Monday, May 10, 2010
How the other half gardens
To a gardener, any kind of garden is wonderful and satisfying, even just a simple cottage plot nurtured in an urban back yard, or a collection of plastic flowerpots on a fire escape.
But let's face it, we've all wondered just what we could accomplish if we had more resources to dedicate to our gardens. What would we do, we wonder, with unlimited means? What if we had the good luck to own a magnificent property, hire a designer, or engage a talented and devoted gardener to help us? What wonders could we create?
I recently got a chance to see some gardens that inspired me to imagine exactly such a dream. The Garden Conservancy is a national organization founded to preserve important American gardens. Its Open Days program - where some of the country's finest private gardens are opened for public viewing - is an important fundraising effort but also an important educational effort. There's nothing more inspiring than seeing outstanding examples of garden design and horticultural expertise.
This spring, seven Los Angeles gardens were opened for public viewing. The gardens were all located in the Hancock Park area of town - an historic neighborhood developed by wealthy oil men during the 1920s. Today, it is still an affluent area, with elegant, Spanish and Tudor revival homes on its broad avenues lined with colonnades of palm trees.
The first garden on the tour was the official residence of the Mayor of Los Angeles, known as Getty House. A magnificent Tudor-style home, Getty House serves mainly a ceremonial role, since the current and last several mayors have decided to stay in their own homes. Its garden was recently remodeled, with special events in mind. Its sunken garden surrounds a pool with a fountain.
A central lawn is bordered by rose gardens, and shielded from the street by concrete walls. The space within is intended for use as event space, large enough to pitch a tent for large banquets.
The next two gardens we visited were across the street from one another, and although the houses and lawns looked similar, the gardens in back were quite different.
Garden one, behind this magnificent 1913 Italianate house, was simply crammed with beauty - and I mean crammed. The drive that rose up alongside the house bordered by roses and large terra-cotta pots planted with hydrangea and mulched with crushed blue glass that glittered in the noon sun. Off the drive, a narrow opening in a hedge revealed a small but tightly planted clipped boxwood parterre garden before the french doors of a small guest house. Beyond the boxwood, a broad patio beneath the main house is set with comfortable seats and collection of container-grown succulents. A swimming pool with classic fountain, a tucked-away cutting garden, and a vine-shaded porch to the guest house all share the space here - it's beautiful, abundant, and claustrophobic.
It all seemed an exercise in conspicuous consumption I felt as though I were in some super deluxe garden center touring a series of sales displays meant to tempt a buyer. Beautiful, stunning, perfect, but overwhelming.
To reach garden number two, you walked beneath the porte-cochere attached to a red-brick Georgian home, then took a shady pathway past gracious porches. These, too, were furnished with comfy couches and chairs, but with a sense of spaciousness. They viewed a central lawn with a small circular pool. Tall trees overhung the space, and the plantings were shade-lovers like acanthus, hydrangea, ferns and hellebores.
Here too, were a pool and a guest house - the pool tucked behind a hedge, a quartet of comfy wicker chaises ranged on the pavement. On the east the guest house faced a small cottage garden planted with herbs, annuals, and vegetables, a large earthenware jar served as a central fountain. The cottage was swathed in climbing roses and petria volubus, a wonderful evergreen vine with blue flowers.
The garden host was present to chat with, and it was clear that she was a knowledgeable gardener and plantswoman.
Here Phygelius x rectus 'Moonraker' contrasts with a dusky violet Salvia van houtii .
The third garden was several blocks to the east, in a part of the neighborhood that mixed old gracious homes with more modest homes from the '40s and some ubiquitous L.A. stucco apartment houses.
This garden, called "Villa Abbondanza" by its owner for its exuberant assortment of plants, is nonetheless a low-maintenance, low water-use garden of succulents, agaves, aloes, and Mediterranean plants. The entire yard is paved or pebbled. An ancient guava tree in the front yard stands by a gate festooned with bright 'Joseph's Coat' roses.
Here a palo verde tree blooms in a gold-hued inner courtyard. In the backyard, a guest apartment is built above a garage. The two-story wall of the structure is hung with vintage plant hangers filled with succulents. The entire courtyard erupts with color - purple-cushioned couches, red and yellow vintage chairs, red-leaved plum trees whose leaves filter the sun like brilliant-hued stained glass.
Containers planted with citrus and flowering trees do double-duty, sheltering leaf lettuce and culinary herbs beneath their leaves.
This garden has the creative stamp of its owner - it was one of our favorites on the tour.
We took a quick break for some lunch, and then on to the final three gardens. Garden number four was designed to showcase beautiful foliage, not flowers. Tall, magnificent cardoons - an artichoke relative - rose spikingly into the sky. A small pond drew visitors between two large euphorbia, the strong globular form of the plant contrasted with spiky-leaved specimens beyond.
An elegant raised terrace by the house provided a view of the garden from above. At the back of the property, a tiny garden house offered an elegant and restful retreat.
Garden number five was a stunner - a historic home designed in 1921 by a noted Los Angeles architect, this magnificent Tuscan-style villa is hidden behind tall hedges that shelter a huge formal rose garden. An empty graveled front yard belies the abundance that lies behind the house. While I am not fond of "rose gardens" in principle, this one knocked me out due both to the scale of the effort and the quality of the plantings and maintenance. This is the rose garden all other rose gardens aspire to.
Clipped privet hedges enclose the rose beds - we were told by a docent that the hedges dated from the original 1921 garden. The house itself was painted a warm, pinky-earthen color, seen below past the lap pool surrounded by more roses.
My favorite part of this garden was a small shaded arbor off the eastern edge of the house. Steps lead down from a Moorish themed loggia, with an inviting cushioned couch, to a brick-paved space with a trickling fountain. Columns hold an arbor festooned with a climbing rose, and frame, beyond it, an antique Moroccan tile plaque. With its silvery pink, fully double blossoms, the rose is so strongly scented its perfume fills the air.
Garden number six was a classic French-style parterre garden. This garden is historic, designed by A.E. Hansen in the 1920s, and restored today to its original splendor. Its cool green serenity was the perfect closure to a day of viewing.
These gardens represent the ultimate in modern American residential garden design, here in a city where affluence is common and wealth is flaunted. They show us what can be done when money is no barrier to desire. What can you take away from touring such places if your own circumstances are so different? One can marvel or envy, but it's hard for the do-it-yourself gardener to imagine such wonders in one's own backyard.
Some of these gardens are simply extensions of their expertly designed and decorated houses - places to entertain, places to impress, places swept and cleaned and kept sparkling by expert staff. You get the sense that the owners wanted "the best", much as they might want the best car or best kitchen countertops.
Yet some of these gardens - opulent as they are - are obviously the creations of love, enthusiasm, and hard work by their devoted owners. Although you know that you live in different worlds, it's easy to think that you share something in common with these gardeners - even if it's only your enthusiasm for the elegant green annual nicotiana langsdorfii. These gardens can inspire more modest takes - I'm totally going for the colorful glass chip mulch, if I can find it anywhere. My outdoor seating areas are furnished with resin chairs from Ralphs and battered, fraying ten-year-old wicker from Pier One - but looking at the pictures I can get some ideas how to make it comfortable and welcoming. And that climbing pink rose? I'm on the lookout for that.
If you'd like to see more photos of three of these gardens, check out the Los Angeles Times' slide show about the Garden Conservancy tour.