Plants +

A study of the symbiotic relationship between
humans and the gardens they tend to.

At ORCA, our work begins by understanding that it doesn’t end — a landscape is an ongoing dialogue, shaped by seasons and in response to our environments. Plants + People is an ongoing exploration of what it looks like to plant roots, to honor cycles, to inhabit space, and to accept impermanence through the perspectives of individuals we admire. In early spring, we were invited into Ashley Adelson’s Montecito property which includes eleven diverse gardens. Devoted to sustainable and regenerative practices, Ashley’s garden is brimming with life. 

ashley adelson

013 ashley adelson
region: montecito, california
plant community: asteraceae, bromeliaceae, lamiaceae , gunneraceae  
photography: justin chung

“Nothing tastes better and more satisfying than vegetables freshly plucked from the vine, graciously rewarding you for the love and time that went into each crop.”

Describe how your garden: feels, smells, sounds, tastes.
My garden is a whimsical romance, a sacred space, a healing and magical place. A pleasing and harmonious composition of earthly richness. Fresh terroir, beautiful loamy soil dances with endless fresh herbs and delicate blooming orchid flowers. Dinnerplate dahlias and mammoth sunflowers seem to smile endlessly at you. The sound of birds chirping, bees buzzing, and large specimen oaks gently swaying in the wind. Nothing tastes better and more satisfying than vegetables freshly plucked from the vine, graciously rewarding you for the love and time that went into each crop. Whether entertaining for ten, one hundred, or only one, my garden was developed simply to enjoy and honor the passage of time.

What is your first or earliest memory of being in a garden?

I was fortunate to spend my early formidable years surrounded by boundless wilderness. My brother and I, fueled by youthful imagination, built countless tree forts. Our days were filled with adventures along the nearby riverbed, much to my mother's chagrin as we gleefully returned home with crawdads and frogs in tow. My mother dedicated her weekends to nurturing her beloved roses, and my father imparted upon us the value of hands-on work, instilling in us a profound ethos of diligence and resourcefulness. He often reminded us that our hands were our most indispensable tools, a sentiment that resonated deeply and has shaped my approach in my garden.

“California's warm, lingering falls are nothing short of enchanting, casting a golden glow upon our garden and allowing the flowers to bask in one final gorgeous display.”

heliotropium arborescens

(marino white)

Heliotropium arborescens is a species of flowering plant in the borage family, Boraginaceae. Native to Peru, it is cultivated worldwide as an ornamental plant for its clusters of small, fragrant flowers and lush foliage. The leaves are simple, lance-shaped, and dark green in color, arranged alternately along the stems.



Salvia 'Amistad' typically grows as a perennial shrub with deep green, slightly serrated leaves. The most distinctive feature is its long spikes of deep purple flowers that bloom from spring through fall. These flowers are highly attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Salvia 'Amistad' thrives in full sun to partial shade and well-draining soil. It is relatively drought-tolerant once established but benefits from regular watering, especially during hot, dry periods.

Can you share more about your relationship to planning and preparing your garden throughout the year? What are some seasonal steps you consider or take?
Our garden is a year-round endeavor, requiring meticulous planning and preparation at every turn. We kickstart the process by maintaining a detailed garden journal, serving as our compass to navigate nature's rhythms and anticipate its ever-changing cycles amidst the flux of environmental shifts. Even in the quieter moments, our garden never rests. As winter sets in, our focus shifts to essential tasks like pruning roses and mulching the land to harness the bounty of seasonal rains. Spring bursts forth with an abundance of plant life, demanding our attention as we feed, trim, and replant, ensuring the garden is primed for the bustling schedule of entertaining ahead. Amidst the summer heat, our efforts intensify as we vigilantly combat unwanted pests through strategic deployment of beneficial insects, all while meticulously monitoring moisture levels and water controls through probing and deep root feeding. Additional layers of mulch shield the soil from the scorching sun, while regular doses of compost and weekly worm compost foliar sprays provide the nourishment needed to sustain our verdant oasis. California's warm, lingering falls are nothing short of enchanting, casting a golden glow upon our garden and allowing the flowers to bask in one final gorgeous display. It's a time of reward and reflection, where the fruits of our labor are showcased in full bloom. As autumn's embrace gradually tightens, we savor these precious moments, knowing that soon we'll return to the rhythm of working the soil in preparation for winter's arrival, reminding us of the inherent rewards found in the ongoing cycles of growth and renewal.

citrus australasica

(finger Limes)

Finger limes, also known as caviar limes or citrus caviar, are a unique type of citrus fruit native to Australia.Finger limes are elongated, cylindrical fruits resembling small, slender cucumbers or peppers. They have a tangy and slightly acidic flavor similar to other citrus fruits, but with subtle differences depending on the variety. 

Do you use plants medicinally? What is your plant routine?
In our garden, the bounty of nature serves as both sustenance and medicine, providing a tapestry of flavors and healing properties. There's no elixir quite like the freshness of organically grown plants, each leaf and petal brimming with vitality. For me, my daily ritual is a tea ceremony. Infused with fresh squeezed Meyer lemon, the French aroma of verbena, and the golden sweetness of honey sourced from our four thriving bee hives. An abundance of herbs lending their delicate flavors to our culinary creations and a diverse array of mushrooms cultivated with meticulous care. My passion for mycology led me to learn the art of creating the perfect substrate and environment for each mushroom variety to flourish. Oak logs from the garden inoculated with mushroom spores and sealed with our own beeswax, provides a symbiotic relationship between nature and nurture. Every morning, as the sun rises, we gather eggs from our noisy flock of 15 adorable chickens. Fresh microgreens of clover, rye, and barley are grown in our greenhouse providing a delicious treat for them to enjoy as they free range during the day. In our garden, every plant and creature thrives in harmony, offering sustenance for the body and comfort for the soul.

cyathea dealbata

(silver fern)

Cyathea dealbata is a tree fern known for its distinctive silvery-white undersides of the leaves. The fronds are large and arching, typically reaching lengths of 10 to 13 feet. Silver ferns are native to the forests of New Zealand and are often found in damp, shaded areas such as gullies, stream banks, and forest understories. They thrive in humid environments and are commonly associated with native bushland.

iris confusa

(bamboo iris)

Iris confusa, commonly known as the bamboo iris or white-flowered iris, is a species of iris native to China. A perennial herbaceous plant with slender, bamboo-like stems, its foliage consists of long, narrow, lance-shaped leaves that can reach up to 12-24 inches in height. The flowers of Iris confusa are often white or a pale lavender color, which often emerge in spring or early summer. 

“As each garden flourishes within its own ecosystem, a delicate harmony emerges, welcoming a menagerie of critters, from bunnies and birds to foxes and snails.”

What plants are currently in your garden? What’s thriving?
Our home boasts 11 meticulously curated gardens, each brimming with its own distinct charm and loving care. From the vibrant cut flower garden showcasing a dazzling array of 120 dahlia varieties to the tranquil rose garden. An orchard, sometimes I refer to this zone as my garnish garden, hosting 28 bountiful fruit trees. Wander through the serene aloe garden, the enchanting bromeliads with dainty pineapples, and the lively pond teeming with aquatic plants, where Koi fish gracefully mingle with the native frogs and turtles. Directly off the house lies a bustling kitchen potager, yielding a bounty of fresh vegetables, while a nearby butterfly host garden thrives and is adorned with milkweed, salvias, and buddleia plants, providing a sanctuary for our delicate winged creatures. Nestled by the fern garden surrounded by lush greenery our cherished chicken coop thrives. As each garden flourishes within its own ecosystem, a delicate harmony emerges, welcoming a menagerie of critters, from bunnies and birds to foxes and snails. Nature's wisdom guides us as we observe its cues, witnessing and enjoying its symphony.

ananas comosus

(pineapple plant)

Ananas comosus, commonly known as the pineapple plant, is a tropical perennial plant in the Bromeliaceae family, native to South America. The pineapple plant has a rosette growth habit with long, sword-shaped leaves arranged in a spiral formation around a central stem The fruit is typically cylindrical or conical in shape, with a tough, spiky outer rind and sweet, juicy flesh inside.

What are some indicators or ways your plants and flowers communicate to you that it needs something? What are the ways you respond to your garden/ your flowers?
The garden speaks to me through visual, sensory, and ecological cues. While the health of plants is evident through their shape, color, and form, the bustling activity of wildlife further affirms the garden's vitality. I'm attuned to even the subtlest hints from the plants, whether it's a call for meticulous pruning, organic fertilization or attention to the soil's moisture and composition. When adjustments are needed, I turn to the fundamentals, beginning with the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (NPK) balance. Introducing a witch-like curated blend of macro and micronutrients, such as calcium, iron, kelp, seaweed, bat guano, alfalfa meal, and potash. This helps nourish the soil and sustain healthy growth. In our quest for holistic garden care, we utilize everyday items like molasses, banana peels, coffee grounds, and fireplace ash, enriching the soil with essential nutrients and fostering a sustainable cycle of growth and renewal. The plant nursery serves as a sanctuary for ailing plants in need of tender care and close observation. I recognize the importance of nurturing struggling plants back to health. However, I also embrace the notion of timely intervention, readily replacing plants when necessary to maintain the garden's vitality. Additionally, our greenhouse buzzes with a continuous cycle of propagation, ensuring a sustainable and ever-evolving array of plant life

gunnera manicata

(giant rhubarb or dinosaur plant)

This large clump forming perennial is a native of Brazil. The giant leaves have ridges on the back, hence the reference to the dinosaur plant. It dies back on the first frost, but it grows quickly each spring, towering eight to ten feet tall and wide in a few years. Dinosaur plants prefer protected half sun locations with ample moisture.

“I’ve come to understand that, like humans, plants undergo inevitable changes, inviting opportunities for creative expression.”

Describe your garden now and where you envision it in 5 yrs?
Just like humans, a garden embodies constant motion and evolution. When we first purchased this home, I turned to my husband and said, “Give me five years.” My connection to this land is deeply magical and emotional, a bond forged through ongoing restoration and connection with nature. Driven by the desire to create a thriving habitat, I have never slowed down since the day we acquired it. Just when I feel harmony settling in, Mother Nature, in her ever-changing temperaments, offers lessons anew. Last year, the loss of five majestic Oaks to historical rains brought genuine grief, yet through this experience, I’ve come to understand that, like humans, plants too undergo inevitable changes, inviting opportunities for creative expression. Each specimen finds a place here with a name—Penelope the crepe Myrtle, Saké the Japanese maple, Poppy the olive, George the oak and so on. Patience is a key element I am constantly revisiting, reminding me that the first year a new plant sleeps, the second it creeps and the third year it leaps into its flourishing potential. Recently, our curiosity led us to acquire an additional 1.5-acre adjoining dirt lot, fueling our imagination and wanderlust cultivated through adventures to far-flung locations. In this blend of curiosity and creativity, I foresee endless garden dreams taking root.

“Every kitchen scrap finds purpose, whether as sustenance for our chickens, ducks, or worms, embodying our commitment to sustainability and waste reduction.”

howea forsteriana

(kentia palm)

Howea forsteriana or 'Kentia palm', is a species of palm native to Lord Howe Island in Australia. Known for its slender, solitary trunk, this palm can reach heights of up to 33 feet in its natural habitat, although indoor specimens typically remain much smaller. The trunk is topped with a crown of arching, feathery fronds. 

Do you have any garden traditions that you’ve inherited or learned and plan to pass on?
I have been blessed to live, work and study in Europe for nine enriching years. During this time ignited within me was a profound appreciation for the art of composting. In Europe, composting isn't just a practice; it's ingrained in daily life, a sacred ritual of nurturing the earth. This ethos has remained etched in my soul ever since. In our garden, we have crafted six meticulously designed compost systems, each aerated hourly with perforated PVC pipes, seamlessly connected to a fan belt system to ensure optimal oxygenation. To enrich our compost, we incorporate organic horse manure and gather kelp from the ocean, blending a mineral-rich concoction to nourish the soil. At the heart of our composting efforts lies a commercial-sized worm bin, diligently producing nutrient-dense worm castings for our weekly foliar sprays. Every kitchen scrap finds purpose, whether as sustenance for our chickens, ducks, or worms, embodying our commitment to sustainability and waste reduction.

Can you share more about your garden’s regenerative nature? What does biodiversity mean to you?
We are dedicated to nurturing a vibrant sanctuary that pulsates with biodiversity by embracing a 100% organic approach. Our commitment extends to cultivating homemade soil, minimizing unwanted pests naturally, and harnessing the power of beneficial insects to safeguard our diverse garden zones. Each corner of our garden hosts pollinator zones, providing a super highway for insects to flourish. With soil health at the forefront, we invest significant time and effort, crafting our own compost and nutrient-rich worm tea brews to nourish our earth through foliage sprays. By applying mulch biannually, we enhance soil quality and infuse it with essential nutrients, fostering optimal conditions for plant growth. We conduct soil testing quarterly along with meticulous water saturation probing, ensuring a thriving environment for our plants. We have boosted organic matter by an impressive 9%, unlocking the potential to retain a quarter of a million additional gallons of water per acre. These factors enhance the gardens overall resilience against our ever increasing environmental shifts, fostering biodiversity and supporting its evolution into a self-sustaining ecosystem.

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