Grow Outdoor Design’s modern native garden


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When Scott Lenz and Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz walk from the driveway to their front door, it’s through a silvery-green sea of California native shrubs and gently swaying grasses. They feel the soft crunch of gravel and decomposed granite underfoot and the dappled shade from a Mediterranean olive tree overhead. A low L-shaped concrete wall doubles as a bench. Wide steps and a shaded seating area span the front of the house.

For the L.A. couple, pictured above, the garden represents their definition of a modern garden: California native plants and other low-water selections, a clean-lined aesthetic, outdoor living areas and a strong connection to the neighborhood beyond. Rather than hiding this inviting landscape behind a tall hedge or fortress-like wall, the couple and their two children treat it as a friendly space where they can interact with others in the Beverly Grove area.


“We feel committed to our neighborhood,” said Gilberg-Lenz, a physician who moved into the 1920s Spanish-style bungalow 14 years ago when she and her husband, a documentary writer and producer, were expecting their first child. “Every time a young family walks by with a stroller and asks about a plant, we’re making a connection.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Grow Outdoor Design’s modern native garden

In 2006, Gilberg-Lenz and her husband decided to renovate rather than move. Their goal was to modernize the home using green building practices while keeping its original footprint.

“We wanted to maximize our living spaces — indoors and outdoors,” Gilberg-Lenz said.

Adrian Koffka and Cynthia Phakos of Koffka/Phakos Design, a Los Angeles architecture firm, redesigned the 1,600-square-foot residence with sustainable features such as passive cooling and shading devices and photovoltaic panels. The once-chopped-up floor plan now flows effortlessly. Natural light floods through skylights; expansive sliding doors allow dining and entertaining areas to continue outdoors. “I feel like I’m no longer blocked off from the outside, physically or psychologically,” Gilberg-Lenz said.

Aging red tiles were replaced with a contemporary metal roof after a new second-story master bedroom suite and balcony added 800 square feet of living space. Once the exterior was refreshed in a putty-gray stucco, Koffka and Phakos proposed painting the front door a vibrant yellow-green. The owners saw a sample of the acid hue and wanted it on all the doors and windows, Koffka said.

“It wakes things up a bit,” he said.

The soft gray and bright yellow-green palette is a fine foil for the new landscape, which was designed by Joel Lichtenwalter and Ryan Gates of Los Angeles-based Grow Outdoor Design. Filled with mostly native trees, shrubs and grasses, as well as a few Mediterranean plantings well suited for dry Southern California, the entry garden has its color and texture arranged in blocks, rows and swaths, a nod to the lines of the contemporary architecture.


The designers used L-shapes throughout the garden, including the bench, walkways and planting beds. The overall effect is to suggest a front courtyard where a cafe table and chairs are often placed beneath the olive tree. The project encompassed other parts of the 6,250-square-foot lot, transforming an unused portion of the driveway into a raised kitchen garden and creating a kids’ play space (including a small lawn) behind the home.

Gates said her clients aren’t purists, just people who wanted to be responsible about water use. Installed three years ago, the native plants are well established, and what little irrigation they require comes from a drip system. Equally important to the plant palette was the garden’s connection to the street.

“This garden encourages dialogue,” Lichtenwalter said. “People stop by, point to the strawberry tree and ask: ‘What is this?’” The answer is an arbutus hybrid called Marina, a gorgeous Mediterranean tree with cinnamon-colored bark and strawberry-like fruit.

Plantings begin at the curb, where a 3-foot-wide, lawn-free strip contains a spreading form of native California lilac (the ceanothus Yankee Point) that can handle gentle foot traffic, a California sycamore and self-sowing California poppies that bloom in springtime.

Pedestrians and dog-walkers catch glimpses of the interior garden through tall masses of small cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum) from South Africa, and slender tan blades of native deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) planted in irregular groupings for impact. Shimmery rows of the native wild rye called Canyon Prince follow the course of square concrete pavers to the front door.

Lichtenwalter and Gates also created a boardwalk path that sits at grade, not elevated. It’s made of composite decking that won’t rot when in contact with wet soil.


“Even though walking from the car to the house is something mundane that you do every day, the experience of crossing this boardwalk and moving through the grasses is a way to breathe and feel briefly removed from the pace of the city,” Lichtenwalter said.

On the other side of the front walk, a low, mounded berm creates an informal boundary between private and public worlds. It is planted with two varieties of manzanita (Howard McMinn and Emerald Carpet), shrubs whose handsome chocolate-colored bark and red fruit make them interesting even when they’re not in flower.

“These are sculptural plants that have the same type of branching as the strawberry tree,” Lichtenwalter said.

Outside an arched living room window, saved from the original bungalow, a semiformal outdoor living area has a gravel “carpet” surrounded by architectural agaves. A Western redbud, a deep plum-colored deciduous tree, will grow to be a focal point.

“This is a very contemporary house inside, but it also has a heritage and a history,” Gates said. “Similarly, in the garden, we wanted to have a nice blend between California history (with the native plants) and what’s new and hip (with the lines and materials).”

The clients didn’t set out to be models of lawn-free living out front, but what they have done has been emulated by several neighbors, Lichtenwalter said. “Our greatest compliment is to see someone else on this street taking out their lawn and putting in a more California-friendly garden.’



California native plants and their Mediterranean companions used in this garden:

Ceanothus griseus horizontalis Yankee Point
Cercis occidentalis (Western redbud)
Arctostaphylos (manzanita) Howard McMinn
Arctostaphylos Emerald Carpet
Leymus condensatus (wild rye) Canyon Prince
Muhlenbergia rigens
Platanus racemosa (California sycamore)
Carpenteria californica (bush anemone)
Eschscholzia californica (California poppy)
Juncus patens (gray rush)
Sisyrinchium montanum (blue eyed grass)

Arbutus Marina
Agave bracteosa
Leucadendron Safari Sunset
Agave vilmroniana
Olea europaea (olive tree)
Chondropetalum tectorum (small cape rush)

-- Debra Prinzing


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