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STYLE / GARDENS : SHE PAINTS, HE PRUNES : A Santa Barbara Couple Preserve the Classical Lines and Subtle Shades of a Historic Estate

February 11, 1996|Susan Heeger

Finding Carol Geyer's garden is like stumbling on a gateway in a dream, the one at the end of a cramped tunnel that suddenly opens onto a sunlit meadow. You drive down a green lane walled and hung with oaks and at some point there's a left turn through a clutch of olive trees and then an unexpected Roman-style house with windows that embrace the view of the garden outside.

"Sometimes you just fall through a door," says artist Carol Geyer, describing how she and her husband, David, came upon one of California's great landscapes when they were looking for a place to live. The oak-edged acre in Santa Barbara's Mission Canyon turned out to contain the 1926 house and garden designed by legendary landscape architect Lockwood De Forest for his own family, at a time when he was building high-profile estate gardens for the vastly rich in Montecito.

Since the Geyers moved in three years ago, Carol has worked to keep De Forest's hideaway as she found it, both by tending it and painting it on little canvases that capture its small-scale grandeur.

Laid out in a series of outdoor rooms, like the European gardens De Forest visited for inspiration, his own landscape has what gardeners call good bones. Its classic structure of paths, walls and razored hedges controls the sprawl of plants and exhorts a visitor to see what's there. The earthen walk that slices past the east side of the house, for instance, leads the eye out and up between intriguing leafy shapes: from spherical myrtle hedges to the ethereal smoke of lavenders to a mound of laurel sumac and a round of silverberry and through increasingly shaggy, layered trees to a staggering mountain view. This same mountain--La Cumbre Peak--crowns the view across the back lawn, which skips up a couple of architectural steps to a boulder-edged pond encircled with rockrose and South African flowering bulbs. These were chosen by De Forest's wife and fellow landscape architect, Elizabeth, who did much of the planting here.

Carol paints these and other views often, setting her stool and easel under a grape arbor or near a fish-shaped fountain that overlooks the pleasing geometry of bulb plots. When she isn't painting, she's pulling weeds and learning lessons about discipline. "I'm amazed," she says, "at how many volunteers pop up that are beautiful but don't belong, like a deodar cedar above the pond. Elsewhere, there are pink naked ladies that crowd each other out, spearmint overrunning an herb garden. You have to get tough."

During their first year in the garden, she and David, a marketing executive, were a bit intimidated by its formal layout and creative plant combinations. They cleaned it up but added nothing. They watched the spring blues and lavenders of echium and iris yield to the summer golds of coreopsis and santolina. David learned to clip the hedges. The next year, they replaced a dead shrub, a pink dombeya that had always bloomed beside the front door, with a new one, added a weeping sequoia in the back and began to think about roses. Recently, and only after consulting landscape experts familiar with De Forest's work, they bought David Austins to enliven their bulb garden during its quiet months.

"I have such a sense of being a caretaker here," says Carol, the resident artist of San Ysidro Ranch. "Through painting, I savor the garden's details and feel connected to De Forest [who died in 1949]. But we're also in a position to pass on a bit of civilization to the generations that follow us. De Forest had the grand vision. And the fact that he applied it not just on a grand scale but in this little place has something to teach us all."

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