Walking through a Montecito oak woodland, it is quiet and birds are serenading. The woodland floor is piled high with oak leaves and the coral bells are in bloom, their delicate flowers like tiny bells on long graceful stems. Begonias, heavy with bloom, spill over the soft earth. Pathways bend and turn revealing an old swing in one corner and a shady sitting area in another, places for contemplation or afternoon tea. Meandering through this woodland garden is a creek bed far below, a bit battered from the winter rains, native plants clinging to rocks along its edge. Toward the mountains, a riot of color looms ahead. Turning a corner, roses of every imaginable color stretch toward the sun. Large blooms, damp from the morning dew, reach for the welcome warmth. Planted amongst these roses breeds of alyssum, thyme, rosemary, scented geraniums, sages and succulents tumble over native stone. This is Melinda Mars’s garden.

The design for the garden has evolved over the past 25 years with help from Raymond Sodomka, Rosendo Valencia, Kathy Kristler, Dani Hahn and Randy Wilson. Melinda said the design relies heavily on “the wisdom, eye and expertise” of her gardener, Pablo Martinez.

The Mars house, a Monterey Colonial, was built in 1954; however, the back part of the house dates back to 1917 and was the stable keeper’s quarters for the estate across the creek. The proximity of the creek and its inhabitants inspired the name Canto De Las Ranas, which means “Frog’s Song.” Throughout the garden are large sculptures created by Melinda’s husband, Dean, a former Montecito Journal columnist and a celebrated artist whose sculptures are in private collections throughout the world. The combination of Melinda’s garden and Dean’s sculpture make the Mars home worthy of any garden tour.

Melinda’s garden has what we call a “vibe,” a communication on the aesthetic wavelength. It is art. It communicates whatever emotion or message the creator was intending to communicate: enthusiasm, joy, serenity, etc. You know it when you see it; a garden either has a “vibe” or it doesn’t.

Which is not to say that “vibe” cannot be described in words. What makes Melinda’s garden special is that the motif of a “woodland garden” is consistent throughout her garden. In nature certain plants go together naturally because they thrive in similar environments.

For example, there are plants that do well in acidic soil and those that thrive in an alkaline soil. Water, amount of shade or sun, the type of soil, all these things work together to create the environment that the plant needs. If this is violated, the plants don't do well.

Because oak leaves litter its ground, a woodland has a certain environment. In an oak woodland the soil tends to be more acidic, it is shady and as a result a bit cooler. So, the plants she chose are ones that like the oak woodland environment. Coral bells, ferns and begonias all like this kind of soil and general environment.

In the sunny areas she has plants that like the sun: roses, lavender, ceanothus, succulents and rockrose.

Another point is that the plantings are consistent with the design of the house. Because it is an old carriage house, the garden needed to be comfortable, not structured or modern. If Melinda had planted fountain grasses and New Zealand Flax it would have looked out of place.

Another important point is that Melinda’s gardener, Pablo Martinez, is not raking, allowing the leaves to remain in the beds, which creates mulch, which the plants need. Martinez is part of the reason the garden is so great; he is a gardener, which believe it or not is difficult to find in this town.

But also, Melinda is a gardener and she knows how to guide Martinez and can spot things that need to be done. Besides the deft choice in plants and combination thereof, the garden has a lot of Melinda in it.