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From Disaster to Dreamscape

A Problem-Solving Redesign Revives a Site Left High and Dry by Drought

April 05, 1998|Susan Heeger * Photographed by John Reed Forsman

"Sometimes what you think of as a disaster can be an opening," says Santa Barbara garden-lover Claire Parent. For example, when her santolina hedge died, she got to plant what she really wanted: a hardier, looser boxwood. Her whole half-acre landscape, in fact, took root only after calamity struck during the drought of the early '90s. It was then that she hired local landscape architect Sydney Baumgartner to help her rethink what she was growing.

Together, they scrapped the unused and ailing back lawn and installed a flower parterre Parent could tinker with. A central courtyard that baked in the daytime became a white garden that shines at night--a time when Parent, a Realtor, and her husband, Gerald, a lawyer, can enjoy it most. In the front, to set off the Italianate 1928 Carlton Winslow house, Baumgartner suggested echoing its formality with massed lavender and iceberg roses. "There's no lesson I learned faster than to plant in big drifts," Parent says.

"The impact is so much greater than when you spot things here and there."

Other lessons of the redesign involved overcoming clay soil (with homemade compost and nitrogen-enriched wood shavings), battling the heavy shade and greedy roots of cedar trees (with acanthus, bird of paradise, echeverias and Japanese iris) and restraining Austin roses, which, Parent says, "grow three times as big here as the English books say they should."

In confronting garden hardships, she and Baumgartner--now close friends--have taken to swapping tips and plants in the way of diehard green thumbs everywhere. The feathery love-in-a-mist, nicotiana and bulbous oat grass in Parent's borders came, as cuttings or seedlings, from Baumgartner's own beds. Both women grow feverfew and shoo-fly plant to control pesky bugs. And both enjoy a good experiment. One section of Parent's garden resembles a jungle, complete with palm trees, bananas and spider plants, former inmates of the house. Nearby, in place of old pelargoniums in the parterre, the women have dug in bulbs--freesias, iris, anemones--and overplanted them with Iceland poppies. "Each year I'll try new kinds," Parent says, "to see what thrives and what fails."

Even failures, she believes, teach her something. "Gardens," she says, "are a lot like people's lives. Good and bad things happen. Your success depends on how you react. And that combination gives you character."

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