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Cool Green Gardens

Downton Abbey Meets Madmen in a Santa Barbara Garden, Pt. I

I’m not a marriage and family counselor. I don’t even play one on TV. I’m a landscape architect, but sometimes I’m put in the “Women Are From Venus and Men Are From Mars” squeeze. Perhaps you’re dealing with a similar situation in your own yard.

The first time I encountered this collision of visions was when “she” showed me a picture of a quaint southern-style garden, complete with white picket fence, pink roses and masses of lavender. Him? He took great pride in his potted succulent collection and wanted to gaze upon it during his outdoor meditation sessions. We worked it out, as you can see from this bubble diagram.

schematic of his and hers garden
A mass of shrubbery separates her vision from his.

Well, it’s happened again, this time for a long-term client who recently downsized from a five-acre estate to a more manageable, but still grand property. We’ll call them Jessie and Tim. When we worked together on the first project, there was an ongoing, though loving, tug of war between Jessie’s “just give me lots of pretty flowers” English garden aesthetic and Tim’s desire to go native. We made it work.

Recently, they moved to a two-story Arts and Crafts-era house, constructed in 1900. It sits sideways on a deep lot, so the “front door” faces the side property line instead of the street. Behind the house is the active family area with a swimming pool, dining terrace and lawn, all visually disconnected from the front. Lucky for me.

Given the age of the house, there’s lots of existing vegetation we had to live with. The out-of-character bamboo successfully screens the neighbor’s second story windows, but wouldn’t be my first choice behind an English-style garden.  

Building On What You’ve Got

But the rest of the west garden lent itself nicely to Jessie’s taste. We kept the purple leaf plum, espaliered ornamental pear, a towering Canary Island pine tree, some deep burgundy-foliage Loropetalum, a pair of star jasmine vines climbing the porch posts and a few other “style-neutral” shrubs.

Front door from side property line Front door viewed from path approach

But what to add? The challenge for pulling off a convincing traditional plant palette in surfer country is finding plants that fit the style but also pass my test of being sustainable in a Mediterranean climate.

To compliment this canvas I brought in a pair of Canadian redbuds, a few ornamental grasses (Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ and red fountain grass), Fairy rose, Waverly sage, and Japanese barberry, along with dabs of catmint and cranesbill to cover the ground.

Downton Abbey for Her…

The key to putting a smile on Jessie’s face focused on the simple concrete fountain that aligned with the axis of the front door and porch. This would be the first thing Jessie saw each morning, so it had to hit all the right buttons.

Fountain and warm-colored perennials Fountain close-up with penstemon and achillea

The golden bamboo was tamed with some heavy-handed rhizome removal and as insurance, a dense hedge of Pittosporum ‘Silver Sheen’ went in front of the bamboo. Now we had a more stylistically appropriate backdrop for the focal point. In front of this beefed up screen – for additional “muscle” – I used groupings of Waverly sage with its delicate wand-like flowers, Goodwin Creek lavender and fairy roses to unite the space with the front door plantings.

After centering the existing fountain on the axis and constructing an understated keyhole-shaped path of shale and used brick, it was time to take out the box of crayons and create a little intentional chaos. Without a lot of space to work in, the palette leaned heavily on upright growers like beardtongue (Penstemon ‘Hidcote Pink’), Moonshine yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’), blue fescue (Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’) and daylilies.

Up next… a garden fit for Don Draper at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Circle back in a few weeks and see how the pool area turned into a tropical paradise fit for any mid-century-modern yard. Read it now.

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