The “shell garden” has stood sentry at the stucco home for three decades, according to Nelson Mendes, who grew up in the house.
But when he was a kid, the house had the typical green lawn, like most of its neighbors. The “trees” and “bushes,” fashioned out of thousands of abalone, periwinkle, clam and conch shells didn’t “sprout” until the early 1980s. That’s when Nelson’s father retired from his career as a tuna fisherman.
For years, he had been collecting the shells from voyages around the Galapagos Islands. With time on his hands, Mendes said, his dad decided to make use the shells in what would become one of the most unusual gardens in America.
“Mom just let him do his thing,” said the younger Mendes, who still lives in Point Loma between stints as a tuna fisherman in the South Pacific.
“It was better than cutting and watering grass,” said Mendes. “He was one of the first to use xeriscape (a drought-resistant landscape, most often with plants that don’t require much water).”
Since then, locals and tourists alike have been stopping to take photographs of the sculptures. And, unfortunately, some of the passers-by have snatched pots of shell “foliage” to take home.
A next-door neighbor said, only half kidding, that he’s thinking about setting up a stand to sell postcards for $1 to all the lookie-loos. He said he has asked a few them if they’d spring for a buck for a postcard and they all said they would.
Though the shell “plants” certainly age better than annuals and even many perennials, Mendes said they have started deteriorating from the weather.
To preserve them from the elements and in case the family ever sells the property, a Los Angeles museum has offered to relocate the “garden” inside. For now, however, Mendes said, the family plans to hold onto the property, shells and all.