Landscape designer Jay Griffith believes in reinvention — in life and in the garden. “I love recycling,” he said, referring to his preference for rescued plants, reclaimed concrete, repurposed lumber and castoffs from commercial sites, all of which compose the mixed-media installation that he calls his studio garden.
His gardens for clients are often hidden behind fences or security gates. But the grounds at his studio, 717 California Ave. in Venice, are visitor-friendly, showcasing classic Southern California plants and an ever-changing stage for ideas on outdoor living.
The triangular parcel is large by Venice standards: 8,000 square feet, 90 feet at its broadest point and 200 feet long. When he purchased the lot in the early 1990s, it came with a 1945 bungalow, one fig tree and one lemon tree.
“I stripped that building down to the absolute essence,” Griffith said. “Everything else was added in bits and pieces. It has served as my proving ground for all kinds of different notions, like a giant chemistry set. I get to play and experiment here.”
Griffith recently spoke with L.A. at Home about the seven key design features and how they could be emulated and translated by DIYers at home:
1. Piano-key fence
Griffith used to have “a funky chain-link fence” along the California Avenue side of his lot. “When it was time for a fresh look, I created a recycled fence with pieces of wood,” he said. Arranged like the white and black keys of a piano, the weathered pickets and posts form a rhythmic pattern. Depending on the play of light and shadow, it can look different throughout the day. “My hommage to my hippy days back when I was growing up in Topanga Canyon,” Griffith said. “It’s a slicker version than what you would have seen in 1967.”
2. Fountain turned planter
Anyone familiar with the Los Angeles restaurant scene of the 1950s and ’60s may remember the Kelbo’s Hawaiian barbecue chain. When the Pico Avenue location closed, Griffith bought its oversized outdoor water fountain. The pedestal and saucer are now a dramatic focal element of the studio garden, reincarnated as a beautiful succulent planter. “It’s like a big chalice,” Griffith said. Planted with a mass of the upright red pencil tree (a cultivar of Euphorbia tirucallicalled Sticks on Fire) and cascading clumps of copper-tone stonecrop (Sedum nussbaumerianum), the piece gives the illusion of spraying and spilling water.
3. Raised and sunken garden
Griffith’s landscape takes on new proportion thanks to changes in elevation. “I dug out a sunken garden, patterned after the sunken garden at Great Dixter in the U.K.,” he said, referring to the estate about 60 miles southeast of London. “Then I built up a platform in the background where there’s a petite shack, also called the ‘Parthenon.’” Griffith, who can see this scene from his desk, called it a make-believe landscape. “In all, there’s 3 feet of elevation play. Elevation says ‘drama.’ It creates depth of field and a focal point.”
4. Flexible paving
For the patio and sunken garden, Griffith used precast concrete pavers set in sand. “That’s how the Romans laid out their streets,” he said. “I like being able to change my mind, and this way, everything can be recycled later.” Here and there, a paver is missing, and in its place you’ll see an aloe plant or a small agave. “I’ve created ruins and delightful dilapidation; I love the rustic with a beautiful patina.”
5. Vintage garden art
A time-worn Aladdin lamp sign, sans the neon lights, sits in front of a massive stand of Phormium tenax. Griffith said he first saw the piece “driving down the street on the back of someone’s truck.” Intrigued, he jumped in his car and chased down the driver. “The guy told me this was from the old Aladdin casino in Las Vegas and he wanted $300 for it. I said, ‘Bring it over to my house.’”
6. Outdoor fireplace
A concrete wall and timbers form a free-standing shade structure, one with room-like proportions. The wall provides enclosure and serves as the fireplace flue. “During the day, it is a thermal mass that captures heat; at night, you build a fire and — shazam — the wall radiates that heat across the whole patio,” Griffith said. He credits childhood trips to Yosemite National Park for the idea. “It comes from Camp Curry, where the campgrounds had corner fireplaces. I remember two intersecting walls that formed four campgrounds. When you built your fire next to that inside corner, the warmth radiated off the wall.” The “mantel” is a slab of recycled driveway. Here, Griffith displays his cherished collection of colored wine and champagne bottles. “When you put 30 ordinary things together, you have a collection. I like everything that’s outsized.”
7. Pipe-and-bamboo pergola
Over a small patio made with a checkerboard of recycled driveway concrete, a swooping length of bamboo fencing provides cover from the sun. It is supported by a pared-down frame, 10 by 20 feet, constructed with French scaffolding — “the most beautiful scaffolding you can imagine,” Griffith said. “I had to custom order the pipes and brackets.” Upright pipes are secured with poured-in-place concrete footings. Knot-like brackets connect each vertical pipe with an intersecting horizontal one. Griffith said a good hardware store would probably have a similar type of fitting. It just wouldn’t be made in France.