St Francis Ranch: a private succulent wonderland on a grand scale

More from the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, which took place from April 4-7, 2019. 

In my previous post I showed you the spectacular venue of the Friday evening reception: organizer Jeff Chemnick's home and nursery, Aloes in Wonderland. When I told Jeff how amazing his place was, he said, "it's nothing compared to where we'll be tomorrow evening."

So here we are: St Francis Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, a 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara proper. It's the kind of country property you're likely to see in a high-end real-estate magazine like LAND (for some reason, my dentist has a subscription so I get to page through it a couple of times a year in the waiting room).

Entrance to St Francis Ranch (photo by Loree Bohl)

If you look at the three figures on top of the gate in the photo above, you'll have a good idea of which animals are raised at St Francis Ranch. The cattle are Ankoli-Watusi, whose prominent feature are almost comically long horns—to my regret I didn't take a photo. And the second kind of animal was this:

Yes, zebras!

I also spotted a very large orange bunny, but I don't know if they raise those at St Francis Ranch as well.

There was some speculation about the size of the ranch; I heard 3,000 acres being mentioned. For somebody whose house is on 15 acre (me), that's an abstract number which doesn't really mean much other than "very large." To put it in perspective, 3,000 acres is roughly 4.8 square miles. In other words, if the property were square, it would be 2.2 miles in either direction. The driveway at St Francis Ranch certainly was long enough—if not a mile, then close.

When the driveway is a real road, you know it's a large property

We parked near the house, maybe 23 of the way up the hill, still not knowing what to expect as far as the garden was concerned. But that was about to change. If this were a Hollywood movie, this is where the kettle drums would begin a low rumble.

But before I gave in to the gravitational pull of the garden itself, I walked away from it, across the road to this spot:

After a wetter than usual winter, the hills were a rich saturated green, with wildflowers adding pops of color. Add freshly leafed out oak trees, and you have a quintessential California spring scene:

OK, maybe not so traditional

California meets Mexico
Rusty implements are part and parcel of a working ranch

Finally I was no longer able to resist. I turned my back on the bucolic scene above and threw myself into what would be the most stunning naturalistic garden I've ever seen. At this point in the evening, I knew virtually nothing about it, its owner, and its history (and even now I don't know a whole lot more), so I'll share these images with you the way I saw them: with no preconceived ideas, and not knowing what I might see next.

The first of many Queensland bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris), a clear sign of Jeff Chemnick's influence

Garden art, like any kind of art, is polarizing. Seeing this piece was love at first sight for me. It turns out it's by Phillip Glasshoff, who's based in Suisun Valley, 45 minutes from where I live!

Echium wildpretii starting its vertical ascent

Yucca rostrata can be seen all over the garden

Agave salmiana var. ferox 'Medio picta' from San Marcos Growers. Randy Baldwin from SMG told a bunch of us about the controversy surrounding this agave, with some folks believing it's actual Agave americana. Read this and this if you're into this sort of thing.

Agave vilmoriniana 'Stained Glass'. Cool pot, too.

Agave weberi 'Arizona Star'

Agave americana 'Yellow Ribbons'

Loree dwarfed by a flowering Agave salmiana

Agave weberi 'Arizona Star'

My favorite vignette in the garden: the rolling hills on the left, Yucca rostrata, Agave franzosinii, California poppies, and a boulder-lined stream!

Path along the outside perimeter of the garden

Agave franzosinii, always making a statement

Another Agave salmiana var. ferox 'Medio picta'

Agave impressa to the right of Agave franzosinii

More Queensland bottle trees

Aloe ferox

Aloe ferox silhouetted against the evening sun

So many California poppies this year!

Since the garden is on a slight slope, you can't see the far side as you walk up the hill. And just when you think you're at the top, another vista opens up in front of you.

Mass planting of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) near the top of the garden

Not a great photo, but I wanted to show you that work is ongoing, with 15-gallon aloes waiting to go in the ground

The rock work is fantastic. There are rocks everywhere. They don't stand out for their own sake but enhance the plants; that's the sign of somebody who knows what they're doing. I got to chat with the property owner for a few minutes, and she said they're on their second Bobcat loader—moving rocks is hard work, even for a utility vehicle.

Yucca rostrata

Aloe castanea

Aloidendron dichotomum (back), Aloe castanea (front center), Aloe rupestris (left)

Agave salmiana

Aloe marlothii

Agave salmiana var. ferox 'Medio Picta'

I'm a big fan of metal Mariachi musicians, so this scene brought a smile to my face

The plants, such as Agave parryi and Dasylirion longissimum, aren't too shabby either!

I love how even the nooks and crannies are put to good use; these rocks actually act as stepping stones

At this point, the sun was almost down and my stomach was growling so I decided to head towards the house to get something to eat. However, as good as the taco bar was, I couldn't focus on the food because there simply was too much to see.

Another Phillip Glasshoff sculpture at the entrance to the interior courtyard

There's a smaller enclosed courtyard and garden behind the house: perfect for hanging out and enjoying good conversation and an adult beverage

This garden is quite different from the much larger succulent garden up on the hill—more traditional and “expected”—but irresistibly beautiful

A long rectangular basin leading to a larger lily pond makes the courtyard feel like an oasis 

It would be easy to think you're in a resort in Mexico

The guesthouse at the far end of the enclosed garden has its own courtyard with seating

Even a table for al fresco dining

More intimate seating next to the pond

I was hoping to find out more about the history of this extraordinary property, and the evolution of the succulent garden, but it's still shrouded it mystery to me. Other than thanking her for her hospitality, I didn't have a chance to talk to the homeowner, but it's clear she's a powerhouse with a ton of energy and passion. And a vision of what she wants her garden to be.

After dark, we were invited into the house. A fire was roaring in the massive stone fireplace, and the sofas in front of it were so comfortable, I didn't want to get up again. But we did have to leave eventually. On the way back to the car, we were blown away by how many stars were visible. It's easy to forget how much we miss out on because of light pollution. Seeing the night sky in all its glory was a climatic end to an unforgettable day.

Do you want to see more? Loree is writing about St Francis Ranch today, too. Since we visited together, we thought it would be fun to see how we each approached the garden, what things we both took photos of, and what stood out to us personally. Click on over to danger garden to check out her post!


2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara

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  1. The stars!!! Glad you got a photo, they were magical, just like the rest of the garden. Such an experience.

  2. What a special experience indeed. An unforgettable garden. The size of the blooming salmiana--wow! All the rocks/Agaves/Aloes--wow! The horns on those cows--oh, my.

    Interesting discussion of that salmiana 'Mediopicta'. It sure doesn't act like an americana, and seeing the size it can eventually attain on is scary. Mine is extremely slow growing (a good thing).

  3. Incredible doesn't even begin to describe it. I can't conceive of having a property a fraction of that size but I love what they did with it. I'm off to check Loree's post.

  4. Wow, what a place ! I can't help speculating on what the price tag must be for a property like this. I'm heading over to the Danger Garden to check out her perspective.

  5. Spectacular photos. From seeing your's and Lori's photos I feel we got a detailed tour of the property. I love the contrast between the dry succulent garden and the lush interior courtyard garden. Can imagine how hard it must have been to leave this garden.

  6. I am still so upset I didn't know about this tour. Lucky for me I have been to this garden with Debra Baldwin and got a chance to talk to the owner. I've forgotten the history, but I bet Debra has notes. I know she took videos too.

  7. unbelievable, love your everything on your blog but this is my absolute favorite - this is my dream garden

  8. I am so jealous! What an amazing place... seriously, I would have been pinching myself to make sure I wasn't in the middle of a dream. Unforgettable experience for you and Loree, I'm sure!


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