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By The Sea
updated: Jul 17, 2010, 10:00 AM

by Billy Goodnick

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see Rhynchelytrum nerviglume ‘Pink Crystals’ nodding in the breeze, I wonder if there’s a simple and sensitive procedure for enzymatic assays in single cells that can be applied to the measurement of beta-glucuronidase in single parenchymal cells of liver.

That’s because Linda Wudl hung up her career in biotechnology and, along with Fred, her organic chemist husband (I don’t mean her husband is organic, though I’m sure he is—I mean he is a chemist who works with optical and electro optical properties of processable conjugated polymers [but you probably would have figured that out for yourself], so I’ll finish off this sentence that’s already gone on WAAAY too long and has probably tempted you to click over to Ed’s story about that pinstriped, double breasted albino puffin that was spotted in a palo verde tree near El Pollo Loco last night…But I digress), founded Seaside Gardens, a one-of-a-kind nursery in Carpinteria.

Seaside’s uniqueness is due to their generous display of beautiful and instructive vignette gardens. I say generous, because it’s not everyday that a retail business sets aside 80% of their property and invites local landscape designers to create gardens the public can visit for free.

The gardens are all top-notch designs, using plants from around the world to interpret a broad range of styles appropriate for local home gardens. From the exotic lotus flowers in the Asian pond to exuberant grasslands that undulate with the salty onshore breezes, Seaside does in 3-D what shelves of garden books can never accomplish—bring you up close and personal.

Hundreds of plants can be observed growing to their DNA-dictated size and shape, without interference from power-tool-wielding fiends. There’s nothing like the reality check of seeing plants doing their thing, instead of leaving you to interpret a vaguely worded plant label slapped on the one-gallon container at the nursery reading “Spreads 18 inches to 1500 feet across.” Thanks for clarifying that.

Seeing real plants growing for real is just the start. A visit to Seaside Gardens is like a world garden tour, but without the expense, Ebola immunizations, or annoying cavity search at customs. Eleven garden styles are on display, artfully conceived and lovingly tended by a skilled, full-time gardener. With the exception of the Asian and the tropical gardens, the plots can be classified as water-wise, too.

I tell my classes that if they only learn one thing from me (aside from “always install your plants with the green parts pointing up”), it’s the concept of selecting plants that don’t get bigger than the space you’re putting them in. That means not cramming a giant oleander bush into a 12-inch wide bed in front an ocean view window, then devoting your weekends to convincing it to stay tiny. (Helpful note: I’ve tried talk therapy—don’t waste your breath.)

I visited Seaside last week and was treated to a personal tour by Samantha (Sam) Maybery, a British transplant who started working at Seaside in 2001, and who had no previous background in plants. Sam found that she had a knack for knocking out knock-out succulent container gardens and now is a walking horticultural encyclopedia. Sam’s official title is hard goods buyer, but she also spends a good deal of her time helping customers, dabbling in the garden and doing whatever else needs tending.

Our stroll started in the English garden where a Beverly Hills apple tree was loaded with shiny, red-blushed-with-green fruit. “That tree keeps us nicely fed,” Sam tells me, “and it’s perfectly suited to our mild winters.” And it’s exactly what I’d expect to see in an authentic English garden, which originally evolved as a source of food, herbs, medicinal plants and flowers for working class folks in Merry Old. Seaside’s heart-shaped knot garden is a beautiful tapestry of foliage that just happens to be stocked with enough herbs to make the most adventurous chef chervil-green with envy.

I’m a sucker for ornamental grasses, so the Grasslands section just tickled me silly. All my favorites were there, and a few I now HAVE to work into my repertoire. If you’re interested in grasses, sedges and their grass-like buddies, or have already planted some in your yard, let me Mirandize you: Some of these suckers get HUGE, so take advantage of this outdoor showroom to appreciate how much space they need.

A stroll around the California Natives section is a short-course in sustainable landscaping. These are plants that evolved right here in the 805 ‘hood, so you know they’ll thrive with little or no attention from you. Just space them correctly, pay attention to their sun/shade needs, give them a little TLC for a year and collect the dividend of natural beauty and habitat for local wildlife.

If you’re looking for hardscape ideas, visit the Mediterranean garden. It’s not only a study in fine planting design, but features an exquisitely crafted stone wall and entry arch, with the bonus of thyme-scented flagstone flooring and a simple, elegant urn fountain.

Still with me?

Let’s jump across the equator to South Africa — please set your vuvuzela on vibrate—where many of our gardens’ otherworldly aloes and eye-popping shrubs come from. This photo was provided by Linda and was probably taken in winter when the delicate looking, but tough-as-Sally-Hansen’s-nails heath (Erica canaliculata – why does that sound so erotic?) puts on its show. At its feet is the very commonplace African daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum)—used to great affect by playing off the mauve flowers of the heath—and the hot flash of red foliage from Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset.’

In an attempt to pack on the frequent flyer miles, Sam and I pop back across the Atlantic to the Central South American garden—Sam’s, and now my, favorite. The potential visual chaos of giant Gunnera leaves and silvery palm fronds is tamed with masses of low, color-saturated plants billowing along the walkway. Plants we see everyday in our neighborhoods, like Mexican sage, somehow take on a different character when reunited with their homies.

The rest of the vignettes are equally beautiful, informative, and inspiring, but my typewriter ribbon is drying up and I need to wrap. A visit to Seaside’s website (see link below) will take you on a visual slide tour of each one.

A few other reasons to be happy for the existence of Seaside Gardens gracing our shore: The Wetland Bioswale that runs along one of the property lines is a service to the community. It’s the last stop for tainted stormwater that flows to the sea from upland agriculture and flower growers. The masses of willows, grasses and shrubs planted in their path slow the flow and soak up some of the stuff that nobody wants flowing into the Pacific.

Another boon: As you might imagine, the mind-boggling diversity of the plant material at Seaside provides a haven for birds. Though you might not see this article in time, the nursery is hosting a Meet The Birds event on Sunday, July 18 (2 pm - 5 pm). Volunteers from the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary (a non-profit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured, orphaned, abused and abandoned parrots and companion birds) will bring a few of their birds to display, with a portion of that day’s purchases benefiting the Sanctuary.

Fred and Linda Wudl had a vision for, as Sam put it “the Barnes and Nobel of nurseries”, where folks could come and just walk, browse and learn, perhaps bringing their coffee, a scone and the Sunday paper and just enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of this inspirational place. In fulfilling that quest, these community-minded business owners have also provided garden lovers with a gift that keeps on giving.

Visit Seaside Gardens at 3700 Via Real, Carpinteria, CA 93013

Phone: 805.684.6001

Seaside Gardens

Related article: Pot Dispensaries – Edhat, Feb 14, 2010


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