Paul Mills
Caitlin Fitch

Let’s get this straight right away: Unless you’re a multimillionaire who’s already chummy with rare plant collectors in every corner of the globe, your garden is never going to approach the horticultural wizardry on display at Ganna Walska Lotusland, that epic spread in the hills of Montecito. But Paul Mills, Lotusland’s curator of living collections, was happy to share a few tips on how to start such a quest.

Where can you find Lotusland-like plants? I tend to gravitate to Terra Sol Garden Center — in particular, Mike Tully and Tony Krock can find the rarest and most unusual plants around. But there are so many great nurseries in the area, such as 7 Day Nursery and Seaside Gardens, that carry a cross section of the plants one sees at Lotusland, from rare, oddball succulents and cycads to begonias and palms. Of course, La Sumida, Island View, Green Thumb, and Australian Native Plants — the last two in Ventura and the latter having recently risen from the ashes of Thomas — are great resources as well.

Although strictly wholesale, San Marcos Growers has the best selection around of all types of plants. A homeowner can go there to get ideas and choose plants, but a professional (gardener, garden designer, landscape architect, etc.) must make the purchase. [CORRECTION: Homeowners are not allowed at San Marcos Growers without a landscape professional.]

Tom Cole’s Cold Spring Aloes is the nursery for aloes. Tom is an amazing person, his plant knowledge is immense, and he carries many aloes that you won’t find anywhere else. We recently bought some plants from him for the aloe garden here at Lotusland, and he’s right across the street from us!

And of course, I have to mention Exceptional Plants, Lotusland’s signature plant auction and sale that will be on October 6 this year. Where better to get the kinds of plants that you see at Lotusland than at Lotusland? At Exceptional Plants, we have something for everyone, and it’s a great event with specialty hors d’oeuvres and drinks, and you get to rub elbows with a who’s who of the plant world.

Is it worthwhile to hire a landscape specialist? Hiring a landscaper and/or a garden designer is probably a good idea for the uninitiated plant person. Professionals will bring a trained eye when laying out a landscape and will (hopefully) know the care requirements (watering needs, soil type, sun/shade) for a large variety of plants.

It’s of course important to get good plant material, but the cultural requirements and soil preparation are equally important. As the old saying goes, “Don’t put a $5 plant in a 50 cent hole.”

Something visitors will notice at Lotusland are the mass plantings — Madame Ganna Walska’s premise was that more was better — and she was mostly right. I see a lot of landscapes that have many different plants, but only one of each, which gives a polka-dot appearance that isn’t pleasing to the eye — there is no design or coherency. There are definitely plants that can stand alone, but with masses or swaths of plant material, you create more drama and interest. Lotusland’s gardens are all about drama and flair, like their creator, Madame Ganna Walska.

What clubs exist that may help foster a garden like this? Santa Barbara has a very rich horticultural history dating back to the 1800s, and there are a number of great plant groups in town where one can learn a lot, not just from the presentations but from the knowledgeable membership.

The Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society meets monthly and is one of the oldest in the U.S., having started in 1880. Not only are there raffle and freebie plants at each meeting, they put on a fantastic plant sale in the fall.

The Santa Barbara Cactus & Succulent Society is another vibrant group with very interesting and informative presenters, and they, too, have monthly presentations with raffle and freebie plants. Oftentimes the presenters themselves bring rare or unusual plants to sell to the frenzied plant aficionados.

Locally there is also an orchid and begonia club, also with raffle plants at the meetings, and the Santa Barbara Garden Club (formerly the Men’s Garden Club of S.B.) puts on an annual sale that raises funds for SBCC horticulture student scholarships.

Lotusland has a long history with all of these groups. Ganna Walska herself, and other staff, have won the coveted Bouquet of the Year Award from the S.B. Horticultural Society for outstanding service in horticulture.

How critical is having the right soil for these rare plants? Soil preparation is extremely important for any and all plants, but especially cacti and succulents, cycads, and palms. Many parts of Santa Barbara have heavy clay soils that have been the death knell of many plants.

Thankfully, Ganna Walska had employed some early horticulturists that understood the importance of healthy, rich, yet fast-draining soils. She wasn’t a horticulturist, but she knew the plants she liked and how she wanted them displayed, and it took a lot of ingenuity on the part of her horticultural staff to make some of these plantings work. To this day, soil is the basis of our success here at Lotusland; a healthy, living soil creates healthy plants and those that are more resistant to drought and pathogens.

If you had a blank slate, where would you start? I’m a proponent of landscaping with succulents and other drought-tolerant plants, including cycads and some palms. This is not only because we live in the land of drought and fire but because many of these plants, especially succulents, are so sculptural and come in so many shapes, colors, and textures that you have endless opportunities to create an over-the-top, Lotusland-esque garden.


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