Sydney Baumgartner, 7 E. Mission St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Photographs by Lucas Trovato
Text by Rebecca Christian
Produced by Andrea Caughey
As a classic novel unfolds--leisurely, lyrical, nuanced, and interwoven with subtle clues about dramatic developments to come--so does landscape architect Sydney Baumgartner's garden. Set at the foot of a seminary tower at Mission Santa Barbara, the much-visited garden surrounding her 1950s home occupies a former horse pasture. "It's astounding what horse manure can do to make things grow!" exults Sydney, whose approach is pragmatic and aesthetic in equal measures.
Both property and owner have distinguished pedigrees. Sydney's home was designed by Jerome Cerny, famed for Chicago skyscrapers and handsome Lake Forest, Illinois, homes. And although the garden was mainly a bleak sea of weeds, juniper, and white rocks when Sydney bought it 30 years ago, its gorgeous courtyard, stone walls, and steps were designed by 1920s-era landscape designer Ralph Stevens, known for the ravishing public gardens he created in California.
Sydney herself is the protégé of the eminent late landscape architect Elizabeth de Forest, aunt of Sydney's then-husband, who in '70s sealed the young Sydney's fate with these words: "Well, dearie, I'm getting on. Come and work for me." Thrillingly, the two collaborated on a garden at George Washington's Mount Vernon early on, the first of many restoration projects at historical estates.
With a long view to distant mountains, the all-organic garden is divided into purpose-driven areas and rooms. An entry garden mixes succulents with cottage roses by the inviting front porch. Behind the home, steps lead to a twig dining arbor and a beguiling crystal chandelier garden ideal for morning coffee and a sunset glass of wine. (Sydney once spent a winter by the fire stringing chandelier prisms onto copper wire.) The arbor segues to a verdant oval lawn where the nostalgic whack of mallets hitting croquet balls is often heard. Shaded with apple trees, the lawn is layered with pretty perennial and shrub borders in varying textures, heights, and colors.
The garden is designed on an axis, with one "hallway" going to quarters for Sydney's Araucana chickens. A compost operation hides behind stone walls with doors painted in what Sydney calls "a wonderful blue I'd seen in France. It weathers so beautifully."
Serving as a testing ground for plants, the garden abounds with Sydney's favorites: cypress as sentinels to frame the view, lacey ferns, brilliant Oriental poppies, Asiatic lilies, fragrant heirloom rosemary, and fraise de bois--wild strawberries-- all punctuated by Chinese statuary and reflecting ponds that offer a refreshing tipple to local wildlife.
"I'm still surprised by how the garden seems so much larger than it really is," Sydney says. "I don't like a garden that reveals itself all at once. I like combining quiet, secret, shady places with more exciting places in the sun."
One of her favorite projects was designing a kitchen garden for Julia Child in Montecito. Afterward, Sydney often dropped by to delight Mrs. Child with fresh eggs, their shells in painterly shades of pale blue, bluish-green, brown, and soft buff, from her own hens. She still proffers her eggs to friends in lieu of a bottle of wine. They make a gift that, like her garden, is both elegant and unusual.
This serene greyhound, from Eye of the Day garden design center in Santa Barbara, is the only dog that landscape architect Sydney Baumgartner's two cats are not afraid of. It guards the lower courtyard behind their home.