Seven years ago this month, Dave Dean got fed up with the weeds and trash choking a vacant state-owned lot not far from his home near Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas.
But rather than leave the job in the hands of local or state officials, Dean grabbed some trash bags and tools and started the cleanup job himself on the property, a hillside lot at the northwest corner of Second and B streets.
After a couple weeks, he started visiting nurseries and buying drought-tolerant succulents, bromeliads, ice plant and cactus to decorate the now-weed-free hillside. Six months in, he began carving meandering walking paths lined with large beach pebbles he hand-carried from the beach each day.
Then one day in summer 2015, Candace Jesse Jessup, an Arizona artist staying in a nearby hotel, painted one of the stones in the garden with a mandala and heart design to thank Dean for his one-man mission to beautify the community. That’s when the now-64-year-old commercial property agent said he had the lightbulb moment that turned the lot into the unique tourist attraction it is today.
“When I saw her rock, I thought, oh my gosh, that’s it,” he said. “I’m going to have a thousand rocks in a thousand colors from a thousand people. That was the beginning of Dave’s Rock Garden.”
Today, Dave’s Rock Garden is decorated with more than 7,000 rocks hand-painted by visitors from 113 countries and all 50 states. It also features thousands of plants, handmade statuary, meditation stumps for sitting and playing checkers, a flagpole and a self-service art station where anybody can paint rocks for Dean to add to the garden.
Dave’s Rock Garden is now a beloved part of the city’s funky art scene, but its presence wasn’t always appreciated. Just two weeks into Dean’s project in 2015, a nearby resident filed a complaint with the city and Encinitas officials issued Dean a cease-and-desist order, demanding he stop what he was doing and remove all the plants within two weeks or they would take action.
The city never followed through on its threat, and Dean eventually sneaked back to the property. But instead of working in broad daylight, he gardened every night under the cover of darkness. It wasn’t until 2017 — after the garden had become recognized as a community treasure — that Dean finally felt safe gardening in the sunlight again.
“One of the inspirations I used for my motivation in creating the garden is I like to think of Moonlight Beach as the crown jewel of our city and the road to Moonlight as the gateway to our crown jewel,” he said. “I feel that we as citizens of Encinitas owe more to our visitors than to let them view a field of weeds on their way to the beach.”
Although Dave’s Rock Garden remains an unofficial public art installation, it has been widely recognized by local and national media, art and rock-painting groups and even Google, which has registered it as an official point of interest. A couple of years ago, Dean was honored by the Ben’s Bells Project in Arizona, which recognizes people who perform acts of intentional kindness. And rather than adversaries, Encinitas city officials have become advocates for the garden. Last year, when the city decided to build a new retaining wall on the south border of the garden, Dean was invited to serve on the wall design committee.
“Though the city has not officially endorsed the garden yet, many of the city officials have given their unofficial support and appreciation of the garden,” Dean said.
The garden has a small box where visitors can leave donations to help pay for paints and plants. It has raised a little money over the years, but Dean remains the project’s main funder. Over the years, he has spent more than $20,000 on plants at local nurseries and green glacier boulders from a quarry in Utah and hundreds of dollars more on paints and brushes. He also spends every weekend morning weeding, trimming and raking the garden and he stops by most weeknights before sunset to check in. Whenever he visits, Dean sets out paints, plays music on a wireless speaker, meets with visitors and enjoys offering tours to the roughly 100 visitors who stop by daily.
Dean said he’s driven to work so hard and spend so much on the garden because it’s his hobby and he feels well reimbursed by the volume of “thank yous” he receives.
“The locals love it so much,” Dean said. “When I go into any restaurant in town, people will see me and say, ‘Hey, you’re the rock guy.’ It has happened a thousand times. I never knew I’d be known by so many people.”
Among the thousands of rocks in the garden are painted tributes to the Grateful Dead, the Kool-Aid Man, painter Bob Ross, Volkswagen buses, Peter Pan, the Morton Salt Girl, the Taj Majal, Taco Bell and Humpty Dumpty. There are rocks painted with Arabic and Chinese lettering, a 9/11 memorial flag, an elaborate octopus and photo-realistic koi fish. Dean has created groupings of rocks painted with themes like mushroom, animals, human faces and college insignias and there’s a path he calls “believers row” lined with hundreds of rocks with spiritual and religious themes.
Although most of the rock artists are amateurs, Dean said several professional artists have contributed greatly to the project over the years, including David Owens, Svetlana Kozak, Tiana Souligny, Steve Grah and Rich Strayer.
Dean’s favorite rocks are those with poignant backstories. One rock painted with an oceanscape features the words “I dropped a tear in the ocean. When I find it, I’ll stop missing you.” Another depicts a broken heart held together with a Band-Aid. It memorializes a local surfer who died from a heart attack a few years ago. A third rock features the words: “I donated a kidney to my wife. She already has my heart. Aug. 11, 2021.”
Dean said that some rock artists arrive with their donations pre-painted, but most of the rocks in the garden were painted onsite by visitors. Over the years, he has only had to remove two rocks, because they featured inappropriate content.
“My only rule is it has to be safe enough for Disney because we get a lot of children here,” Dean said. “All these little kids come up to me to share their rocks. I never imagined I’d have a connection with so many kids. This project has exceeded my wildest imagination.”
On Jan. 9, Colorado-based artist Brian Simmonds, who paints under the name “Pher01″ (or “Pharaoh 1″), stopped by while out walking his Lab mix, Lola. He grabbed a few brushes and tubes of paint and began brushing a rock with a bright blue and green cactus design, which he said was inspired by a recent visit to Peru.
“I love it here,” Simmonds said of the garden. “I love the imagination that went into creating such a beautiful art installation for the community.”