Green Elephants and Leafy Pyramids
San Diego couple transforms their hillside yard into a lush wonderland of whimsical greenery
by Kelly Knufken
Brigitte DeMeyer

Photo by Martin Trailer

Alex Harper and wife Edna love showing off their topiary
See the little guy in the front wearing a hat? That’s a “self-portrait”
of Pedro, the full-time
gardener who helps bring all this whimsy to life.

As an adult, it’s hard to recapture the feelings of pure enjoyment you experienced as a child. So when you drive past a lush green menagerie of whimsical elephants, birds and even Shamu in a San Diego neighborhood, you may be caught off guard by the sheer joy it evokes. The keepers of all this garden whimsy are Alex Harper and his wife, Edna. Although the topiary zoo does require upkeep, their life isn’t all green elephants and leafy pyramids. Edna — the force behind the garden — has a number of artistic hobbies. And over the years, Harper has put his 1963 J.D. degree from USD to good use as a securities trial attorney.

“When I was 9 years old, I wanted to be a lawyer,” he says with pride. “I’m semi-retired. I think I’ll retire when they cremate me. And then maybe I’ll still work.” He misses trial work, peppering conversation with quips like, “I’d rather be in front of a jury than make a mistake (in the topiary garden); that puts me in the doghouse.”

While Harper does help out in the garden, he spends much of his free time on his motorcycle, often riding with friends. He loves to ride up Mount Palomar — one of his favorite jaunts — or to Los Angeles or Palm Springs.

“Trial work and motorcycle riding give me the same euphoric feeling,” he says.

Harper’s connection with the schools that became USD began with a visit to the campus. “Outside was a very imposing person with all these beautiful colors, and I knew right away it was his excellency, Bishop Buddy. He introduced himself, and he said, ’This is my dream and it’s going to grow.’ And he said, ’Come here, young man.’ And I did. And I grew up with the university.”

He became a trial lawyer and eventually worked in equity receivership — as Harper describes it, the white-collar crime cases the Securities and Exchange Commission pursues to “disgorge ill-gotten gains.” He argued a case for the S.E.C. before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Harper’s work as a litigator took him to Geneva and Zurich for his private clients.

“It was fun,” he says of his high-powered career days. It was while the Harpers were in Switzerland that Edna decided to bring a little piece of each of their travels home in the form of inspiration for the topiary. She works with a full-time gardener to make sure her ideas come to fruition.

Meanwhile, Harper is always looking to his next ride. He’s proud of his current bike, a turquoise and black Honda “with a big engine.” Here’s why he loves riding so much: “You know when you see a dog sticking its head out of an automobile window? The look on his face — that’s how I feel.”

Want to capture a slice of that feeling? Drive by Alex and Edna Harper’s house at Union and Vine streets in San Diego, look up, and don’t be surprised to find yourself wearing an ear-to-ear grin.