Dream Yard: Modesto couple's careful planning means year-round blooming

When Bill and Gina McKinney moved back to Modesto, they couldn't wait to get their hands in the dirt.

The couple -- he's a PhD chemist, she worked as a lab technician -- met on the job here. But soon after they married, they found themselves moving every two years or so to accommodate Bill's job with Shell Oil. Nowhere they lived had the rich soil of the San Joaquin Valley.

So, when it came time for Bill to retire in 1999, the couple returned to Modesto with one thing on their minds: creating their dream yard.

The work, most of which they did themselves, is now complete. Their back yard overlooks eight acres of almond trees and features Italian cypress, a bocce court, a pool, an herb garden and a vegetable patch.

The home is one of six stops on the Modesto Garden Club's Spring Tour of Gardens and Outdoor Living, set for later this month. The tour includes homes in the Fleur de Ville community and the Del Rio area and ranges from a cottage garden to a back yard with an Asian feel.

Bill and Gina bought their property long-distance. They told Gina's family -- almond ranchers outside of Modesto -- that they were on the lookout for land on which to to build a home. A brother-in-law told them about some acreage for sale down the road from his property.

They bought the 9-acre parcel after viewing a videotape from their home in Houston. "We never saw it," Bill said. "When we got here, we discovered the soil was so sandy that when the past owners tried to farm it, they couldn't get the water out to the front." The sandy soil soaked it up. So much for the dream planting conditions of the San Joaquin Valley.

Bill made it work for almonds, though, with a micro-irrigation system -- tiny sprinklers set among the trees.

The same principle works on the acre they set aside for a yard. Bill and a friend installed a sprinkler system with more than 40 stations to water the flowers, shrubs and trees he and Gina selected and planted themselves.

"The yard is designed to have something blooming 12 months a year," Bill said.

In the spring, there are daffodils and magnolias. In the summer, look for a display of roses bordering the pool. Fall brings late-blooming hydrangeas. Winter means cold-weather veggies, like chard and kale.

The centerpiece of the yard is a rectangular pool designed by John Runyan of Modesto's Tropical Pools. Three-hundred-pound stone bowls, or scuppers, pour water into the pool.

There's a wisteria-covered trellis that shades an outdoor eating area. There's also a bocce court, fitting given the home's Italian-style architecture.

Bill and Gina maintain the yard themselves. They figure they spend one full day weeding, planting fertilizing, etc., plus several evenings in good weather.

"We're outside, the dogs will be outside with us," Bill said. "It's just a nice place to be."