Casa del Herrero is known as much for its gardens as its George Washington Smith house. And on any given Friday, you can find a small group of volunteers working with staff to complete projects that spruce up the garden spaces and allow them to really shine. With many years spent contributing to the Casa, longtime volunteers Gretchen Ingmanson and Duke McPherson have seen what is possible in the preservation of a historic landscape.
“Nature itself is in such flux. Because it is always changing, it can be a challenge to keep a freeze-frame here,” said Duke. “The volunteer effort has really paid off, not just in terms of what we’ve done, but also in the boost the gardening staff gets from seeing things moving forward.”
The garden spaces found across the estate feature both intimate and expansive views. The small Saints and Sinners Camellia Garden and the Herb Garden are favorite spots for many guests on the guided tour. Larger spaces including the Blue and White East Garden and the Main Allée also delight. The gardens are complemented by the sound of water from several fountains, and by the smell of citrus from the orchard. The mountains and the ocean beyond peek out over the tops of tall trees.
“There are a lot of borrowed views around here,” said Gretchen. “You have the garden spaces, but you also have the mountains and the ocean. You start with the gardens, and it just keeps building.” Nodding his head in agreement, Duke added: “That is an old trick of Lockwood de Forest [an original Casa landscape architect] – to bring in the borrowed views.”
With 11-acres to maintain, the experienced garden staff appreciates extra hands working to complete projects. Everything from trimming and pruning to orchard maintenance is tackled.
“It is special for me to volunteer here because I find this place to be magical,” said Gretchen. “I get a feeling of honored ownership from the projects I work on at the Casa. I don’t own this place, but I am able to get an intimate view through my volunteering.”
Gretchen has always been passionate about garden spaces. It just took her awhile to turn her passion into a profession. After receiving a master’s degree in economics, she began working as an accountant. About 10 years ago, she decided to make a change and enrolled in the horticulture program at Santa Barbara City College. Today, she is a horticulturalist at San Ysidro Ranch.
Duke was introduced to the natural world as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, eventually attending UC Santa Barbara, where he graduated with a degree in zoology, before starting his own garden maintenance and landscaping business. In addition to the Casa, Gretchen and Duke are both passionate about supporting Channel Islands Restoration.
“Gardening just gives me a sense of wellbeing,” said Duke. “The response that plants give you is very heartwarming. It makes me happy to see things growing because of my help.”
Whether you are a professional or a novice in the garden, the Casa is always looking for more volunteers. “When we work here, we are always sensitive to what Steedman would have done,” said Gretchen. “The garden spaces are full of memory, and I think it is important to remember the past as we move forward with our work.”