sectionheading

All the Garden’s a Stage

A centuries-old oak provides towering drama. Succulent groundcover and stellar blooms thicken the plot. On the Ojai property of actor Peter Strauss, botany is a theatrical production—and a true labor of love

By Allison Costa—Photos by Gaszton gal

A sprawling coast live oak is the garden’s piece de resistance.

 

walk through Peter Strauss’ Ojai property puts all five senses on high alert. The intoxicating smell of orange blossoms from his 30-acre citrus farm wafts across flowerbeds and into his breezy Spanish colonial home. Your eyes bounce from astonishingly tall agave blooms to subtle, low-lying groundcovers. Dark purple lavender, hot pink rock rose, and vibrant yellow Jerusalem sage color the various gardens, and the sound of bees happily searching for nectar fills the air. Your sense of touch comes alive as you meander paths overgrown with salvias, rosemary, iris, and oleander, the plants brushing against your skin, infusing your clothes with their fragrance. In the vegetable garden, tomatoes, herbs, and blackberries tempt your taste buds. In the orchard, peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, and, of course, oranges, beg to be picked and eaten. And all this from a simple walk in one man’s garden.

In the 25 years since Strauss purchased the home, he has become a self-taught citrus grower, researching how to maintain his mass acreage of Valencia and navel orange trees. In that time he has also channeled his passion for plants and transformed five acres of the property into a gardener’s dream: among the specialized sections, a cactus garden, a native plants garden, and a lush Mediterranean garden. But before you jump to conclusions, let’s clear something up: Strauss does most of the work himself—and he has the scars and callused hands to prove it. “Every plant you see, I put in the ground,” he says.

Strauss’ resume is thick with work in theater, television, and film. Widely recognized for his role in the 1976 TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” he has received two Emmy Award nominations and five Golden Globe Award nominations. His recent film roles include License to Wed, with Robin Williams, and earlier this year he played Leonardo da Vinci in “Divine Rivalry,” at Hartford Stage, and Ben Bradlee in “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” for the New York Theater Workshop.

Yet, when you visit Strauss’ home, which he shares with his actress wife, Rachel Ticotin, he’s not interested in talking theater roles and Emmys. He’s all about plants and flowers. “I’m stunned by how much I love being in plants,” he remarks. Walking around the property, he truly is in his element, rattling off plant names (Latin and common names, genera and species), offering a sniff of a silky, peach-colored rose, encouraging a touch of the smooth red bark of a Howard McMinn manzanita—a shrub he calls “one of the sexiest plants alive.”

He speaks of his childhood in upstate New York, where his mother loved to garden. With a smile, he recalls a memory of her rolling down her elegant white opera gloves to show him the dirt under her fingernails—a reward from a long day spent in the garden. Yet it wasn’t until he moved to California and saw the vibrant colors of bougainvillea and fell in love with succulents that his path as a serious gardener was solidified.

Prior to Ojai, Strauss lived on a historic property in the rural Santa Monica Mountains near Agoura. He worked for several years restoring the property’s natural look before donating it (yes, donating it) to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Now managed by the National Park Service, the property is officially known as the Peter Strauss Ranch.

The first thing Strauss did when he purchased his home in Ojai was to remove the front driveway and convert it into a courtyard garden. A massive California live oak tree covers the entire expanse of the courtyard, offering shade to a number of white camellias, palms, acanthus, and flax. The scale of many of the plants is astonishing, hinting at their long, happy lives in the shade of this great tree. Boston ivy scales the side of the house, and wisteria drips from a tall, dark brown trellis.

Alongside the house, the Mediterranean garden features seven varieties of lavender, familiar-looking olive trees, and Mediterranean palms. The centerpiece of the adjacent cactus garden is the towering agave. Reminiscent of vibrant green asparagus, the shoots stand at least twenty feet tall and grow at a rate of a foot a day when on the cusp of blooming. Tucked in a tiny sitting area, the ball garden offers a series of small plants, mostly white and chartreuse, shaped into balls—a French design technique in which Strauss found inspiration.

Below the house, the secret garden overflows with Strauss’ prized ‘Just Joey’ roses, known for their apricot-colored blooms, and bush germander with azure blue flowers and silver green leaves. The pool garden offers a generous amount of jasmine, rosemary, and gold-colored ‘Amber Queen’ roses. The riverbed garden, Strauss’ most recent project, is designed to look like a meandering riverbed. Building upon his past gardening experience, he says, “I had the courage of color here.” Pink rock rose sits next to a chartreuse euphorbia; reds, purples, and blues that would normally be separated are united.

“A really good garden tethers you to your home,” Strauss says, explaining that he plans his acting schedule around his garden. He prefers working out of town only in the winter—when the garden needs to rest. “And there’s no way I want a job out of town in April when the orange trees are in bloom,” he says.

His passion is further evident in a carefully mapped spreadsheet detailing plant names and weekly tasks associated with each species. “You have to have this inherent, masochistic love of plants, food, nature, putting your hands in the earth and enjoy the process. It’s an expensive hobby,” he says.

“Nature is imperfect; you cannot achieve perfection. That’s the harsh lesson of gardening...you have to have a sense of humor,” says Strauss. And his vegetable garden—where ravenous chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits are having a heyday—is where humor takes root most deeply. “This is the most expensive, heavily-guarded lettuce in the history of lettuce,” he laughs, pointing out the formidable mesh barricade around the plants.

When asked about the crossover between his love of gardening and his love of acting, he ponders the question for a long while. “Your garden gives a performance,” he says, finally. “At certain times of year it is on stage, and the errors are glaring, like they would be on stage.” Then, reflecting on a recent purchase of marigolds,” he sums up his love of plants and their undervalued allure: “Where else in life can you get something for two dollars and get back that much beauty, that much joy?” ­­

06-01-2011

Back to top