Splendor Among The Grasses


Garden: By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand

Splendor Among The Grasses

A winery garden finds magic in swaying swaths of ornamental grass…

REBECCA “PEPPER” WOOD AND IRA GOURVITZ decidedly avoided clichés when building a home overlooking their North County vineyards (see page 50). As a minimalist modern residence designed by Del Mar architect John Nalevanko rose on a hill above Fallbrook Winery, they both agreed the new garden had to do the same.

In discussions with Fallbrook landscape de-signer Scott Spencer, the couple shared their vision for the 2-acre landscape.

No flowers, Wood says, because they required too much maintenance. “I don’t have a green thumb. I just look at plants and they die.” No grapevines or succulents. No curves either; just clean lines. “Simple,” Wood says.

As he viewed the “jaw-dropping site” stripped bare during construction, Spencer grasped the opportunities — and challenges. “It’s the best lot in Fallbrook, with sunrise to sunset views from Mount Palomar to the Santa Margarita Mountains,” he says. “The garden couldn’t compete with the views and had to relate to the striking architecture.”

But, he adds, “I’m a plant guy known for my horticultural gardens. I like flowers. I like circles. To give Pepper and Ira what they wanted compelled me to think outside the box as a designer.”

The inspired solution, embraced by all, was dramatic mass planting of ornamental grasses and grass-like plants in orderly rows and blocks that echoed the nearby vineyards. “There’s drama in the sweep of grass, there’s seasonality, there’s low maintenance,” Spencer says.

And there’s playfulness, appropriate for the outgoing homeowners who love to entertain. The grasses dance in the ocean breezes that sweep over the hills. They gleam in the low rays of the setting sun and sparkle in the rain. Some soar six feet high, while others are ground-hugging tufts. “It’s magical,” Spencer says.

One of the boldest displays greets visitors as they walk toward the front door. Sloping westward is a sea of coppery ‘Rubrum’ fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). The 120 plants — each now 6 feet around and 4 feet tall — wave and flutter “almost like a field of wheat,” Spencer says. “It’s almost agricultural, which suits the vineyard setting.”

To border the walkway and the home’s white walls, Spencer opted for ‘Tropic Belle’ mat rush (Lomandra), a handsome and rugged Australian native used for free-way plantings Down Under. Its half-inch wide yellow-green blades fan into clumps 3 feet tall and wide that don’t have to be cut back annually as the grasses do.

Foundation plants share space with a ribbon of gray granite rocks that funnel run-off from the steep metal gable roof into subsurface drains routed to the groves and vineyards below. Extensive in-line drip irrigation delivers water to the rest of the garden.

Accents front and back include a trio of red-bark ‘Marina’ strawberry trees (Arbutus x ‘Marina’), ‘Jubilee’ New Zealand flax (Phormium) with striking green leaves edged and backed in dusky red, and burgundy-leafed ‘Red Sensation’ cordyline. Against some walls, elegant bright-green restios (Thamnochortus insignis) cast over-sized shadows.

A mostly green palette dominates in the backyard, embraced on the north by a two-bedroom guest wing and punctuated at the southeast tip by an outdoor kitchen and living room under a flat roof. Spencer con-nected the structures with a walkway of concrete pavers set in broken granite. A stroll from one end to the other takes in unobstructed views of purple mountains and the ever-changing sky.

Across a rectangular lawn, where the home-owners’ two dogs George and Brix frolic, is a bocce court, edged in another evergreen mat rush, ‘Breeze’. Behind it are showy L-shaped bands of grasses that stretch from the guesthouse to the main residence. Two are among the garden’s most striking fall-blooming plants: ever-green maiden grass (Miscanthus transmorrisonensis) with its golden arched flower spikes and pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) with its fluffy cotton-candy pink flowers.

Bold plumes of ‘Silver Comet’ and ‘Pumila’ pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) seclude the home’s spa wing with its soak tub, steam room and shower from the lawn and outdoor living room. “I saw it as a Japanese bath house, serene and screened by the grasses, yet open to the mountain vistas,” Spencer says.

Cheers to the whole collaboration.

Categories: Gardening