Serene in Santa Fe

Horticulture Magazine, August 2002

Santa Fe, New Mexico, is one of the oldest European settlements in the United States. Early Spanish explorers first arrived there toward the end of the 1500s and quickly established the city as a center of commerce, military activity, politics, exploration, and culture. Today, Santa Fe flourishes as a modern-day tourist spot and mecca for the arts. Drawn to the wide, high landscape, extraordinary light, amazing colors, and liberal atmosphere, many artists, writers, and photographers find this western city of brown adobe buildings the perfect place to express themselves and to connect with nature.

These qualities are what drew a 20-something Andrew Ungerleider to Santa Fe from Los Angeles in the 1970s. He liked it so much that he stayed and opened a restaurant, which he named Nanax, after a 15th century Indian who made peace between the Muslims and Hindus. Ungerleider next parlayed his ‘70s sensibilities and business instincts into founding a highly successful natural snack food company.

Today, the 50-year-old Ungerleider is a world traveler, a bon vivant, a New Age thinker, and an ecological entrepreneur who easily mixes sandals, long hair, and a casual demeanor with ambition and business savvy. Recently, he and his wife, Gay Dillingerham, were inspired to start a new business called Earthstone, which produces abrasives from recycled glass, as an alternative to abrasives made from strip-mined pumice.

It’s not surprising the Ungerleider and Dillingham would approach their house and garden with the same energy and thoughtfulness. When they purchased the property, it was a daunting, dry slope of pines and junipers with an inspiring view. The house sat jauntily atop a ridge, hidden behind junipers, where it overlooked much of the property. The entire hillside tilted toward the western sky, facing a grand panoramic view of the distant Jemez Mountains.

Ungerleider and Dillingham set out to create a garden refuge around their house that would reflect their own sense of beauty and spirituality, and one that they could fill with ornaments. As it is with every project he takes on, the design for the garden was driven by Ungerleider’s penchant to focus on the big picture. “He’s not a detail person,” confides Dillingham. Her concerns were to make the garden “water efficient, sustainable, and appropriate.”

They quickly discovered what so many Santa Fe gardeners already knew: the alkaline, clayey soil, intense sunlight, little winter snow cover, and a mere 15 inches of annual rainfall that make Santa Fe on of the most challenging spots in America in which to garden. They needed help. To get started, Ungerleider and Dillingham enlisted the expertise of Julia Berman, a respected local landscape architect. Berman’s first move was to enclose the entire three-acre compound with a tall, rustic barrier of rough-cut wooden poles, called a coyote fence. The fence defined the property boundary yet still allowed Ungerleider and Dillingham to gaze at the mountains.

Originally, the site had a steep but relatively uniform slope and very poor, tight clay soil,” recalls Berman. “When a great deal of soil became available from the excavation of the swimming pool, I elected to create two broad terraces, retained by dry-stacked rock walls, and used the extra loosened soil for fill and planting.”

In order to create a feeling of being on a journey when walking through the enclosure, Berman segregated the garden into different areas. Here, the steep slope proved to be a valuable design resource, allowing the garden to unfold more slowly than would be possible on flat ground.

From the entrance at the bottom of the garden, visitors walk through an arbor made from rough-barked poles of Gamble’s oak, cut from the nearby chaparral, into an intensively gardened area of 100 by 160 feet. Local sandstone, laid in a checkerboard pattern, paves a “hallway” bordered by semiformal beds.

The borders of the hallway are packed with perennials, such as spiky Veronica spicata ‘Red Fox’, gray-blue Nepeta x faassenii, balloons of silvery Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, woolly veronica (Veronica pectinanta), and inky blue globe thistle (Ehinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’). German statice (Goniolimon tataricum), geraniums, dianthus, candytuft, oreganos, and white clouds of baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata ‘Perfekta’) stitch themselves together into a quilt of summer color. Rows of hawthorn trees (Crataegus mollis) and local piñon pine (Pinus edulis) contain the planted borders.

Drought-tolerant natives, such as the unusual redbirds-in-a-tree (Scrophularia macrantha) and silver-edged horehound (Marrubium rotundifolium), as well as rambunctious annual like California poppies, yellow cowpen daisies (Verbesina encelioides), verbascums, and annual sunflowers scrap for space. Together they create a Wild West mélange of traditional easterners and established natives not unlike Santa Fe’s own human population.

The path meanders and splits. One fork leads visitors down the hill toward the herb and vegetable mandala, a fragrant garden, and a grape arbor.

“As you start ascending, the sense of mystery increases, since you can’t see the top of the hill,” Berman points out. “The perennial gardens of the lower level disappear, the trees close in on one side, and the steep hillside closes in on the other. Your attention is purposely directed away from the views and toward the foreground plantings.”

The path continues upward out of sight, creating anticipation with each step. At the outer reaches of the central garden, beyond the formality of the path and beds, the intermediate area has been planted in a looser, more naturalistic style, with native grasses like blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and indigenous trees and shrubs like silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), fern-brush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), and three-leaf sumac (Rhus triloabata). Adaptable workhorses like Russian olive (Elaegnus angustifolia) and blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) anchor the backdrop, hiding the perimeter fence. This gradual transition from the formal garden to the more natural planting area expands the garden’s sense of space.

Ultimately, the uphill traverse arrives at the heart of the garden: a personal recreation area, where an arbor (locally called a ramada) overlooks a beautiful lap pool, a natural stone patio, a sauna, and an entertainment deck. With the boundary fence far below ensuring privacy and the blue horizon and expansive sky above, the space feels simultaneously secluded and unbounded.

The path ends at a hilltop meadow that crowns the apex of the hill. Set against the dreamlike, sinuous purple mountain vista, lush plantings of silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’), blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), and Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) flash in the bright sun and wave seductively with any passing breeze.

“The meadow was purposely designed to complement this view,” Berman explains. “All of the plant material stands between 24 and 30 inches tall and functions like a low wall. The grasses, which comprise about 60 percent of the plantings, animate this foreground with their constant movement and seasonal cycles.

“In the meadow area, I didn’t want any hard edges that would be created by terracing,” she continues. “Instead, I decided to flank the stairways and retain the steepest sides of the promontory with drifts of large boulders.”

The grasses are interplanted with blue, white, and pink summer-flowering perennials like Russian sage, fragrant Agastache cana, yellow solidaster, Echinacea ‘White Swan’, Chrysanthemum ‘Burgundy Button’, and masses of globe thistle. Caryopteris ‘Blue Mist’ and silver grass add body and texture right through winter.

While the grassy meadow is at its best in late summer, it also comes alive in spring with Siberian irises, candytuft, dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), and alliums as well as daffodils, crocuses, Persian tulips, and oxeye daisies. Bradford pears, crab apples, and apricots bloom as well. Autumn also gives a brief riot of color when the foliage of the hawthorns turns. And the grasses are left uncut until early spring to create snowy winter sculptures.

Professional gardener Donna Boner works full-time in the garden during the season. She helps fulfill Ungerleider’s vision, which is somewhat more unfettered and exuberant than the initial design called for. “From the garden’s beginning, Andrew begged, ‘Can we not trim so much?’” Boner says. Ungerleider’s inadvertent homage to painter Henri Rousseau, famous for his stylized canvases of jungle scenes, was not too far from her own sensibilities.

While Boner spends a great deal of time in the garden, she prefers not to be overly controlling, and instead view her job as responding to shifting balance between the garden’s formal structure and natural spontaneity.

“The original design is never meant to be the last word,” declares Boner. Succession is the rule of nature, and nobody sees that more clearly than the gardener. I have to let things happen around me, and I get my instructions directly from the garden. I don’t get them from the owners, the designer, or from any book.”

Both Boner and Ungerleider are particularly fond of letting self-sowers into the garden, where they create a casual, embroidered effect. Thus, penstemons, hollyhocks, sunflowers, and feather grasses are allowed to fill unexploited niches. As Boner puts it, “We only weed out plants if they are in the wrong places. We are encouraging diversity beyond the original plan, letting the garden evolve and develop a more natural beauty. It gives us a chance to have something new.”

While Boner loves plants, soil is her other passion. She has an extensive background in organic gardening and puts it to great use here. “Building soil is as important to me as growing plants,” she says. “It’s my mission. If you build soil, good things are going to happen.”

Unsatisfied with the soil amendments that were available, Boner developed her own formula made from greensand, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, kelp meal, rock dust, and soft rock phosphate – no blood, bones, or manure. She is now marketing the blend, which she calls Yum Yum Mix, to a growing national audience.

With Boner at the controls, Ungerleider is left to embellish his leafy playground as he sees fit. His unusual collection of garden ornaments reflects his own sense of playfulness and whimsy, as well as his world travels. Like a scene from an old sci-fi movie, a giant quartz crystal from the Ural Mountains in Russia rises unexpectedly from behind a pine tree. A six-foot tall metal sculpture of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, sporting an occasional offering of a lei or bouquet, gives the garden a feeling of timeless serenity and beauty. Giant lingam stones from India rest like dinosaur eggs dropped on a lawn of thyme. Even a big block of blue azurite seems to be participating in the mischief, conspiring with a pale fleabane and a posse of German statice. These nontraditional elements remind visitors not to take the garden too seriously.

Like rock and roll or jazz, the Ungerleider-Dillingham garden is quintessentially American, following some rules while breaking others. It is a meeting place of art, nature, and personal expression. Judging from the faces of visitors caught gazing over the hilltop meadow on a summer afternoon, it’s also another reminder of New Mexico’s power to enchant.

Charles Mann