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When I reached him by phone, Tom Perry, the owner of the City Heights property where Luigi Cannoni has spent the last six months restoring a trashed and rotting cottage into a botanical oasis in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, confirmed that he put the property up for sale six weeks ago.

He last tried to sell it about two years ago, to no avail. I asked if the months of day-and-night labor Luigi had put into beautifying the house and its garden might have made it more desirable on the market and encouraged him to try again.

“You can say that in your story if you want,” Perry said. “I just needed the money.”

He said a change in ownership shouldn’t endanger Luigi’s ability to live there. New owners wouldn’t likely ask him to leave. He’s done so much to keep it up. Even butterflies land there.

Since when do butterflies land in City Heights?

But Luigi doesn’t plan on staying forever. He never has. He’s always moved on, from the massive rural Maryland estate that fed his love for gardening to the cities of the mid-Atlantic where he was free to be gay, to San Diego, where he has struggled with bipolar disorder and in the last six months exhausted his life savings to resuscitate a house once without hope.

He does envision the canopy of shade that will envelop this little cottage in five years, when his Cunningham King Palms have matured beyond the roof line and the canna lilies have shot up to provide a backdrop for the rose bushes that are acclimating nicely.

He stands in his garden and gazes at the point just above the second story windows of the apartment complex next door, from where his impoverished neighbors’ children will be able to bask in the foliage close enough and full enough, perhaps, to touch. Their childhoods are so different from his. They have concrete playgrounds. He had acres of farmland and patches of snapdragons.

But no canopy of shade yet, after six months.

“So I’m at the mercy of our rotation,” he says.

Our rotation?

“Of our Earth. There’s no such thing as sunrise or sunset,” he says. “We rotate to, we rotate away. The sun doesn’t move. That’s primitive. How vain of us to say that.”

But the canopy will take time, and not only an investment of time, but of emotion he’s not sure he’s ready to reinvest. It is clear when he talks about the garden he kept at the University Heights home he shared with his partner until six months ago that the 12-year project was the pride of his life. Gardens always have been.

Even after moving out, he snuck into the gardens at night to water them. When his ex-partner found out, he says, he changed the locks on the gate. He told him he’d prefer if he didn’t come by.

So now, when Luigi visits every week to drop off or pick up Stella and Spanky, the pugs he and his former partner share custody of, he shields his eyes.

“Nothing’s been pruned. It hasn’t been touched in six months,” he says. It hurts. His voice lowers to a whisper. “Just six months!”

It’s hard for me to imagine the magnitude of what his previous garden must have been after 12 years, if in just six months he’s created this. And it’s hard to imagine that this, too, could have been anything less than a staggering labor of love — to have chosen the worst home he could find and moved in to dig up heroin spoons and scrape away dried urine to plant the most impressive garden this poor street, and likely this poor neighborhood, has seen in a long time, if not ever.

But Luigi is already thinking about the future. He lacks a regular income, for one, except for the few clients who still employ his gardening services, telling him not what they want, “only how pretty.” If he is not able to negotiate down his rent at the end of his lease, he may have to leave.

He wants to find the owners of an estate who need a live-in groundskeeper and gardener.

He will have made a full circle, of sorts.

As a child in Crownsville, Md. in the 1960s, he worked with his father, who was the foreman of the groundskeeper’s team on a massive estate called Belvoir Farm. It was once owned by the family of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner.

The estate’s matron recognized his talent and took him under her wing. He was the only member of the crew allowed near her grand magnolias.

“From the time he was a child, he’s always loved flowers,” said Linda Cannoni, Luigi’s sister who still lives in Maryland. “Johnny was a very individual person, and he really kept to himself a lot.”

Luigi’s family calls him Johnny. His real name is John, after his paternal grandfather.

But when he turned 40, figuring he was about halfway through life, he decided he would be known thereafter as Luigi, the name of his mother’s father.

“So they can’t say I didn’t give them both credit,” he says with a smile.

When he was Johnny, his family worried he would get lost wandering into the woods surrounding the estate to seek out plants. He cultivated secret gardens where he experimented with planting.

When he was about five, he broke snapdragon flowers away from the plant and pierced their stems into the ground.

One day, he yanked on the flowers but pulled the entire plant away.

“That was the first time I discovered plants needed roots to grow,” he says. He started gardening around the yard. He dressed up to pose with his plants when the flowers blossomed.

His family always knew Luigi was different. But in a rural, devout Catholic family, they didn’t dare speculate.

When he dropped out of high school and eloped, their fears were put at ease. But when his daughter was born a year later, he decided she was the one person he couldn’t lie to.

“I thought if I prayed hard enough it would go away,” he says. “So I married a woman. But it never did.”

He came out to his wife, and she told him to leave. He stopped working on the estate and left the countryside. He took classes in floral design and moved first to Annapolis, then to Baltimore.

“When you come out you have to move to the city,” he said. “You have to know that you’re not the only one.”

He worked in flower shops and made his way to Washington, D.C., where he lived in the gay community and worked as a floral designer during the 1980s. He met Mike, his partner, and they moved to San Diego in the mid-1990s.

It was beautiful, but clients didn’t tip as well. Still, he worked with some of the city’s best-known names in floral design, like Kathy Wright and Co., and he made a decent living designing floral arrangements for weddings and gardening for private clients.

Albums arranged in his living room document the evolution of his designs, from the bulbous and robust looks in vogue early in his career, to the sleek and minimalist floral arrangements of more recent years.

But the floral industry has changed. Grocery stores provide cookie cutter wedding packages now, and work is scarce as flower stores have shuttered under the financial pressures brought on by internet florists.

His bipolar disorder has damaged his career, too, he said. He barely scrapes by. He sells the vegetables out of his garden.

So he has retreated. Into one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where many friends don’t visit, but where he wanted to recreate “the beauty that these people,” — his neighbors — “would never get to see.”

And he wonders about his and his garden’s future.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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