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birds in paradise

An Ojai Garden Flush With Exotic Plants Is Also Home to the Owners' Many Feathered Friends

February 04, 2001|Susan Heeger

Wherever the baby emu goes, Dennis Hall and Albert Marrero follow, pulling weeds for her to chew and distracting her from the lavender and roses they grow around their Ojai house--as ornaments, not bird food. The distinction is lost on the soon-to-be-giant flightless bird (who, at 2 weeks old, already seems to run the place), but then she isn't often loose on these two lush acres that shelter scores of feathered specimens--in aviaries and open pens--and so many exotic greens, from Mexican blue palms to dragon and banana trees, that a mouthful here or there is seldom missed.

"Birds add life to a garden," says Hall, a landscape contractor and designer. For him and Cuban-born Marrero, a psychiatrist, the garden adds meaning to a partnership of 23 years, most of it spent in Ojai, where conditions favor the mix of tropicals, succulents, oranges, roses and California native plants they have come to love.

Four years ago, when Hall and Marrero bought the property, which lies in one of Ojai's more temperate pockets, it already had the makings of a garden: a clutch of oranges and other fruit trees, hardy cacti, climbing roses and some ancient oaks along the dry whirl of an old stream bed. Their job, as they saw it, was to turn these fragments into scenes and link them via paths, walls and repeated plantings into one unfolding, naturalistic panorama.

Existing boulders helped structure the space, as did a 1960s house and several ranch-style outbuildings. The existing lawn, unsuited to Ojai's heat, had to go. In its place, Hall and Marrero planted drought-tolerant Mediterraneans such as lavenders and echiums. They beefed up the cactus patch with specimen plants--agaves, aloes, echeverias--from a previous garden, and added more roses and orchard trees. They also built a parterre around a fountain to complete the feeling, Marrero says, of "a mission courtyard, where you'd find fruit trees, opuntias and the padre's roses, with a spring or cistern nearby."

Finally, since they were lucky enough to have a swimming pool, Hall and Marrero edged it with palms and chorisia trees, some of which burst out of terra-cotta pots. "A tree in a pot looks extravagant," Hall explains. "It's somehow reminiscent of the tropics, where something just touches the ground and starts to grow."

Not everything, of course, has been so happy. Coastal bougainvilleas such as 'Jamaica White' expired in winter freezes. Yet angel's trumpet and cannas thrive, and even bananas, uprooted by El Nino, have come back. True, gophers have dined on some of these bananas, along with a few prize agaves and Guadalupe palms. The couple's response? Naturally, they turned to their feathered friends. "We put up nesting boxes for barn owls," Hall reports. "We're letting nature fight it out."

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