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Pacific Paradise

A grove of mature California sycamores (Platanus racemosa) nestled in a bed of grasslike dwarf mat rush (Lomandra longifolia) and other drought-tolerant plants offers the perfect spot to relax on a hammock. “One of the nice things about Santa Barbara County,” says homeowner Dan, “is that there are stringent requirements when it comes to trees. We had an arborist come out to conduct a survey, and we are happy to say that no trees were harmed during the process of this project.”

A hillside farmhouse is transformed into an outdoor oasis ideal for alfresco entertaining.

By Ben Ikenson | Photography by Holly Lepere

Dan is a TV writer; Kevin is a film industry executive. For years, to escape the chaos of their busy lives in Hollywood, the couple would visit friends in Toro Canyon, in the idyllic Santa Barbara community of Montecito. When presented with the opportunity to purchase the home next door—a 3,100- square-foot rustic ranch-style abode situated on just over an acre of hillside property with views of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands—they jumped at the chance to have their own private getaway.

“The house didn’t even go on the market,” says Dan. “The previous homeowners, who’d had the place for three generations, just out of the blue asked our friends if they knew of anyone who might be interested in buying it. It was fortuitous, to say the least, because for years we’d been eyeing the ‘blue farmhouse’ every time we came to visit.”

While the couple wanted to retain much of the home’s original rustic appearance, they did pursue an extensive yearlong renovation that involved gutting most of the interiors. “The home is now very entertainment-oriented, with lots of open spaces and a large living room that connects to the kitchen and dining area,” says builder Jed Hirsch. “Multipaned French doors open onto a large ipe wood deck with an outdoor kitchen. Stainless steel stanchions with cable railings provide unobstructed views of the property.”  

1. After years of admiring the “blue farmhouse,” the homeowners seized the chance to purchase it. They replaced the water-thirsty landscape with lush native plantings. 2. Staggered timber steps with stabilized stone dust treads are flanked by masses of blue fescue (Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’), chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta) and New Gold lantana. 3. The entry drive features regionally sourced gray/beige shale that matches the hues of the home’s exterior. The cobblestones were salvaged from the pool excavation and provide a visual link from an upper dry creek bed to a lower arroyo.

“The landscape was designed to complement the blue-gray board and batten farmhouse style of the home.”

—JACK Kiesel, landscape architect

Indeed, one of the primary objectives of the remodel was to create connectivity between the indoors and out. The addition of more doors and extensive decking that is level with the home’s interior flooring helped create a seamless transition. “We didn’t want to feel as though we’re stuck in a cave,” says Kevin. “We wanted a place that was very open and accessible to the garden spaces, as if they were natural extensions of the house itself.”

The couple also knew that their dream retreat would be far from complete without addressing the surrounding high-maintenance landscape. “It looked like a golf course,” Dan says of the dense lawn that previously existed. “There were rose bushes, hydrangea and ivy everywhere, all of which require lots of water.”

Landscape architect Jack Kiesel transformed the property from a sloping carpet of grass into a terraced oasis that overflows with succulents and native drought-tolerant plants. He also added a variety of amenities designed to maximize the indoor-outdoor experience for the homeowners and well as for their guests. “We wanted an all-inclusive place that would be our own private retreat—but also one that we could enjoy and share freely with friends and family,” notes Kevin.

While the couple removed most of the manicured plantings, they were able to preserve a collection of mature trees. Santa Barbara County guidelines strongly encourage homeowners to keep older native trees in place. “They provide a kind of living architecture,” says Kiesel. “So to have all of these beautiful California sycamores (Platanus racemosa) and coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) on the property was a tremendous bonus. In fact, they provided a starting point for the types of plant materials and spaces we wanted to incorporate into the rest of the garden.” 

A custom water feature that is “for the birds,” says homeowner Kevin, is set among tall bearded iris that add pops of vibrant color and seasonal interest.

With Kiesel’s assistance, Dan and Kevin chose a palette of native greenery that accentuates the look of their house. “The landscape was designed to complement the blue-gray board and batten farmhouse style of the home,” says Kiesel. “This was accomplished through the use of soft textured grasses, such as deer grass, lomandra and fescue; contrasting, sculptural agaves; and flowering accents, including catmint, New Gold lantana, irises, bush anemone, canyon sunflower,  Salvia leucantha, euphorbia and juncus. Blues, yellows, purples, whites and greens are the main colors.”

In the front yard, a seep, similar to an artesian well, acts as the source for a boulder- and cobble-lined wash that flows around the home and into a meandering arroyo of grasses, stone and gravel in the backyard. Kiesel planted iris bulbs at the source of the seep and throughout the creek bed. “We used a mix of bearded iris varietals and colors that bloom at different times throughout the year,” he remarks. A graywater system was installed to nurture a grove of plum, guava and citrus trees, as well as the grasses in the arroyo. 

“Every time I come here, I immediately relax and feel at peace.”

—Kevin, homeowner

1. In the backyard, a rustic walkway meanders through bunches of deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and juncus set in the lower arroyo wash. 2-3. Terracing the landscape enabled the creation of distinct spaces, including patio and pool levels. Between the home’s expansive ipe deck and the swimming pool, a path of concrete pavers set in crushed sandstone is crowded with plantings, ranging from blue fescue and Coppertone stonecrop to rosemary and thyme.

On the homeowners’ hardscape wish list was a loggia, fire deck, screening, outdoor lighting, entry water feature, driveway, parking and, of course, a pool. “And it was very important to imbue all of these features with a natural sense of flow to and from the home,” notes Kiesel.

When it came time to excavate for the pool, Kiesel was met with a surprise: The property had once been part of a sandstone quarry. “We unearthed tons of giant boulders,” he says. “Luckily, we were able to use most of them in the landscaping—in the wash and as a retaining wall for the swimming pool.”

Easily accessible from the outdoor kitchen by stairs and a walkway of sandstone, the pool—a sleek rectangle of water bound by concrete decking—is the garden’s centerpiece and a hub for frequent gatherings. “The homeowners get a lot of use out of it,” says Kiesel. “The whole property was designed to be a sophisticated adult playground that’s ideal for regular entertaining, but it’s also a place that is has a deep sense of tranquility and peace.”

As for Dan and Kevin, they could hardly be more pleased. On any given weekend, when driving from Los Angeles to their hillside retreat that sits about a mile off the Pacific Coast Highway, the anticipation is palpable, they report.

“Every time I come here, I immediately relax and feel at peace,” says Kevin. “It’s like walking into a warm, gentle embrace that puts you at ease. This is our happy place.”

Builder: Jed Hirsch, Jed Hirsch Construction. Landscape Architect: Jack Kiesel, Kiesel Design.

For more information, see Sources.

1. The pool is the centerpiece of the backyard. A retaining wall made of boulders found on-site provides seclusion for sunbathers. The pool deck is crafted of a “sandstone-integral colored concrete with sawcut joints and light stone textured finish,” says landscape architect Jack Kiesel. 2. Small spaces throughout the property showcase a diversity of plant species, including Huntington carpet rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Huntington Carpet’), flax (Phormium),  dwarf matt rush (Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’), Aloe muricata ‘Yellow Form,’ Catalina Island live-forever (Dudleya hassei) and Echeveria ‘Afterglow.’ 3. The lounge area off the kitchen is outfitted with clean-lined modern furnishings and soft blue accents. A star pendant hangs from the pergola. From this perch, the couple can enjoy a commanding view of their back property.

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