Big Sur in Bloom

Landscape | May 2016 | BY Linda Lee

Bernard Trainor’s landscapes look as though they were in place long before the structures they were grown to complement. Rich carpets of grasses, bushes and succulents undulate over the terrain and around stone walls, offering shades of gray, glaucous, rich green like rosemary, gray green like the manzanita native coastal scrub, gold, lavender and the light green of emerging leaves.

“One client asked me if I ever did flowers,” Trainor says, laughing. “I’m such a nut for foliage and forms and textures.” A Trainor landscape does bloom, but quietly and fleetingly. Which is not to say there aren’t flowers. Paul Fisher, a retired Chicago real estate investor who has a home on Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur, says of his Trainor landscape, “Things are blooming all summer long.” And sometimes in the winter. Trainor particularly values the native toyon bush, which has bright green new leaves, dark green older leaves, clumps of small white flowers in early spring and red berries after that.

“When I have clients come from the Northeast or the Midwest, I think lilacs are the thing they miss the most,” Trainor says. He responds with what is called the California lilac (ceanothus), which thrives in dry climates and has a scent, though not as strong as a French lilac. He also loves a particular yarrow (Achillea millefolium Sonoma Coast) that hugs the ground with mounds of white flowers.

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Pfeiffer Ridge residence in Big Sur, California, after Trainor’s landscape restoration.

Trainor, who was born in Australia and trained there and in England, creates landscapes from Santa Barbara to Sonoma. Those destinations are a three- or four-hour drive from his office of 10 in a stone building in Monterey, opposite a hotel that once housed Robert Louis Stevenson. But much of his work is in Big Sur, often with the same architects, people who share his aesthetic. “In dating you can have a few arguments, but you can’t have any with an architect,” he says.

In one case he worked with an owner who bought a new house and had a special request: “Bury it.” The house was too tall and hulking. Trainor responded by surrounding it with trees, so that the house actually looks out over their tops. But most landscapes require working with the architect as well as the owner. “Sculptors and painters can do whatever they want,” Trainor says. “We do a piece of collaborative art.”

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Wind+Sea, on the Big Sur coastline, attempts to to balance the resident’s desire for functional space with the steep terrain.

He considers the Pfeiffer Ridge house one of his most beautiful, with a pool and a lip of planted roof over a guest house. It was a happy pairing of place and partners: the modernist Studio Schicketanz, architects based in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Trainor also lives, and a client, Fisher, who is passionate about nature and eager to learn about coastal plants. He spent a day with one of Trainor’s partners, “so he could tell me what was a weed,” he says. He also needed instruction on watering, having drowned a manzanita.

That made the Big Sur fire of 2013 all the more tragic. It burned 917 acres, much of it on Pfeiffer Ridge.“It was absolutely devastating,” Trainor says. Not only were dozens of houses destroyed, but redwoods, chaparral, scrub bushes and California oaks were also ruined. Fisher’s house survived, probably because the thick chaparral around it had been cut back, and because of its construction (metal roof, special glass, sprinklers). “But there was no background anymore,” Trainor says. “It was a postage stamp in the middle of nothing.”

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Trainor’s recent landscape work on a Sonoma County home, surrounded by 20 acres of pinot noir vineyards. Photo by Marion Brenner.

Fisher says, “Before the fire, I didn’t even know there were houses close to me.” Still, nature has a way of winning. Even the redwoods, which appeared dead, are sprouting new branches. “And it opened up some views.”

Some plants that hadn’t grown for decades appeared. “You see flowering bushes you haven’t seen for 50 years,” Fisher adds. And because Trainor uses native and water-sipping plants, the recent drought years have not defeated the landscape.

One feature that was not affected by the fire was a giant boulder that Trainor had drilled a water channel through and created a shallow basin on top. It sits just outside the guest quarters, which Fisher loves so much he has commandeered it for his office. “It’s almost a Japanese garden,” he says, “with the sound of water running down.” It is also possibly the most exquisite bird bath in Big Sur. “Every day I can watch dozens of finches, sparrows, bluebirds out there. The beauty, is almost overwhelming.”

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