Back at the Ranch

Listening to Peter Strauss should comfort any gardener’s tormented soul. While landscape purists talk up native plants and proper soil amendments, Strauss advises, “Break the rules! Try everything! Where else in life is it so cheap to make mistakes?’ The benefits, he adds, are indescribable. “Gardening is a way to express the full force of your passions.’

Which is just what Strauss, a veteran TV and movie actor, has done on his Ojai ranch. At its heart, surrounded by orange groves, are gardens he designed himself--sunny courtyards, woodland glades, a cactus walk and a Mediterranean hillside. At dawn, he’s often out there in his underwear with his clippers. At sunset, he’ll be downwind of his olive trees, watching them shimmer, or knee-deep in perennials, wrecking another pair of shoes.

Strauss keeps a computerized record of every plant he grows, its watering, feeding and pruning needs. It’s the only way he can manage a 30-acre orchard and a five-acre garden while working full time in Hollywood. (He plays a police psychiatrist in the new CBS fall drama “Moloney.’)


But if work distracts him from his beloved hobby, acting also originally led him to it. In 1970, on location in Mexico, the New York native was overwhelmed by the stark beauty of the landscape. Back in L.A., he joined a succulent society, got a plant collector’s permit and flew to Baja to gather succulents. “I then had 600 potted plants on the roof of my apartment,’ he recalls. His next move was to buy a ranch in Agoura, where he taughthimself about scale and shaping views. In the early ‘80s, he sold the property (now part of the National Parks Service) to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and eventually landed in Ojai.

Around his rambling 1925 rancho, Strauss took out blighted lawn and bird of paradise to make way for more experiments. He describes his first lesson in garden color--a 300-foot flower border in pinks, blues and lavenders against the lime-green citrus grove: “It was incredible--until the oranges ripened!’ Another lesson involved the climatic extremes of Ojai, where temperatures can dip into the teens in winter and climb to 110 in summer. “I discovered the tough charms of freeway plants,’ Strauss says of oleanders and abelias. Since then, dependable lavenders, sages, rosemary and Santa Barbara daisy (“a wonderful plant you can beat to death’) have become his staples, but he remains a self-described plant addict with wide-ranging tastes.

Strauss believes that “an appreciation for everything sets you up for happy accidents.’ Like the smoky spread of his silverberry against native ferns and cordylines. Or the spray of his oat grass against a heuchera and some columbines. Along with big views of his old oaks and rustling flower fields, he maintains, such small vignettes are the gardener’s riches: “It’s purely through my love of gardens that I’ve had moments in life when I’ve been stunned by perfection.’