Charity's an expensive business. The Rockefellers gave balls, the Kennedys auctioned their gowns, Bob Geldof made albums. Photographer Erica Lennard had never owned a mansion in Newport or made a 10 best dressed list, and her singing voice probably couldn't fill a karaoke club. But when she was approached by a Ghana-based charity, she had an idea about how to raise funds for what is becoming a generation of children orphaned by AIDS in Africa: a garden tour.
Last year, Lennard published the Rizzoli book "Secret Gardens of Hollywood." It featured 27 homes of various creative types, from A-list to Anti-list. As she became involved with organizers from Orphanage Africa and two other charities — African Solutions to African Problems and the African Millennium Foundation — she persuaded eight of the Hollywood homeowners to reopen their gardens, this time for a cause.
The theme would be the quirky originality behind the gardens, from a pearl-studded terrace in the Hollywood Hills to Maui in the Valley in Sherman Oaks. To sweeten the pot, organizers added an auction. Art dealer Ana Roth donated a ladder from Mali and a week at a cottage in Tipperary. Southern California's leading authority on native and ornamental grasses, John Greenlee, donated a garden consultation. Fashion designer Kevan Hall donated a dress and cashmere stole. Add to this a week in the Sierra, four days at a Tucson spa, a Hollywood Bowl circle box, a week in Oaxaca, Mexico and so on.
As the schedule developed, the tour became a two-day affair, a Saturday auction at Roth's, then a garden tour proper the next day. Given her collection of African art, Roth's house in the higgledy-piggledy hills above Sunset is the perfect site for the auction — almost. There is no parking. "We'll have to have valet," she says.
Still, it is the ideal location to begin the tour. Give up your car keys, climb up the stairs of the 1927 hillside villa, and you emerge into the archetypal Hollywood garden: a wooded well. Geography defines these enclaves. On one side is the back of the house, on the other an ascending hillside, and the garden is carved out of the captured space in between.
Natch, there's a pool, a stand of Mexican fan palms, an avocado, ashes, the usual good green fill. What's striking is how Roth has pruned so discreetly that the space feels like a clearing in a forest, then how she has furnished that captured spot. Working with interior designer Nicky Nichols, she created a rustic pergola off the house and covered it with a thick blanket of bougainvillea. To define the patio from one big pool edge, she used a couple of well-chosen props: good Italian pots and a carved wooden bench from Mali. The upshot is a river's edge quality. You half expect a boat to pass by.
Roth's magic is the way her gardening style affects our moods. Up a set of stairs to a second garden, an Empire-style table is disappearing among vines in a secluded grotto, like a fragment from a colonial past left to the jungle. This garden isn't a show of plantsmanship, but a succession of enclaves fashioned with grace, wit and a wisp of melancholy.
The day after Roth's tea and auction, the emphasis will veer, sharply, to garden design and plantsmanship. Here the quality is surprising. Lennard laughs, remembering the skepticism Rizzoli executives first expressed when she said she wanted to do the book about Hollywood gardens. "The publisher in New York said, 'L.A. gardens are just decoration in front of the house,' " she says. "But I said, 'You don't understand. These people are obsessed with their gardens.' I only took people who were."
She does not exaggerate. Jewelry designer Laura Morton is so dedicated, she has developed a parallel career as a garden designer.
Her lot is a good case study for anyone working out a garden plan for a Southern California hillside home. Confronted with a whitewashed modern building, a pool that dominates almost all of the garden, a dry climate and light so bright it could reflect to Athens and back, Morton decided on a Mediterranean scheme.
There is a classical axis around the pool, which she plays on by putting a fire element (a gas-fire pit) at one end, and a water element (a fountain) at the other. She softens the hard rectangular lines with romantic planting.
Yes, there are lavenders and buddleias and succulents, but tour slowly, in fact, bring a notebook to make a specimen list. There is the rare Persian damask rose, prized for the rosiest of all rose scents, Rose de Rescht. There is a particularly graceful rosemary with an arching habit and pink flowers, 'Majorca pink.' There are geraniums that smell like apples, poet's jasmine and a stunning maroon Rosa glauca.
Around the side of the house is an experiment in Asian gardening, where her color scheme turns intense, to earthy shades. "It's my 'purple-black' garden," she says.
Adorning what was basically a clean, modern space inspired playful touches. The pearl by the pool wasn't dropped by a predecessor — Morton embedded it into the concrete fill around the flagstones, along with shells, crystals and nice little finds.
Summed up, Morton manages a neat trick with a largely accessible plan. The planting is lush enough, and rich enough in nectar and butterfly plants that the hummingbirds and swallowtails are happy. Her dogs like the damp earth of the Asian garden. Above all, this is a garden for people, for barbecues, for pool parties, for the California good life.
If Morton went for a Mediterranean look, journalist Jamie Wolf opted for an English one. The garden surrounding her "Normandy"-style timbered mansion in Beverly Hills is a flower garden rarely seen outside of china patterns and storybooks. There are 400 rosebushes, she guesses, inter-mixed with salvias, guara, dahlias, lavender, even purple kale left to bolt. The roses don't stop in the beds running throughout the front and rear gardens. Behind the pool house and along one service entrance, there is what she calls "the farm:" pot after pot of more rosebushes, hundreds, kept for the blooms, which she cuts and takes to a laundry room that has been converted to a florist's workshop.
Wolf is a self-confessed scent nut. "If it doesn't smell, it's not for me," she says. More is more — with abandon that would shock a perfumer. Using a well-drained slope that won't kill the salvia, a pungent Cleveland sage is underplanted along side the Austin rose 'Queen Nefertiti.' This is like after-shave and perfume in the same hedge, and it works.
As you tour flower garden to secret garden to patio garden to orchard to cutting garden, the sensuousness of it all gives way to incredulity. How does she manage? "It takes a fair bit of maintenance," Wolf admits. This turns out to mean three full-time gardeners, or "the garden team."
A public park should have such staff. If you can't make all the houses on the tour, make this one. The roses are not only immaculately tended, but are in the fall flush of bloom. Again, bring a notebook. The roses are well-tagged, making Wolf's garden a living rose catalog.
At the hilltop garden of Erin Lareau, character is plot. Lareau is a TV costume designer, and her garden is about Hollywood glamour. The property has sweeping views of Nichols Canyon clear to downtown Los Angeles, and on clear days, to the ocean. To create the winding paths that led toward the horizon, instead of using gravel, Lareau used colored glass blushing from sea green to sky blue to dark blue.
Even the statuary is glitzy. Where most gardeners opt for a concrete angel, Lareau puts sequined sculptures like a sparkly headless mannequin, "Miss Diva Thing." The porch is draped with what looks like chiffon bunting. "I'm not afraid of unique," she says.
Take Laurel Canyon into the Valley, and the large Spanish-style home of TV producer Marilyn Wilson and composer Scooter Pietsch, and the theme changes again, this time to one of suburban bliss, Hawaiian-style. Their garden, dominated by bamboo, a court of palms (queen, king and royal), a thick swath of lawn, is unabashedly about the good life, backyard as country club, summer. Pietsch ran lanterns throughout the tree boughs, to make it work as a nighttime garden.
"I gotta tell you," he says, "the thing about the Valley, it doesn't cool down at night. So we can be out here until 10, 11 o'clock."
There is a pool long enough to swim a lap in, a bar big enough for a luau, replete with Hawaiian mural and thatching, and a welcoming dining area around the house. The only problem, he says, is the bar is a bit close to the pool, and people fall in at parties. "It depends how long they spent at the bar," Wilson says.
Pietsch's studio is at the far end of the garden, making his workplace like a holiday resort. For Wilson, the garden is the first place she heads when she comes home from work. Thinking back to the early stages when they called in the designer, they remember the insecurity as they pointed to a banana leaf and said they liked the colors. Today, it's telling that they use terms of pleasure rather than aesthetics to describe their feelings about it.
If auctioning cashmere stoles and displaying deluxe gardens in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks seem like an odd way to fight poverty in Africa, it's lean and ingenious by comparison to most power galas. An extension course would likely cost more and provide less practical know-how about planting and landscaping than this tour. And what other event would allow you to discuss the merits of gravel over decomposed granite and bid on three nights at an Arizona spa?
The tea, preview and auction at Ana Roth's house is from 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 18; the seven-garden tour is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 19. Admission for both is $125. Tickets available online at African Millennium Foundation, http://www.africanmillennium.org , or by phone at (310) 289-9005.