in Sweden provides portable stools, so that visitors can take them to sit on while gazing at paintings and sculptures for as long as an hour – or more.

“The more you look, the more you see,” she says.

The Garden Club is not just for gardeners

But Nancy is anxious to turn the subject back to the Laguna Beach Garden Club, which is holding an open house this coming Friday, Feb 14.

“We’ll have master gardeners on hand to answer questions, and plenty of container plants for sale. Everyone is welcome. It’s going to be fun. It’s at the Presbyterian Church on Forest Ave. And this year’s Gate & Garden tour is going to be spectacular.”

Nancy is bothered that some people think of the Garden Club as “little old ladies discussing begonias.”

“You don’t have to be an accomplished gardener to join, just someone who is curious, who takes joy in plants, who wants to learn new things,” she says. “There’s no need to own acres of land or orchards or anything like that.

“We have speakers about a range of topics. And they are almost without exception so interesting,” Nancy adds. “Someone was coming to talk about ikebana. I thought I would be bored stiff, I even thought about bringing a book. But it turned out to be a fascinating subject.”

Other speakers have given presentations on the design of Central Park, and the history behind Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, which still exists as a tourist attraction in England. 

president of treasure

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So many treasures to be found in Nancy’s garden

Other stereotypes abound when it comes to the Garden Club.

“A funny thing, when people hear that I’m the president of Laguna Beach Garden Club, for some reason they often assume that my garden is full of flowers, particularly roses, or they ask if I grow vegetables,” Nancy says. 

Roses require patience and a level of pickiness that doesn’t appeal to her, though, and vegetables take up too much space for the effort, in her view, and, she adds, sotto voce, “they attract pests.”

Instead her garden is filled with what Nancy calls “weirdos,” including euphorbia that look as though they dropped in from outer space, a thick-trunked Madagascar palm, and a Mexican weeping bamboo.

“I love the many shades and shapes of leaves and fronds and branches,” she says. “And I’m a sucker for succulents.”

In addition to her work at the Garden Club, Nancy volunteers at the Animal Shelter, where she mops and cleans, walks the animals, and answers the phone.

Her taste in food is as eclectic as her taste in plants. Favorite restaurants include Sapphire, Maro, Carmelita’s, San Shi Go, and Gina’s Pizza.

“And by now, I think Active Culture should name a salad after me. I love their food,” she adds.

Our time together is running out. Nancy takes me on a last lap around her garden. I spot a stunning chartreuse and periwinkle flower extending brush-like from a bromeliad. It’s gorgeous, weird, and unexpected, perfectly suited to its milieu.

Taking a final look at her motley plants, I think about what Nancy said about the paintings in Gothenburg Art Museum: The more you look, the more you see. 

There couldn’t be a better description of Nancy’s most magical of gardens.