It's hard to miss the romance of California in the rambling ranches and fragrant orange groves of Ojai. Old stone walls run for miles here, and mountains loom like the edge of heaven in every view. Fourteen winding miles inland from Ventura and a world away from the din of Los Angeles, the town offers plenty of peace and open space for a person with big ideas.
One of these, longtime resident John Taft, has been working 20 years to bring his quirky dream alive. On a 350-acre ranch littered with oak groves and planted with formal and informal gardens, he has created, with the help of his wife, Melody, a center for his life's project--the study and conservation of nature around the world. Opened last fall on 276 acres of land donated by Taft, the International Center for Earth Concerns has brought bird-watchers, plein-air painters and garden-lovers together to wander and study in an environment tailored to their interests.
For the ornithologists, scores of bird-boxes throughout the property house wild nestlings--house wrens and California magpies, for example--and six aviaries shelter more exotic residents such as chatty parrots and cockatiels. For the artists, vistas abound: creeks winding through chaparral; the sweeping Santa Ynez Mountains and the adjacent Los Padres National Forest, scrubby with oaks and gold grassland. Most impressive, though, are the landscapes, both botanical and ornamental, that Taft hopes will eventually "tell the story of plants on Earth."
How a man with no horticultural training dreamed this up is a story in itself. Having purchased the property--once a cattle ranch--in 1971, Taft spent 14 years clearing it of brush before a 1985 fire burned all remaining greenery except the oaks. Inspired to introduce new plants to the landscape, Taft, a wildlife activist and board member of the Humane Society of the United States, traveled to Africa and Australia to study flora and obtain seeds. Back in Ojai, he built a greenhouse for propagation and began growing specimens he thought would thrive in his hot, dry canyon. In the same way that he designed and built his own house, he laid out his gardens by eye, drawing on memories of landscapes he'd seen around the world.
His vision, though, wasn't limited to a private paradise or even a plant collection for visitors to admire. Hoping instead "to educate people with the mystery and magic of plants," he brought in botanists from South Africa and Australia to organize exhibits of aloes, proteas and grevilleas, displays that continue, along with many others, to evolve.
Mulch paths meander through this living wonderland, which blazes with color from late winter to fall. Equally colorful are the pleasure gardens Taft created around the center's educational facilities--bright gatherings of roses, grasses and Mediterranean perennials set off by pergolas and shady sitting spots.
At present, the center, an affiliate of the Humane Society of the U.S., is involved in a cheetah conservation program in Namibia and a private-sector game preserve in Zimbabwe. Closer to home, its Ojai grounds are open to garden clubs, wildlife societies, art-oriented groups and the general public by appointment (call 805-649-3535). In the future, schoolchildren will be invited for classes on the environment.
With an almost missionary zeal, Taft continues to help steer the international effort he founded. "We have to do something important here," he declares, "because all around us, nature is being desecrated. If nothing else, I want children to realize how dependent we are on nature--and that everything on Earth owes its very life to plants."