LA Times: Special Issue: Fall Gardening
Marco Barrantes made his mom’s dream yard come true with Rancho La Loma, a vineyard and plant idyll.
Most parents have to beg or bribe their offspring to work in the garden, but not Pasadena resident Robin Stever. Upon returning home one day, she discovered her son Marco Barrantes cutting down trees and digging up their frontyard. For years Stever had dreamed about owning a vineyard and, lo and behold, her son had decided to act.
That surprise effort, begun in 2003 during Barrantes' summer break from his landscape architecture and urban planning studies at UC Berkeley, was his first step in transforming the nondescript 1-acre property into Rancho La Loma, a romantically rough-around-the-edges homestead that evokes early California, complete with a vineyard, orchard, vegetable garden and chickens.
Barrantes learned to drive a Bobcat and graded some of the lot himself. With several helpers and friend Nick Tan, now of Urban Organics Landscape Design in L.A., Barrantes took two summers to build for his mom an impressive series of retaining walls, using broken concrete scavenged from a nearby road resurfacing job and local building projects. The walls were dry-stacked, meaning no cement or rebar was used. Barrantes, who learned by trial and error and from books, estimates that he and his crew constructed more than 1,000 feet of wall. Stever jokes that her son, who is part Peruvian, was building his Machu Picchu.
What had been a steep slope "with a very ordinary, very ugly lawn," she says, became a terraced vineyard with more than 70 Zinfandel vines. Planted in 2005, the grapes grow from 7-foot-tall trellises that catch the breezes and make grapes easier to eat off the vine, Barrantes says.
"We knew the grapes would grow well here in this climate," he says.
He had the area's history as a guide too: A small lake across the street had been the site of the former San Rafael Winery, established in 1875.
Barrantes says the grapevines get by mostly on rainwater diverted by downspouts to the terraced slope; strategically placed drip irrigation rarely gets pressed into use. Rancho La Loma vineyard had its first crush in 2008 with the help of a grandfatherly Italian acquaintance who made wine the old-fashioned way with hand-operated equipment. Aged for six months in glass 5-gallon drums, that first crush produced 100 gallons of wine, which Barrantes describes as "young and fruity, a great sangria mix." Says his mom: "It's not very good, but Marco likes it."
Over seven years he has continued to work on his parents' suburban rancho, plowing the profits from his sustainable landscape design firm, La Loma Development Co., into the project. Stever says she and Barrantes' father, Ricardo, let him have creative license to use the property as his canvas. Though hard-core low-water gardeners may not agree with every plant choice, Rancho La Loma does present a vision of how drought-tolerant selections can be incorporated into an eclectic landscape.
Barrantes added an assortment of native, Mediterranean and other drought-tolerant plants, as well as edibles. Runaway zucchini vines curl around a neighboring agave, and blueberry bushes edge pathways. A desert garden, filled with beavertail cactus, blue aloe and aeonium, plays host to pomegranate trees. Otherworldly-looking artichoke plants, with spiky purple blossoms and jagged-edge silvery leaves, self-seed and pop up randomly under the grape trellises. Says Stever, "I'm not a boxwood kind of person."
Tile drain pipes from the 1930s, which Barrantes found while digging at his own home nearby, were repurposed as planters for strawberries, chard, eggplant, lettuce and peppers. Rocks were dragged into place to create a small waterfall and ponds, edged by a tangle of nasturtium, alstroemeria, mint and rosemary. A dry arroyo, designed as a visual extension of the ponds, is used to carry the runoff to the rancho's latest addition, an orchard planted with plum, cherimoya, guava, nectarine and apple trees.
For Stever, Rancho La Loma is all about wish-fulfillment. She says simply: "I'm very happy in it."
For her son, its evolution has been "life changing," he says. What started as a small-scale attempt at self-sufficiency has set the direction for his career and business. But perhaps just important to Barrantes, a fifth-generation Pasadenan, is a sense of history and heritage. With an eye to the future, he says, "I'll see my grandchildren here one day."