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MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR

Shadowed by palms, dripping with vines, circled with extravagant gardens that seem to boil up out of tropical soil, this house resembles a Victorian outpost in some long-ago colony. In fact, it’s in Montecito, on an old Spanish land grant estate with a new landscape by designer Eric Nagelmann. The dreamy quality flows from Nagelmann’s trademark mix of exotic plants--orchids with agaves, species roses with dasylirion--and from his take on California. “Old Santa Barbara gardens were full of the strange and unusual,” he says. “In a place where so much grows, why not grow it and engage the full range of our senses, emotions and passions?”

Happily, the property’s owner agreed with Nagelmann and gave him carte blanche. After clearing out decades of overgrowth--snarled vinca, morning glories, pittosporum--the designer walked the 31/2-acre grounds, drawing plans in his head. In the motor court, which originally had a lawn island and a grove of carob and olive trees, he envisioned hot-colored epidendrums around a fountain, their splayed blooms relaxing the lines of a formal design. From there, he added the pale pinks of oenothera, blue-flowering ceratostigma and the silver swords of Agave attenuata ‘nova.’ In the distance, the olive trees remain “to give the eye a place to rest.” Behind the house--with its grape-twined veranda--Nagelmann disciplined a slope with stone terraces and crushed slate paths. His organizing plant was bush germander, which he had seen hedged in English borders. Here, in clipped rounds lining a stairway, its silver greens inspired a slew of plants in shades of gray: ‘Provence’ lavender, Artemisia arborescens, santolina. On cloudy days, their tones contribute a note of melancholy to the garden; in sun, they shine. “I don’t look at a landscape as a place to relax,” Nagelmann says. “I like excitement.” To round out his gently colored perennial slope, for example, he used a bright red canna. “Like a flame ripping through, it wakes you up, jolts your senses, makes you smile.”

On a quieter note--and Nagelmann says every garden needs one or two--he built a lotus pond around the corner from his cannas. Yellow-splattered leopard plant, kangaroo paw and black-trunked fishtail palms crowd its edges like a miniature forest. In winter, when the lotus dies away, the pool becomes a mirror. In summer, it teems with plate-like leaves and coral blooms. Such vignettes give his design a sense of fantasy, the same pleasant disorientation that old Canary Island date palms evoke as they tower above his perennial plantings. “Mystery attracts you,” he suggests. “It makes you want to wander on and see what’s next.”

The surprise might be an urn bursting with bromeliads or a rare orange marmalade bush or a grove of heirloom trees that, for Nagelmann, were the property’s “buried treasure” when he began work four years ago. “The oaks, the olives, the palms--all so overgrown then--set the tone for the whole place,” he recalls. “They brought the aura of time and richness that is the magic of a garden.”

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