Rancho La Puerta: Garden Close-Up

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I’M HOME FROM RANCHO LA PUERTA and not too happy about that. The sun is shining here in East Hampton, N.Y., and things have greened up slightly. The daffodils are still in force; my scrawny magnolia is in what passes for full bloom. But the goutweed is also back in full force, and the expanses of brown dirt seem enormous. I prefer to remain at Rancho for a while longer, at least in my head. I’m thinking back on the past week of sun-soaked floral abundance and wondering how I can transpose all I saw and learned there, in some small way, to my Northeastern half-acre.

Last Thursday at Rancho, I took the Landscape Garden Walk with Enrique Ceballos, below, the person most responsible — after Sarah Livia Brightwood, daughter of the Ranch’s founders and a landscape architect — for the phenomenal landscaping of the Ranch’s eight exuberantly cultivated acres. A former botany professor, he has been involved with the Ranch since 1988 and knows everything there is to know about its horticultural bounty.

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It wasn’t really much of a walk; we joked about that afterwards. We began under the gazebo in the central area, near the main guest lounge, and because the plantings are so intensive, and the large group so enthusiastic and inquisitive, we barely moved from our starting point in the allotted hour, yet there was plenty to see. We walked perhaps 50 feet in all, as Enrique gave us some background on the climate (double the normal rainfall in the past year, which is why this spring is so green), the alkaline soil, and the highly eco-conscious philosophy of Rancho La Puerta’s garden maintenance program (I saw only one sprinkler going the whole week; of course, the water is all reclaimed and recycled).

“This is a landscape with no chemicals,” Enrique stressed. No pesticides: insects are welcome (some prey on others, he pointed out, so why kill the helpful ones?) No herbicides: hand-weeding is preferred. No slug-icides, either: the birds take care of that.

The aesthetic intent, he said, is to create “an abstraction of the chapparal inside the garden,” with contours and rhythms that echo the shapes of the surrounding terrain. I now know that chapparal is the native eco-system in the foothills of Mt. Kuchumaa, considered sacred by the area’s original inhabitants;  the mountain dominates the Ranch’s longer vistas, partly because the design is intended to do just that.

The Ranch uses either native plants or “eco-equivalents” – plants from similar climatic conditions, particularly the Mediterranean region, which are not native but thrive and grow like natives. A ubiquitous example is rosemary, which I never walked past without picking a sprig and holding it to my nose. It was introduced to Baja by Franciscan monks from Italy, Enrique told us.

Some of the highlights of our “walk”:

  • AGAVES – 80% of which are from Mexico, we learned. They bloom once, spectacularly, and then die, in a 7-year life span. There are eight different agave species at the Ranch.
  • ALOES – these are eco-equivalents from Africa. The coral aloes, below at right (with orange gazanias to the left of them), now in bloom throughout the property, are outstanding. I couldn’t get enough of looking at them.
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  • MONTEZUMA PINES – pale green and feathery
  • EUCALYPTUS TREES – Enrique called them a “big weed, aggressive and flammable.” He is not a fan of eucalyptus.
  • GAZANIAS (African daisies) – orange flowers, below, with delicate magenta undersides and juicy succulent stems, they are used in big drifts for sheets of color.
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  • EUPHORBIA – not the type we have here, but recognizable, with chartreuse flowers
  • NANDINA (Heavenly Bamboo) – now bursting with red berries, below
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  • FRENCH LAVENDER – not part of this walk, but used to great effect, below, along with tall Italian cypresses and more of that fabulous coral aloe, around the circular fountain in the Villas Luna area
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  • CALIFORNIA PEPPER TREE – huge and venerable, resembling weeping willow, on the lawn near the dining hall, below
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  • ROCK ROSE, or cistus – a marvelous, rather funny-looking pink flower, below, with red triangles inside
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  • SALVIA (sage) – there are 25-28 species, native and non-native, all well suited to the Ranch’s conditions
  • ARTEMISIAS – semi-desert plants which do very well at the Ranch
  • DATE PALMS from the Mideast, QUEEN PALMS from Africa, others from California
  • ICE PLANTS – wonderful architectural feature, used everywhere for big drifts of color (such as the pink ‘river’ in photo at top)
  • ECHEVERIA (Hens & Chicks), below – gigantic, compared to our Northeastern varieties
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  • TRUMPET VINES – invasive elsewhere but here, said Enrique, all that’s necessary to control them is to cut their water supply
  • WISTERIA, now having their moment on pergolas throughout the Ranch, originally from China
  • STAR JASMINE – many different types on arbors
  • PYROCANTHA – red-berried and not native, but successful
  • ROSES – many species throughout – the most magnificent, to me, are the yellow ‘Lady Banks’ on the pergola near the Montana gym, below
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You can see why we didn’t get far. The above list represents just a fraction of the Ranch’s plantings. And I understand the wildflowers in the upper altitudes of Mt. Kuchumaa, reached only on the 5.5 mile Coyote hike (which I chickened out of, preferring to save some energy for Bar Method, swimming, and African dance) are beyond belief.

For more on Rancho La Puerta, go here, and see my two previous posts below.

About cara

I blog for fun here at casaCARA, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
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4 Responses to Rancho La Puerta: Garden Close-Up

  1. Terry Kearns says:

    Wow. Atlanta’s Lady Banks roses are just going nuts right now.

  2. Mary-Liz says:

    I am in total awe of this blog about el Rancho. I was there one August in the 80’s. Since it was summer & dry, there was none of the abundance that you speak of. I can see how the land is contoured t and how the plantings complement that – the drifts of one type of plant. And how wonderful to have had that hour “walk” with Enrique. You must have learned so much. I love the use of natives & “eco-equivalent” plants & the sensitivity to the use of pesticides & herbicides. Maybe I can go back with you & we’ll do the “Coyote walk”! It would be worth going just to see the gardens & landscape.

  3. Just glorious, thanks for sharing it.

  4. Diana Prizeman says:

    Cara,
    I was there for a few moments while reading your informative, descriptive Rancho blog.
    How well I recall our week together there one December too long ago!
    Next time I want to go in the spring to experience the glory you shared in your photos. Thanks for the memories.

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