WRITTEN BY Prissy Gravely
Although Santa Barbara gardeners have experienced severe drought and water rations recently, they still enjoy some of the most lush and lovely gardens in America. The early morning fog, locally called “June Gloom,” rolls in from the chilly Pacific and blankets these tropical gardens with life-sustaining moisture. The results are breathtaking!
A fabulous Italian garden on Las Tunas Road has been a work in progress for years. The owners rebuilt their home as a stunning French villa of ochre stucco topped with an antique-tiled roof from France. Anchored by two Italian Cypress trees, a stone surround frames the gracious entrance. We found formal Italian parterres, rose-covered arbors, stands of agapanthus topped with sapphire blue lilies, pear trees laden with fruit and a serene lily pond with an arched wooden bridge. The lovely dining terrace under a pergola, highlighted by a chandelier, provides the perfect ambiance for entertaining outside.
One of the most memorable vignettes in this garden is an allée of blue gray olive trees underplanted with fragrant lavender and bordered by white agapanthus lilies. The aroma is enchanting and the color palette is magical.
The family added a beautiful pool with a view of the Santa Barbara hills. The home also features a custom chicken coop, rose garden and antique fountain. The climate is so perfect that none of the doors or windows need screens and are always kept open.
A few miles away, hidden behind a white wooden gate on Picacho Lane, is a southern-style garden more reminiscent of Charleston than Santa Barbara. This charming home welcomes with verandas, balconies and a front garden laden with camellias and ferns bordering old brick paths with a charming fountain. The homeowner is a master gardener who describes her garden as “designed from the inside out” since fragrances from the garden float through the open windows of every room. Each part of the garden was planned to be viewed from the house.
A stone fountain, circled by a brick-bordered crushed granite path, acts as the focal point of an intimate outside room walled with tall camellias.
At one end of the garden, a rectangular pool reflects trees and blue sky. Between the pool and the central garden is an iron gate highlighting a vista of the majestic Santa Ynez mountains. Visually and physically connecting the garden to the home is a curving stucco and brick staircase with an iron railing covered with fragrant blooming wisteria. The outdoor fireplace and patio at the opposite end of the garden provide subtle symmetry. This unique garden is documented in the Smithsonian archives of American Gardens, a well-deserved honor!
The third private garden we toured was in a secluded canyon. Bobby Webb, a sought-after designer of magnificent estates in Santa Barbara and Montecito, created a tropical paradise for himself and longtime partner Michael Corbett. The Caribbean-influenced home features porches, ceiling fans and green-shuttered windows. To enter their retreat, Bobby designed a wooden bridge over a pond filled with sacred Lotus blooms. We immediately felt as if we were in Jamaica or Costa Rica.
The perfect shade of green on the walls brings the outside in. An entire sliding glass wall in the master bedroom allows the koi pond and double waterfall to become part of the interior. The man-made lake behind the house provides a magical reflection of the home, which was built on stilts due to the sloping terrain of the canyon. On a plateau above the house, Bobby created a magnificent rose garden complete with arbors, a reflecting pool and bronze cranes. After showing us Bobby’s magnificent exotic birds, Michael led us to the Dahlia garden where row after row of huge blossoms of every color dazzled. We hated to leave this paradise and the gracious hospitality of its owners.
We then headed for The San Ysidro Ranch in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. This Ty Warner (of Beanie Babies fame) property in Montecito began as a simple adobe structure built in 1825. It now offers guests several fine restaurants plus 41 suites, cottages and rooms. At an outdoor covered patio, we enjoyed salads with fresh-picked ingredients and summer citrus coolers squeezed from on-site orange and lemon trees.
As we strolled through the smaller gardens of the 500-acre property, a long arbor covered with wisteria beckoned us to sit among the lush hydrangeas and view the towering Australian Pine Tree and the horizon beyond the ranch, where the deep blue Pacific meets the azure sky. A cobblestone path led us past the guest cottage where Jackie and John Kennedy honeymooned. The purple mountain view to the north offers an amazing contrast to the ocean view to the south.
On departure, we paused for a family photo under the lush bougainvillea, covering the roof of the 1892 original stone ranch house which now serves as a reception area. This hidden gem, which attracted Hollywood stars and statesmen in the 1930s such as Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, David Niven, Sinclair Lewis and Winston Churchill, still beckons the rich and famous today. The gardens and structures are in perfect harmony with one another.
Our final destination was the sprawling and elegant Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore on Channel Drive opposite dazzling Butterfly Beach. This exquisite 1927 gem epitomizes the Spanish revival architecture beloved in Southern California. In that bygone era, celebrity guests included Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby and Rock Hudson, who had his wedding ceremony in one of the cabins.
Surrounding benches provide a place to sit and enjoy the sound of water and the nearby ocean breezes.
Botanical specimens catch your eye, such as the white Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia nicolai), even more exotic than the more commonly seen plant with orange blooms. But the true treasure is the Moreton Bay Fig Tree (Ficus macrophylla), an Australian Native estimated to be 120 years old. Magnificent with its smooth white bark, it provides a leafy canopy for the Spanish cottages nearby. Throughout the gardens of the Biltmore, vibrant blue agapanthus lilies visually connect the blue Pacific water to the cloudless azure sky above as hummingbirds dart from blossom to blossom.
With its coastline and mountainous grandeur, there is no question why Santa Barbara is commonly called the American Riviera. It is truly one of the most perfect micro climates in the world for gardening.
Photography for the second garden by Sally Fairbanks.
The photos of The San Ysidro Ranch are courtesy of Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts.