Animal farm

Whatever the term "horse farm" means to you, forget it.

In the heart of Montecito horse country, actor John Cleese and wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger have taken a different tack from the packed-earth, feed-sack, battered-barn aesthetic of many equestrian establishments. Their tile-roofed stable, built in the 1960s by legendary Santa Barbara horsewoman Cynthia Wood, is flanked by 14 vegetable beds bursting with string beans, zinnias and squash. Giant Canary Island palms rustle above a barn-turned-office with an attached aviary full of pheasants and button quail. Fuzzy alpacas browse across a paddock. Joshua trees guard the entrance to a cactus walk, and on a hillside under oaks, a stone Buddha cradles marigolds in his lap.

If there seems to be an awful lot going on, consider this: Cleese, an original wild guy of the Monty Python comic troupe, is busy producing industrial films. When he's not behind the camera, he's on a movie set with James Bond or Harry Potter. Or he's writing a book on dogs and cats, attending a board meeting at the Santa Barbara Zoo or lecturing students as a professor-at-large at Cornell University. His wife is only slightly less frenetic. A psychoanalyst who left Texas for England to study with Anna Freud, she now writes books of her own and travels the world with Cleese.

Santa Barbara garden designer Eric Nagelmann helped the couple customize a place suited to their untamed needs. Built for breeding and showing saddle-bred horses, Cleese and Eichelberger's property, which the couple bought in 1999, was initially appealing because they like to ride. Cleese learned about 20 years ago for a movie role; she took it up in Texas as a child--and their daughter Camilla, 19, is one of the foremost competitors in hunter-jumpers in the U.S. They keep eight horses on their 15 acres, but the vision here is more complex.

"You might call this our 'Animal Farm,' " Eichelberger says, listing, in addition to the dogs, cats, goats, birds, guinea pigs and chinchillas they have now, the tortoises, chickens, lemurs and pot-bellied pigs they'll soon be tending, each in its own custom environment. "They're part of our 10-year garden plan," she explains, "which is also John's second childhood. Growing up in England, he never got to have pets." The couple have owned their nearby beach house in Montecito since 1994. They divide their time between London and Montecito, where a trip to the famed gardens at Lotusland in 1999 revealed the range of what they could grow out here.

Once they had the ranch they had the space for all their leafy and furry ideas. With Nagelmann's help, they set out to create their version of Eden. "John's everything you'd expect him to be," Nagelmann says. "He's very funny and very smart, with quick enthusiasms for strange things. 'I love Joshua trees--let's plant 'em.' Then it's on to something else. Alyce Faye is a bit more the pragmatic type."

The vegetable beds are her project, and it is she, a dedicated cook, who decides whether to plant kale or artichokes and which herbs and what tomatoes. "Right now," she says, "I'm arguing with the asparagus, and it's unclear who's winning. I like easy things and it's fussy." While she plans, picks and oversees the edibles, she has little time to tend them. Two years ago, she published "How to Manage Your Mother," and she is currently working on another book.

Cleese, given his production work, movie roles and the professor gig, has even less time. When he's in town, though, the couple visit the ranch daily, often at sunset, their favorite time to hit the trail. Cleese writes there too, in the converted tack room that overlooks the aviary with its "soundtrack" of trills and twitterings and its jungle of trees and vines.

Ojai gardener Dennis Hall, a bird enthusiast, helped Cleese choose the aviary's feathered occupants based on song, color and shape, such as the irresistibly small, round button quail. Nagelmann designed the space, complete with pond and sheltering eaves.

Outside, in keeping with the otherworldly scene, he planted borders with his trademark mix of tropical and succulent oddities. Here, the red blooms of a variegated fuchsia echo an abutilon's floral lanterns, an aeonium's flushed rosettes, a kangaroo paw's ruddy stems. Quite a change from what was here three years ago, a dusty yard where nothing grew.

"The inside of the stable was beautiful but the outside was institutional," Nagelmann says. "It needed a little more personality."

Cleese and Eichelberger have given it theirs--along with 100 trees, assorted fences, trails, fruits, flowers, vegetables and, of course, that pack of critters. "Sometimes I can't believe we get to stay," Eichelberger says. "I expect someone to say, 'The viewing's over. Go home.' '


Resource Guide

GARDENS, Pages 26-31: Eric Nagelmann, Santa Barbara, (805) 966-3928.

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