Lotusland, the historic, world-famous garden of Madame Ganna Walska in Montecito near Santa Barbara, has many lessons to teach North Bay gardeners.
Ganna Walska has a colorful history. After seven scandalous marriages to wealthy businessmen and a count, the Polish-born socialite and opera singer moved to Santa Barbara with her last husband, a yoga master, to escape the German occupation. She bought the property, and in 1941 hired the landscape architect Lockwood de Forest to design cactus and succulent gardens, an orchard and many exotic plantings around a pink Spanish-style house and cottages. Madame Walska and her husband divorced in 1946. She then renamed the estate Lotusland, and managed the gardens until her death in 1984.
Today, the famed 37-acre garden is open for tours by appointment (lotusland.org). It is like an exotic Dr. Suess-land, and showcases collections of plants in fantastical compositions. Each garden has a unique personality. The aloe garden is an exercise in topical femininity. The swimming pool is now a romantic lotus pool. Dracaena foliage sways like wild hair above strange bulbous bases. Cycads evoke a prehistoric world. Bromeliads populate the shade under a live oak and a variety of palms evoke a soft jungle. Gigantic weeping euphorbias underplanted with a herd of golden barrel cactus populate the front of a cottage, while an undulating cactus garden is mulched with sparkling blue slate shards. Everywhere are the songs of birds, cries of hawks and the darting forms of hummingbirds. Butterflies and pollinators abound. The lush plantings absolutely radiate health and are instructive in how to create healthy gardens.
It wasn’t always so. Twenty years ago, the garden was declining. Thrips, spider mites, mealybugs and scale were ongoing problems on the foliage, and root-knot nematodes on plant roots. The staff increased amounts of chemical fertilizers and increasingly potent pesticides to no avail. It became obvious that they needed to rethink their approach to plant health, and with some research they realized that they had been neglecting soil health as the basis for healthy plants. Now the garden is managed organically based on four simple principles:
1. Feed the soil organisms and the soil organisms will feed the plants. Garden soil is not inert. It teems with life, and nurtures a rich soil biodiversity through the application of organic compounds — the cornerstone to building a sustainable garden. Organic compounds can build soil biodiversity and maintain nutrient levels evenly throughout the growing season, while suppressing plant diseases. Once a year soybean, kelp, alfalfa and fish and meals are applied around plants.
2. Build a robust insect ecology for biological control of pests. Providing a habitat for beneficial insects will help control invasions of plant pests. Native plants are especially good at attracting beneficial insects and providing them with habitat, pollen and nectar they need for their life cycle. A diverse planting of natives will attract predatory insects to help protect the garden, as well as provide a food source for other garden protectors.
3. Give up the chemicals. Compost teas applied as foliar sprays help suppress fungal diseases and increase plant vigor, so if plants are attacked by pests, they can outgrow the infestation.
4. Use compost and mulches in the landscape. Compost worked into the soil is an excellent natural amendment that improves soil conditions by feeding and increasing soil organisms. Organic mulches applied as a top dressing suppress weeds, prolong soil moisture and improve soil conditions as they break down over time. The soil throughout the garden is kept continuously mulched with composted green waste, which is basically coarse compost. Bark or woodchip mulches are not used.