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Motel Landscaping with a Santa Barbara Vibe
updated: Nov 12, 2011, 9:15 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Got guests visiting the Central Coast for the first time this holiday season? If they hail from the land of the ice and snow, are you hoping for 80-degree days just so you can get your smirk on? I can only imagine what it's like for visitors who just spent their upstate Michigan morning flame-throwing through the glacier blocking their driveway, and a few hours later, being greeted by sky-scraping palm trees, luxuriant birds of paradise, and exotic succulents dotting the landscape.

Santa Barbara is a tourist-oriented town, and as you'd expect, lots of hotels and inns cultivate that Santa Barbara look: whitewashed stucco walls and red tile roofs, wrought iron grills and polychromatic Moorish tile patterns. Sadly though, very few hotels have carried that look into their landscaping. I see lots of sickly rose bushes poked here and there, clots of misshapen junipers abound, and for that little splash of color, a pot with decades-old geraniums wheezing their last hurrah. But very few seem to embrace our rich plant palette and used it to enhance the ambiance of their grounds. I can't think of a better way to make a long-lasting impression on their guests.

I've thought about writing about hotel gardens ever since the Lemon Tree Inn (treeinns.com) reinvented themselves a few years back. They enlisted the adventurous landscape design talents of Eric Nagelmann, the creative force behind Ganna Walska Lotusland's extraordinary cactus garden. Eric has a great eye for dramatic, high contrast design and an encyclopedic knowledge of some out-of-left-field plants we generally don't see in commercial landscapes.

Eric went plenty bold along the curbside frontage, where a mass of Agave ‘Blue Glow' creates a striking visual texture that grabs the attention of arriving guests. The plant is well suited for narrow beds, reaching a height of only two feet and spreading to three feet. If you get close (but not so close that you inadvertently perform an act of self-perforation), you'll notice the bonus of an erotically red stripe with a buttery yellow accent along the margins.

Eric's got a great eye for detail, too. He placed a cluster of SciFi-worthy Kalanchoe beharensis (Velvet Elephant Ear) near the lobby entrance, where their otherwordly form and texture can be appreciated up close. The wavy leaves and stark form make this succulent a perfect focal point, either planted in the ground or as a singular specimen in a large container. This Velvet Elephant Ear can reach 10 feet high and spread almost as wide, but can be shaped to whatever size suits you.

Okay, just about any Santa Barbara lodging is bound to include a few Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise), but you have to admit that they do just shout Santa Barbara! And when the icicles have finally thawed from your visitors' nostril hairs, I can guarantee they'll be giving their camera phone a heavy workout texting shots of it to their frost-bitten friends back in Saginaw.

I don't know if the Inn's colorist was thinking about the legendary California blonds populating our beaches, but their curvaceous south-facing wall just shouts "Beach Blanket Bingo!" And though, like the bird of paradise, Mexican fan palms are a dollar a dozen, I can't think of a better choice for an exclamation point against the façade. As expected, the equally ubiquitous lemon tree makes frequent appearances around the grounds, in this instance as a dense green mass that visually unites building and earth.

Before we wave goodbye to the Lemon Tree Inn, here's a plant that had me scratching my head and blasting e-mails out to my circle of experts. Randy Baldwin, at San Marcos Growers, and Lotusland's curator, Virginia Hayes, crossed the inbox finish line in a dead heat, informing me that this tubular, delicately flowered plant is the barely pronounceable Pedilanthus bracteatus (Tall Slipper Plant), a native of Mexico in the Euphorbiaceae family. This curiously shaped, unthirsty, deer resistant succulent grows between four and eight feet high in full sun, and about half as wide. But be careful pruning and handling it: Like other Euphorbia relatives, it's filled with white, milky sap -a form of latex- that can inflame mucous membranes, as well as irritate skin.

A few blocks away sits the Agave Inn (agaveinnsb.com), a cute-as-a-bug's ear, 13-room motel with a very playful sense of design. Though the theme of their décor feels a bit more south of the border than 805 beach town, I give them credit for making the most of the narrow planter at the sidewalk. A smorgasbord of succulents compliments their stylized agave logo. There's a bit of one-of-each-itis going on that might have looked stronger if they'd repeated only two or three plants more emphatically. But I think when the Senecio mandraliscae (Blue Chalk Finger) and Festuca ovina glauca (Blue Fescue) ground covers fill in, they'll tie the composition together nicely. However, I regret to inform them that the already large, pointy variegated agave dominating the bed has many happy years of expansion ahead of it, right along a public sidewalk.

I had to give equal time to the inns near the beach, so I buzzed down Castillo Street. My next stop ended up being Las Brisas del Mar (http://brisasdelmarinn.com/), just south of the Montecito Street intersection. It's a handsome, well-proportioned building with a café au lait stucco coating and a splashy red bougainvillea traversing the eaves. The landscape architect for the project was local legend Julio Veyna, the man responsible for the original pedestrian-friendly landscaping along downtown State Street. Julio knows his Santa Barbara-style plant palette and included a tasteful combination of palms that fit well into tight spaces. The view of the Santa Ynez Mountains only makes the composition more impressive.

The West Beach neighborhood is chill. Elegant, vintage apartment buildings, petite bungalow courts, and sensitively scaled motels coexist in an impressive forest of mature shade trees and towering palms. Tucked in at the corner of Bath and West Mason is this delightful Mediterranean-meets-cottage vignette. If I had been here in the evening, my nose would have been tickled by the fragrance of this Brugmansia versicolor (Pink Angel's Trumpet). The sprays of burgundy Pennisetum (Fountain Grass) are an eye-catching accent. Walking around the building, it looks like they've found themselves a light-handed gardener (not a flat-topped butchered juniper to be found!) with a sense of horticultural playfulness.

Just a quick complaint. Somebody needs to get the gardener at the Harborside Inn to ditch the Raybans and spend some time with a color wheel. There's something paralyzingly painful about Hello-Kitty-pink cyclamen and safety-vest orange canna lilies together.

I'm sure I've mentioned it here before, but I can't express what a thrill it is to live in the birthplace of the Motel 6 (motel6.com), near the zoo. So, I finished my fact-finding trek by paying homage to their iconic red and blue sign, classically framed with Strelitzia nicholli (Giant Bird of Paradise, just right of the sign), feathery Syagrus romanzoffianum (Queen Palm, far right), and blue-gray Butia capitata (Pindo Palm, foreground) skirted with ivy geranium. Resident manager Jo Ann Rambach told me that their little patch of lawn (I wasn't going to beat up on her for having some lawn. REALLY!) is part of their dog-friendly policy, allowing Fifi to piddle in a natural setting.

A tip of my hat to all these folks who have made the connection between landscaping and first impressions. If your guests have soft spots in their hearts for plants and haven't locked in their travel plans, use the box below to send this article their way.

See you in two weeks… I'll leave a light on for ya.

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

 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-12 10:08 AM

Great article. Thanks. It's nice to see and have explained what's done right. It facilitates "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."


 COMMENT 232279 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-12 01:46 PM

That was really fun to read. I learned a lot about plants and their names, thanks! It's kind of the same thing down in La Jolla with the hotels there. The good (and expensive) places invest on proper landscaping which connects them visually with the local environment.

Just for the record, 'hale' means someone who is strong and healthy. 'Hail from' means to have one's home or origins from a particular place.


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-13 09:03 AM

Billy, landscaping does make a huge difference, thanks for the "walk thru". It must be amazing for winter guests to come from snowed in hometowns and land here in our colorful, sunny spot. Luckily, my family got here from the mid-west in 1894, the other side in 1903, and just stayed.


 COMMENT 232440 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-13 09:31 AM

Nice photos and interesting post. I always learn something new from you, Billy.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-13 09:44 AM

Thanks for the spell-check on "hale/hail". Seeing if Ed's webmeister can make the fix. Hands08 - that's my aim; glad to see it's getting through.


 COMMENT 232502 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-13 12:53 PM

I love the concept of Cottage meets Mediterranean landscape.

I've jumped from bandwagon to bandwagon since the late 70's starting with the early days of the Perennial craze (via Baldassare Mineo's first Central Coast backyard growing business), to All Natives All the Time (Native Sons), and finally to the high-maintenance Cottage Craze(Roger and Dorthy Bunch's Central Coast Growers, and David Austin).

I admit to loving cottage lightheartedness, but now I need the low maintenance and water-thriftiness of Mediterranean landscapes. I've torn out all my roses, pulled up my perennials, and have blank ground. I just hired a gopher-gasser (carbon monoxide injected into tunnels) to rid my garden of rodents and am ready top begin planning my new gardens. I think a trip to SB is indicated, camera-in-hand, for inspiration. Thanks to Dr Goodnick. Not only that, but I know where to stay!


 COMMENT 232503 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-11-13 12:54 PM

"Dr" Goodnick ;-)


 COMMENT 260180 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-28 07:05 AM

From my Michigander point of view, Billy, you make my gardener's soul smile while it's 18 degrees outside and my dog and I are cautiously walking/sliding on slippery icy sidewalks.

I like the personal touch of Innkeepers that you mention who have some green grass for the dog-loving traveler.

So enjoy your comparative writing on gardening and still studying your recommended classic by Sunset Books: California Top 10 Garden Guide.


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