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Replanting the Past

Dianne and Daniel Vapnek didn’t choose their Santa Barbara house for its garden. A splotch of lawn, a few trees and a decent hedge were all it offered when they moved from Thousand Oaks six years ago. What they saw in their 1927 Spanish home and its 50-by-100-foot lot was a relationship in the making--and the potential, Dianne says, “for us to live like true Californians.” First, though, they needed French doors, bigger windows and a landscape as seductive as the house, which was designed by Mary Craig, reportedly with help from architectural legend George Washington Smith.

After renovating the house, the Vapneks--he’s a biotechnology consultant and she’s executive director of the Summerdance Santa Barbara festival--hired local landscape architect Isabelle Greene to shape their new backyard. Greene’s plan turned a tiny porch off the living room into a lounging terrace and raised the ground below to a height more accessible to the kitchen. She then created hardscape in the spirit of 1920s Santa Barbara: For the terrace and steps down, she used unglazed Saltillo tile; for the lower patio, focused around a fountain, a warm Arizona flagstone.

Searching for drought-tolerant plants with an exotic twist to complete the look, the Vapneks turned to local gardenmaker Eric Nagelmann. His designs, Dianne explains, “have the dreamy quality I wanted. He works intuitively, almost as if he’s realizing a deep, inner fantasy. And though he ends up with a riot of color, which I love, it’s all in harmony; it’s serene.”

Together, she and Nagelmann toured nurseries, choosing heliotrope, plumeria and Burmese honeysuckle for fragrance and, for texture, shrub roses, succulents, lavenders and kangaroo paws. Tall red cannas add a splash of color at the garden’s rear, while edible plants--grapes, herbs, avocados and citrus trees--provide fresh produce for the Vapneks’ table. Planted in the naturally rich, loamy soil of a former creek bed, the 31/2-year-old garden grows “too fast” according to Dianne."It’s hard to keep up with!” Even in the cool interior courtyard (which features a blue wall inspired by a trip the couple took to Mexico), passion and cup-of-gold vines threaten to smother potted orchids and gardenias.

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“We use these outdoor rooms constantly,” Dianne says. “This is a small garden’s magic, the combination of intimacy and seclusion. And if I want a bigger view, I go to the beach!”


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