Crafting greener pastures

Founded in the 1880s as a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop, the town of Ballard never became the seat of California's Santa Barbara County, but it's hardly a one-horse town. Here, equestrians and weekend ranchers own rolling paddocks where landscaping often involves little more than split rail fences and hay bales on pastures dotted with conifers and cactus. For Helene Aumont, however, this is a small part of a much prettier picture.

The interior and furniture designer stables two Dutch Friesian horses, Romeo and Florus, at the bottom of a hill on her six-acre spread.

High above their barn, however, Aumont has transformed the once-rustic grounds around her 1940s farmhouse into a charming melange of small and distinct French, Mediterranean and California gardens.

Born in Paris, Aumont grew up spending summers at her parents' ranch on the island of Corsica, off the south of France.

"It's a chaparral where you can grow many things, very much like here in the Santa Ynez Mountains," she says. "It's such a strong tie. You always try to re-create what you most miss."

A low, scrolled Italian iron gate with two antique stone columns as posts ushers in visitors. This welcoming entry frames an Impressionist scene profuse with hundreds of roses - floribunda, English tea and 'Cecile Brunner,' irises, hydrangea, jasmine, morning glory and dark purple buddleia in beds defined by arrow-shaped picket fences and woven willow edging borders.

A small fruit orchard and a rambling collection of native succulents grow on the other side of the house, warmed by the afternoon sun. Outside the back porch, plantings rise in a choreography of color and height: yellow and orange gazania covers the ground, Mexican sage and English lavender mound above it, agapanthus and swords of New Zealand flax reach skyward, and Chinese and Japanese wisteria vines wrap around the screen door onto the roof. On the broad back lawn, medallion fescue grass surrounds a pool fed by a 16th-century stone trough from the Dordogne region of France.

The property looked nothing like this 14 years ago, when Helene and Patrick Aumont, her husband at the time, moved in. There were pepper trees, sycamores and ancient oaks, dripping with Spanish moss.

"Everything else, we planted," Aumont says. Additional trees helped define the space and the mood. Italian cypresses add strong vertical lines and a Tuscan flavor; a blue-green acacia provides winter blossoms. It is a 12-year-old willow, however, that nearly makes Aumont weep.

"I now know that it is environmentally incorrect because it takes so much water, but it is so romantic."

She feels the same way about an almond tree, which on occasion produces a shell containing two nuts. On a recent afternoon, Aumont and her design associate, Laurence Hermon, discovered just such an almond and both exclaimed "philippine" with schoolgirl glee.

"It is something I used to do with my dad," Aumont explains. "When there are two almonds in the shell, you both make a wish and then three days and four hours from then, the first one to say 'philippine' to the other gets their wish."

Aumont is more sanguine about her olive tree: "It does not fruit, and it has ugly little leaves."

Nevertheless, it has a certain gnarly eminence planted with creeping rosemary and vinca inside a circular wall of Colorado field stone that Aumont made with her sons, Arthur, now 16, and Anouk, now 13.

"There have been many family projects over the years," Aumont says. One even involved the horses. "I built a tunnel of roses over an arbor," the avid equestrienne says. "Teaching the horses to ride through it without being knocked off was really quite a feat."

Aumont's sensibility as a designer of home furnishings that include architectural desks and chandeliers wrapped in military braid might be tailored and detailed, but her approach to gardening is more organic.

"I rely on my personal taste and my childhood memories of "bien-etre" (well-being). I don't have many rules," she says. "Although I am not a huge red flower person. I believe in whatever works for the house and the property. If you stare long enough in any place, it will tell you what it needs."

In her case, the grounds cried out for furnishings with history and weight. On the lawn under the willow, Aumont placed neoclassical 20th-century California iron chaises and a 19th-century specimen table made of many varieties of marble, all from Europa Summerland Antiques and Fine Art, her ex-husband's store nearby. For accents, she set large olive jars from the south of France throughout the garden, strung a cotton woven hammock from Honduras between two pepper trees and hung an Old World lantern from a birch tree branch.

It was not necessarily as effortless as it sounds, Aumont admits, and she has had a learning curve when it comes to green. "I am working toward drought-tolerant areas," she says. "It is somewhat challenging because of the soil here. It either has too much clay, which suffocates plants, or too much sand, which you can't keep moist."

Being a horsewoman has given her a bit of an edge. "I do my own composting," she says, pointing to a small hill of manure by the stables. "Every year I dig out the bottom layer of the pile and -- voila -- instant fertilizer."


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