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Montecito Grasses : A Hillside of Graceful, Drought-Tolerant Plants

September 02, 1990|ROBERT SMAUS

In front of a house on a Montecito hill, the undulating landscape of perennial grasses, as pretty as any lawn, is designed to survive whatever tough watering laws come along. All the plants here are drought-resistant and irrigated by a maze of drip tubing that puts water precisely at their bases instead of throwing most of it to the wind.

Created by Santa Barbara landscape architect Joan F. Radditz, this garden is only a year and a half old and not completely tested, but most of the plants, including the grasses, needed to be watered only two or three times to survive the summer. The house, set back from the street atop a carefully graded hillock, has a view of the distant ocean. To connect house, hill and ocean, Radditz "turned the hill into a dune" by covering it with grasses that pick up every ocean breeze. "I wanted a soothing tapestry of green, red and blue-gray that flowed up the hill," Radditz says.

The green comes from common fountain grass, Pennisetum setaceum ; the red from its close cousin, P. setaceum 'Cupreum,' and the blue-gray accents from a European grass named Elymus arenarius 'Glaucus,' often sold mistakenly as the native California grass E. glaucus . Clumps of common pampas grass provide texture.

The green fountain grass has a reputation for spreading out of control and becoming a nuisance, but the red variety is perfectly civilized. Elymus can be a little rambunctious, spreading underground on rhizomes, but drip irrigation, which does not wet the surrounding soil, seems to keep it in check. The pampas grass also seeds freely; gardeners in some parts of the state consider it a noxious weed. Some of the less common varieties of pampas grass, such as Cortaderia selloana 'Pumila,' may be more desirable, since they do not seed, says Pomona nurseryman John Greenlee. For smaller properties, he suggests that Pennisetum alopecuroides , a close cousin of green pennisetum that does not seed much and goes dormant in winter, might be more appropriate. (Greenlee's large nursery specializes in grasses for landscape professionals. He also has a mail-order business for homeowners; catalogues are available for $2.50 from Greenlee Nursery, 301 E. Franklin Ave., Pomona 91766.)

For the three acres Radditz had to cover, aggressive grasses that can survive on little or no water were the perfect solution. To make sure the plants do not wander onto neighbors' property, Radditz created natural barriers. On one side of the hill, she planted a large and deep screen of Dodonaea viscosa 'Purpurea,' the purple hop bush (which has leaves tinged with red, much like the grasses it guards). And on both sides of the driveway, she used a wide planting of native ceanothus, the blue-flowered 'Yankee Point.'

The grasses bloom until late fall and are cropped close to the ground between November and January. It's best to remove the dead leaves, or they will make unsightly clumps after a few years. The plants will spring back quickly with the first winter rain.

Olive trees surround the stream bed and dot the property. Landscape contractor John Bugay procured the full-grown, mature trees from a central California grove and moved them onto the site, which explains the established look of the landscape. Because they are all the same age and from the same grove, they tie the plan together neatly.

There is another garden--quite small and more traditional in plan and planting--close to the house. Enclosed by low walls, it could be watered with buckets if necessary.

The house was designed so there would be no need for foundation plantings; the grasses flow right up to its walls, and it appears to have come magically from the sky, like Dorothy's house, to land softly in a field of grass.

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