Romance at the Ranch


By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand


Romance at the Ranch


A natural rustic setting provides the vision for this garden’s design…


WHEN THEIR SON AND HIS FIANCÉE ASKED TO get married at their Japatul Valley ranch, the parents were thrilled. The 116-acre property studded with native oaks and ringed by chaparral-cloaked mountains is a naturally romantic setting, little changed from the late 1800s when it was a stop on the Butterfield Stage line.

The horse-loving parents had moved there from Jamul four years earlier seeking more room for their herd of Rocky Mountain and blue-eyed Gypsy horses. They remodeled an existing house on the property with a mix of Old California, Spanish and Mediterranean architecture, also seen in the new entry gate crafted by artisan Tanya Hinkle.

Olive trees, prostrate rosemary, succulents and other waterwise plants filled new gardens that hugged home. Tinkling fountains were added to attract the area’s colorful birds and butterflies. Across the entry driveway, emerald turf framed a putting green, a sculpture of horses carved in a tree trunk by James Shuit and a traveling wagon or vardo traditionally pulled by Gypsy horses.

Beyond a barn and corral, tawny pastures stretch to the chaparral. When the engaged couple chose one for their 2010 nuptials, the homeowners decided to create a “gathering” garden nearby for the reception. After the wedding, it would be used to entertain friends and their large extended families and enjoyed by students in horsemanship clinics hosted at the ranch.

“When I saw the site, it was flat and empty, except for a pile of huge boulders in the middle,” says landscape architect Michael Brennan of Urban Green who was tapped to design and complete the new one-acre garden just seven months before the wedding.

The homeowners envisioned “a garden that wasn’t too polished, but not wild,” Brennan says. “They wanted to merge high design ideas with a rustic feel that would fit with the natural terrain.”

Two weeks of grading shaped the garden’s contours, including hillocks and swales to channel runoff to pastures and a nearby pond. Scores of iron-stained boulders collected on site, as well as trunks and stumps of fallen ranch oaks, were nestled into the ground as if always there.

Circles within circles set a sophisticated tone at the garden’s entrance. A circular entry court and bold Cor-Ten steel planter mirror the embrace of distant hills. In the center, a century-old olive tree rescued from a defunct East County grove shimmers above sedums and swaying deer grass.

All are part of a carefully edited plant palette tough enough to withstand winter snow, blustery winds and summer heat. Brennan also opted for some “showy dependable bloomers” like ‘Hot Lips’ sage and pink gaura that would be in flower for the reception.

The driveway and most of the winding perimeter trails are a mica-rich decomposed granite dubbed “twinkle dirt” by one of the homeowners. “She loves to come up to explore the garden, often on horseback,” Brennan says. “A favorite trail leads through native manzanita to a quiet overlook above the pond.”

A broad promenade through the garden’s heart deftly mixes seeded aggregate color concrete, red brick and flagstone chosen to resemble the indigenous rock. Brennan handset much of the flagstone to achieve a “unique weathered look” that subtly echoes the façade of the residence and ranch entry gate.

The walkway first passes under a rough-sawn wood trellis, 13 feet tall and 26 feet long, with oversize beams and arches and steel “lattice” for a climbing California wild grape. “That size was essential in this environment with it its expansive surroundings,” Brennan says.

Throughout, seating is abundant and ranges from rustic log benches to the oversized cushioned chairs around the gas fire pit. All were filled on the wedding night as more than 200 guests wandered the grounds — completed with 10 days to spare.

“It was magical,” Brennan says. “I was thrilled seeing the garden finished and being enjoyed by so many people.” The homeowner agreed: “It was quite a night. It all came together as if someone had waved a magic wand.”

Categories: Gardening