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Villa in Wonderland

Seventy-five years ago, landscape architect Florence Yoch laid out Il Brolino--"the Little Garden'--for lumber heiress Mary Stewart of Montecito. Under later owners, parts of the seven-acre ocean-view estate gave way to a swimming pool and a tennis court, but fortunately the best of Yoch’s design remains: a topiary tableau of birds, bowls and lollipops, a sunken grass court with stone paths around an ancient wellhead and a cutting garden that leads up to an old lath house full of orchids. Grand by today’s standards yet intimate within its green-walled rooms, Il Brolino represents Yoch’s signature mix of the classical and the comfortable.

From 1915 to 1972, Yoch created gardens and movie sets for the Hollywood glitterati--George Cukor, David O. Selznick, Jack Warner--as well as other clients. With her partner, Lucile Council, she traveled extensively throughout Europe for inspiration. At Il Brolino--around a Mediterranean-style house designed by noted architect George Washington Smith--Yoch borrowed liberally from gardens at Italian villas, using formal terraces, clipped greens and statuary toshape dramatic mountain and water vistas. The exedra that crowns the topiary garden was modeled on a similar design in Siena, and the fountain below it recalls a water feature at the Villa Medici in Rome.

But what made Yoch’s compositions so appropriate for California was the way she tweaked formality--bending a path around a tree, sending vines up walls and over trellises. Far from exotic, her planting choices were simple and reliable. She was fond of the oaks and eucalyptus that thrive here, planting Italian cypress for drama and boxwood, eugenia and privet for hedges. Around these are gravel walks and iron gates that Yoch designed, plus tucked-away surprises: Beyond the topiary are more mazelike hedges--these trimmed in the shapes of card suits--and behind the exedra, a path winds into a secret wood, complete with stone bench.

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Notoriously exacting about maintenance, Yoch would have been pleased to know that many of Il Brolino’s hedges are still clipped by hand since electric clippers can burn boxwood. As soon as the current owners’ three staff gardeners finish their rounds, they turn around and start again. “The man in a hurry is not a good gardener,’ Yoch once said. She might have added that, while it takes time for a great garden to develop, it takes vision to preserve it--something Il Brolino’s many owners have understood.


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