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Lotusland: All Those Smarts (And Pretty, Too!)
updated: Mar 19, 2011, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

You probably went to high school with someone like her: Cover girl looks, aced every exam with her frontal lobe tied behind her back, and tales of her "interesting" past.

That's a lot like what I found when I visited the Ganna Walska Lotusland new and improved website - beauty, smarts, and a tantalizing back-story. Just in time for spring, their on-line makeover has a snappy fresh look, alluring garden scenes, easy-to-drive navigation, and is bubbling over with sustainable landscaping ideas you can use in your own garden.

Lotusland, a non-profit foundation established after Madame Ganna Walska's 1984 death, at age 97, is must-see bucket-list material, so don't make any excuses for denying yourself another season without a visit. The docents are charming and well informed, sometimes entertaining visitors with Madame Ganna Walskas's intriguing biography - a Polish opera singer with larger-than-life garden ambitions, and who married well and often.

A Vision of Loveliness

Whenever I visit, I expect to little green men appear.

Click on the website's Explore The Garden tab to get an overview of eighteen lovingly tended gardens occupying a 37-acre land of enchantment in Montecito. Garden themes include the Aloe Garden (I love the 50s sci-fi B-movie vibe), a sublime Japanese pond surrounded by masterfully trimmed pines and ginkgo trees, a rare collection of Permian-era cycads from around the world, polychromatic bromeliads and succulents, artfully whimsical topiary, and the namesake lotus pools that conjure their enchantment in mid-summer. You can peek at each garden and read about them on-line.

A black pebble beach and a stone lantern direct the eye to a weeping willow tree.

If you've got the curiosity and patience, visit the plant index and peruse more than 3,000 types of plants in Lotusland's collection. (My quick search for "camellia" netted 34 different species and varieties.)

The Explore tab is also where you can make tour reservations, so you can experience Lotusland up close. Docent-led tours run from mid-February to mid-November, Wednesday through Saturday, at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. ($35 per person and worth every penny). If you're on a tight budget, there are 18 free-to-county-residents days that will be posted after May 1.

Garden designer Eric Nagelman donated his services to design a new home for Merritt S. Dunlap's extensive cactus collection, promised to Madame in 1966.

Oh Madame!

There are 129 years of history summarized in a timeline that reads like the gossip pages of a supermarket tabloid, and I mean that in a sweet way. From Ralph Kinton Stevens' purchase of the property in 1882 as a home and nursery; through Madame's adventures, courtships and marriages (keywords: Russian count, French chateau, Herbert Hoover, Nazi occupation, secret Vegas wedding, yogis, jewelry auction); to the recent history that led to opening Lotusland's gates to the public, you'll want to spend time boning up on the estate's fascinating past.

There's an Alice Through-The Looking Glass feeling from these playful Eugenia trees in the Shade Garden.

What Would Lotusland Do?

When I first heard that Lotusland was going all-organic years ago, I was pleased but baffled. What? They're going to unleash ravenous Rhode Island Reds to peck at grubs? Hang strips of Mylar tape from the Salvador Daliesque Euphorbia ingens to scare off pesky woodpeckers? How would they protect over 3,000 different plants from the plagues that befall gardens without the occasional spritz from a bottle bedecked with skull and crossbones? Even more puzzling to me was how they would apply these progressive, twenty-first-century horticultural ideas to a garden dating back to the nineteenth century.

When you visit the Learn Green Practices web page, you'll discover Lotusland's commitment to preserving the design and plantings of Madame Walska, and earlier owners of the property. "But," states the opening paragraph, "gardens do change. While Lotusland is no exception, changes here have been aimed at improving the health of the soil and plants, maintaining the drama of large (sometimes old and declining) plants and planting schemes, and adding to the educational value of the collections." No small challenge.

A few of Lotusland's green management strategies that you can rescale in your own garden include:

Green Waste Recycling - With the exception of fibrous materials like palm fronds and agave leaves, garden waste at Lotusland is processed on site, then returned to the garden as mature compost. Applying this practice to your own yard, compost enriches the soil, makes plants more resistant to pests and diseases, increases the presence of beneficial insects and other soil organisms, costs next to nothing, and reduces pressure on local landfill sites. Use the Composting resources and suppliers links and get started.

Mulch - I don't think I've ever seen bare soil at Lotusland: It's either covered with lava rock in the cactus and succulent displays, or swathed in wood-based material. It's a common mistake to think of mulch and compost interchangeably: Mulch's role is providing a protective barrier on the surface of the soil, helping control weeds, moderating changes in soil temperature, and conserving water by reducing evaporation.

Grass-cycling - Lotusland does it at a big scale, but just like them, you can replace traditional mowing equipment with a mulching mower. This new innovation allows the mower to mince the grass blades so small that clippings fall back into the lawn and decompose, returning organic material and nutrients to the soil.

Lavender attracts beneficial insects to the garden while adding a delightful, sweet aroma to the air.

Ya Buggin' - Lotusland's insectaries are tucked behind the public displays, but they're hard working little buggers. Plants like lavender, parsley, yarrow, sages, and dense grasses serve as food, protection from predators, and "nookie nooks", so that good insects will take up housekeeping and help control the population of the pests. Lotusland also does supplemental releases of beneficial insects like lacewings and parasitic wasps to maintain a natural balance in the garden.

There's lots more to discover at Lotusland's website, including public events (artists' receptions, informative lectures, twilight tours, and THE event of the year, LotusFest on July 16); and members-only events that include Family Day, tours conducted by Lotusland's curator and garden columnist at the Independent, Virginia Hayes, and hands-on planting workshops.

Take the website for a spin, fall in love, and consider supporting this one-of-a-kind magical place by becoming a member, volunteering as a docent, or helping support their efforts with a contribution.

The iconic white pool at the Aloe Garden is surrounded by abalone shell "flowers".

(Okay, now you can click away… lotusland.org
Check out Owen Dell and me in Garden Wise Guys TV Episode 8, shot at Lotusland's insectary. (Yes, that's me fluttering about the garden wearing butterfly wings. Buy me a beer and I'll tell you the whole story.)

:: :: :: ::

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 155556 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-03-19 10:59 PM

Thanks! Is it ever possible to go there and not go with a group but by oneself, with one's camera, taking pictures of flowers?


 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2011-03-20 08:10 AM

Become a member of Lotusland and you can now visit as often as you wish, on your own. Still need to reserve before coming as numbers of visitors have to be monitored in accordance with the conditional use permit. Website has all the membership details. I'm a docent there, and it's a wonder every time I go.


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-03-20 09:49 AM

Thanks, Billy, for the tour and information. I met a gardner who worked for Madam; he said when she died she left them each $20,000. Thoughtful lady, appreciated their work.


 BILLY GOODNICK DESIGN COACH agree helpful negative off topic

2011-03-20 10:25 AM

Mountain Driver: Thanks for filling in that detail. Come to think about it, I might have run into that info in my research but left it out. Flicka: What a generous woman!


 COMMENT 155770 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-03-20 12:29 PM

Thank you esp. for including the "free days for locals" info. We've wanted to go for years, but just couldn't afford it.


 COMMENT 158173 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-03-26 06:08 PM

Small point but may be interesting to some- she was talking to herself out loud as usual, when she said that she was putting in more cactus and succulents because the local Roman Catholic church had disapproved of those kinds of plants and had considered them "The Devil's Plants" and had done so since the middle ages(the Catholic Church does not have anything to with the succelents there now at the mission now). She was tough- to spite the Nature Conservancy she pulled out all the the plant she had where the eucalyptus trees are now for me to plant the seeds for the trees. Same for the other tree locations. I helped her put in more plants- too many because that is when she started to need help keeping the place clean.


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