With its gentle Mediterranean climate, Montecito has long been a desirable location for nursery men and gifted horticulturists. Its transformation into a botanist's Eden began in the last quarter of the century, reaching its height in the early decades of this century with the influx of wealthy easterners who came to escape the rigors of east coast winters. They built grand, elegant homes and surrounded them with a profusion of fragrance and color. In the process of developing their lush gardens, they created a constant demand for talented landscapers and nurserymen. This demand aside, dedicated horticulturists worldwide had discovered that Montecito's ideal climate and gem-like setting made it the perfect location for practicing the art of plant culture and landscape design.
According to historian David Myrick in Montecito and Santa Barbara Volume I, Dana B. Clark was one of the first to establish a nursery here. Clark operated his nursery for seven years on 30 acres he purchased in 1870. An advertisement in L. L. Paulson's Directory of Southern California for 1875 lists Clark's business as "D. B. Clark's Temperate Climate Nurseries in the Montecito - Four miles east of town." The location of his nursery is now a part of Manning Park, where a few olive trees, thought to have been planted by Clark, still thrive.
A story in the February, 1872, Santa Barbara Press reported that Mr. Clark's nursery had "an astonishing display of yearling plants, including several hundred Assyrian date palms in a healthy condition, a large lot of white maple, osage orange, white ash, black walnut, persimmon, pineapple, tea plants and choice orange trees." In March of 1873 an item in the same paper mentioned that "Colonel Hollister is beautifying his ranch with the Assyrian Date Palm. The trees were grown by Mr. D. B. Clark of Montecito, who deserves the thanks of the community for introducing this most ornamental tree." Besides being noted for the exotic trees and plants he imported, Clark supplied orange, almond and walnut trees to local growers.
Montecito's reputation as a "Garden of Eden" continued to grow. Report after report, such as this one in an October 1887 issue of the San Francisco Journal of Commerce, waxed eloquent as to Montecito's charms: "As for the climate of Montecito the one word 'perfect' properly describes it... Heat and cold are alike unknown and the variations of temperature throughout the year are scarcely noticeable. Practically speaking there are no seasons. Flowers bloom continually and the valley in December as well as in June, is a veritable garden of beauty."
Years later, in Southern California Gardens (1961) Victoria Padilla quoted a writer of the 1890s who penned, 'The country is new and many of the conditions of life may be primitive and rude, but it is impossible that any region shall not be beautiful, clothed with such a profusion of bloom and color.'
Padilla's own description beautifully sums up Montecito and its gardens of that era: "A little valley with its vine-clad cottages and gardens in a setting highly reminiscent of Italy, Montecito contained a score or more of the loveliest estates in the country. Beautiful in its native growths of oaks and sycamores, this spot became under the hand of man a veritable garden of paradise. Many of the gardens contained collections that were not only rare for that day, but would indeed be unusual for the present. From a horticultural point of view the most engaging place belonged to Ralph Kinton Stevens, who eventually turned his home grounds into a nursery of rare plants."
Between 1888 and 1893, Montecito farmland was mainly planted in lemons, and mostly with trees supplied by the prolific nursery of R. Kinton Stevens. A horticulturist from England, Stevens acquired Montecito acreage in 1882, including the land where Lotusland is located today.
Stevens' nursery went well beyond citrus plantings, however. According to Padilla, Stevens was the first California nurseryman with a catalogue devoted solely to tropical and subtropical plants. His 1893 catalogue listed an incredible array of palms, six species of bananas, four types of pineapple, and even the Egyptian lotus.
For relaxation the gregarious and multi-talented Stevens created clay figurines, dabbled in taxidermy and entertained friends by singing and playing the banjo. Noted as a frequent exhibitor at agricultural fairs, he also hosted meetings of the Santa Barbara Horticultural Society at his ranch.
Stevens' sudden death at the age of 50 put an end to his thriving nursery operation. But his oldest son, Ralph Tallant Stevens, studied gardening design in Europe and later followed in his father's Montecito footsteps. In 1923 he worked closely with architect George Washington Smith and horticulturist Peter Riedel to design the extensive water systems, outdoor "rooms" and plantings at Casa Del Herrero.
What was to become an important event in the annals of local horticulture occurred in 1893, when Italian botanist Dr. Francesco Franceschi founded the Southern California Acclimatizing Association in Montecito with greenhouses and experimental gardens. C. F. Eaton, artist, landscape architect and horticulturist, was one of his business partners, and the group became noted for growing, distributing and importing a great variety of cycads, bamboos, vines, exotic trees, shrubs and plants to this area. Offering well over a thousand rare plants in his 1897 catalogue, Franceschi's enterprise outranked all others in his time.
Franceschi claimed that the Santa Barbara area was "known at present all over the world as the place where the largest number of plants from widely different climates have congregated to live happily together, and often thrive with more vigor than in their native countries.... They have convened here from the hottest and from the coldest as well as from the temperate regions of the globe, and they combine to make a display of vegetation that has no rival anywhere."
News of Franceschi's Acclimatizing Association spread throughout California. In 1905, a brilliant Dutch horticulturist, Peter Riedel, who had worked in the botanical garden of San Diego's famed Coronado Hotel, came to Santa Barbara to meet him. Charmed by the city, he leased the Armstrong Nursery near the junction of Hot Springs Road and Schoolhouse Road. Riedel's nursery business flourished and in just two years, he took over Dr. Franceschi's company.
Until his retirement in 1934, Riedel planned the gardens of many lavish Montecito properties, with special recognition of his work on the Peabody estate Solano.
Landscape architect Otto Niedermuller immigrated from Germany to the United States in 1904, and intrigued by stories of the unique horticultural opportunities in Santa Barbara, he came to this area to supervise the landscaping of La Favorita, the William Gould residence on Olive Mill Road. Besides the gardens of the Gould estate, he also created landscaping for Ryerson, Ludington and DeWitt Parshall.
In 1907 Niedermuller married Nienke Koopmans, the Dutch sister-in-law of nurseryman Peter Riedel, and the couple later had three sons - William, Henry and Ted. Ted Niedermuller, a retired Santa Barbara attorney, remembers renowned landscape architect Lockwood deForest, Jr., who sometimes collaborated with his father on the great estate gardens. Probably the most renowned garden he worked on was Madame Walska's Lotusland. "He was an esthetic, elegant gentleman. He was a visionary."
Ted Niedermuller also recalls the depression years of the 1930s when the landscaping business went into a decline and forced his father to take employment as a deputy sheriff. "Landscaping was still his passion, so with ten willing jail trustees he saved the county a fortune by landscaping the Courthouse and County Bowl. The workers made $4 a day and he received 10%," says Ted.
The depression and ensuing war years marked a gradual turning point for estate gardens in Montecito. Although "Garden Tours" were conducted and some estate grounds were regularly open to the public, many properties were subdivided, and their vast gardens were scaled down. However, the unique Montecito climate still attracted horticulturists such as the Tappeiner family. Tucked away in the foothills, their Valleyheart Nursery, which specializes in supplying perennial cuttings to retailers nationwide, has been in continuous operation since they moved to Montecito in 1953.
More visible to local residents was Martin Christensen's nursery at the corner of East Valley and San Ysidro Roads. From 1969 to 1980, Martin supplied the gardening needs of Many Montecito neighborhoods. Today, the nursery has been replaced by a new office building and now Marin does landscape design exclusively. The only complete, full service retail nursery remaining in Montecito is Turk Hessellund, Inc., located on Coast Village Road.
Hessellund's knowledgeable and genial owner, Raymond R. Sodomka Jr., recalls that the nursery's founder, Thorkild (Turk) Hessellund, came from his native Denmark to the burgeoning community of Solvang where he was employed as a gardener. Soon he found opportunity beckoning him 'over the hill' and he moved to Santa Barbara to establish his first nursery twice more before settling in Montecito where the nursery has been in operation for over 30 years. For years, many a Montecito resident swore by Turk's incredible know-how when it came to plants.
Sodomka, a long time business associate, acquired the nursery after Hessellhund's death in 1983. Although trained in journalism, Sodomka was lured into the nursery business in 1965 because of his "passion for plants." But his journalistic talents occasionally blossom and he finds time to do gardening related articles for Sunset Magazine.
Sodomka's nursery serves both local and Los Angeles growers, and he purchases plants from as far away as Oregon and San Diego. His nursery is stocked with everything from rare tropical blooms to skillfully crafted Cotswold birdhouses.
"Santa Barbara has tremendous diversity." Raymond Sodomka comments. "Everything from desert plants to temperate climates to rainforest vegetation can grow here with proper nurturing. And all of this horticultural diversity was introduced to the area by those passionate plantsmen of he early 1900's."
These early horticulturists, D.B. Clark, Ralph K. Stevens, Peter Riedel, Dr. Franceschi and Charles F. Eaton, demonstrated the year round botanic potential of Montecito and set a high standard in garden design for those that followed. Where once only native chaparral, sycamore and California oak dominated the arid landscape, they helped transform Montecito into a world renowned garden showcase.