Fresh Looks : Landscapers Can Help Breathe New Life Into an Old Garden by Blending It With the Living Area


Of course you love your mother. But that doesn’t mean you want to dress like her or decorate your home like hers. You’ve got your own style.

That goes for your garden too. If you inherited your mother’s garden, or one that hasn’t changed since the ‘50s or ‘60s, chances are it just doesn’t feel like yours. And it probably won’t until you take steps to make it your own.

You’re a prime candidate for a garden renovation.

Or perhaps you moved into a typical suburban house in a typical suburban neighborhood when your children were small. Because you were busy raising a family, you never got around to upgrading the basic Bermuda grass and juniper shrub landscaping the previous owners put in. There were always more urgent priorities.


Now your children are grown and gone. You have the time and inclination to nurture a garden that’s more original and ornamental but not the expertise to create it.

You’re an excellent garden renovation candidate too.

Or maybe you depleted most of your landscaping budget on the front yard when you moved into your new tract home. Without funds for a comparable job in the back yard, you decided to install the hardscape--such as the patio area, walkways and deck--and add the vegetation later.

Now, a few years later, when you’re ready to proceed, you realize that putting in hardscape without a total landscaping plan to guide you isn’t such a hot idea, but you can’t bear the expense of ripping it out and starting over.


You could use a good landscape designer to help you make the best of it.

As you’ve probably surmised, these aren’t hypothetical scenarios. They are real situations three homeowners--Ann Thompson, Ann Fanning and John Anguiano--presented to the Rue Group, a Fullerton landscape design and installation firm that specializes in garden renovations.

Eighty percent of the Rue Group’s work involves solving these kinds of problems, its owners say.

“I sort of fell into this niche,” says Kathryn Rue, its president and founder. “People came to me who already had established gardens. Then I got referrals for more garden renovations from people who saw their projects. One thing led to another.


“Where I live may have a lot to do with it too. Fullerton is an older community. We don’t have as many new developments as South County.”

Perhaps. But John Parker, an ornamental horticulture professor at Orange Coast College who has a landscape design practice of his own, thinks there will be a trend toward more garden renovations throughout the county.

“People are beginning to see there is a limit to mobility,” Parker says. “The frenzy for moving up is slowing down, and reality is setting in. When mortgage payments reach a certain point, staying put sounds a lot more attractive.”

When homeowners reach that point, he says, they tend to take a fresh look at their properties and literally dig in and put down new roots.


If you have the money to do it, the most dramatic way to upgrade an older garden is to make the garden a more integral part of your home, Parker says.

“The biggest difference between a house 20 to 30 years old and a new one is in the contrast in their indoor/outdoor relationships,” he says. “New homes tend to have tremendous glass areas facing the garden so you can enjoy it from the inside. And they devote more space to private courtyards and less to lawns. There’s not such a sharp division between indoors and out.”

Ann Thompson’s home in North Tustin makes a good example. It had been her parents’ before it became hers. Although the house, which was built in 1958, was rather unconventional for its time, its front yard--circular driveway, flat dichondra lawn, boxy evergreens, few flowers--definitely was not.

The landscaping was typical for homes built 30 to 40 years ago, according to Rue. “The style then was to frame the house with evergreen foundation plants, put in a few more at the property line, and a green lawn in between. That was about it.”


Nowadays, though, she says, people want more privacy and a different ambience. Thompson got both--in abundance--with her renovation.

“The whole thing started because I wanted a wall to screen off the street,” Thompson said. “I also wanted to make the house feel more like mine, but that was secondary.”

Thompson’s wall isn’t a standard garden-variety wall. It’s an intriguing curvilinear one made of gray stucco set off by glass-brick “windows.” Its handcrafted Oriental-influenced and deliberately off-center gate, made of apitong--a Philippine wood in the mahogany family--makes a striking centerpiece.

Rue also suggested putting in a koi pond.


“My son Ryan’s eyes lit up at that idea,” Thompson said. “He’s always liked watching fish.

“We began with a modest woodsy little pond about the size of a dining-room table but ended up with this very dramatic 40-foot-long pool.”

It’s a body of water large enough to provide habitat for a substantial number of creatures.

“Ryan’s always hanging around the pool,” she says. “It’s like a science class out here. We have frogs, tadpoles, dragonflies, spiders; the fish have babies. It’s great fun.”


A bog garden behind the pool featuring papyrus, umbrella palms, water iris, calla lilies and other moisture-loving plants further softens the wall and helps stabilize the water chemistry.

Another crescent of wall, behind the first, carves out a small private garden for the master bath. From her sunken tub, Thompson can look out on ferns, palms, a Buddha statue and a gently flowing fountain.

Off the master bedroom, Rue added a small wooden deck. And to balance the larger bog garden, she created another, on a much smaller scale, in an old-fashioned footed bathtub.

Thompson’s specifications for the front yard were low maintenance and high color. Rue’s solution was to remove all turf and put in two large free-form planters at different heights. She filled them with an exuberant and fairly water-conserving mixture of ceanothus, sedum, verbena, salvia, ornamental garlic and day lilies. Several treasured hybrid teas originally planted by Thompson’s mother in the back yard were added to the mix.


“Very often customers have plants they are sentimental about that they want to retain,” Rue says, “but sometimes they’re hesitant to say so. They shouldn’t be. We can always find a way to work them into the landscape. Actually I prefer working with clients like that. They make my job more interesting.”

Thompson brought a big budget (nearly $85,000) and a lot of horticultural knowledge to her garden renovation project (she has completed many of UC Irvine’s landscape architecture classes, and she at one time ran a small flower-arranging operation out of her home).

Ann Fanning of Brea, however, brought neither.

She had a limited budget (about $6,000) to work with and little gardening experience.


“I thought all I had to do was hand over my rolled-up pennies and say, ‘Make me a garden,’ ” Fanning says.

“I told Kathryn I wanted an English garden look, but I had no idea what that entailed. I wanted low maintenance too. I found out they were mutually exclusive ideas.

“And I wanted it all done in something like three weeks--in time for my 50th birthday party,” Fanning recalls with a laugh.

Rue began the project with some educating.


“We spent a lot of time tromping through mud in the nurseries,” Fanning says. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

After determining her client’s “plant palette,” Rue worked out a plan that would give Fanning some of the softness and color of an English garden without all the labor.

The narrow brick planters in front of the house stayed, but the boxed junipers in them were replaced by star jasmine plants trained on espaliers to grow flat against the brick walls of the home, creating a much softer look.

A new, larger bedding area was created in front of the original planters, and it was planted with Isotoma fluviatilis , Lysimachia nummularia , Lippia repens and several other ground covers interspersed with some easy-care flowering plants such as dwarf oleander and lily of the Nile. A mini-grove of silver-dollar eucalyptus trees provides vertical interest and a focal point.


“We managed to get a lot of texture, a play of light and shadow, and quite a bit of color into this small space,” Rue says. “It’s more the illusion of than a true cottage garden, but it won’t be nearly as much work.”

Colorful flower beds planted on both sides of the driveway add further interest, and a delicate grove of birch trees in the side yard--retained from the original landscaping--adds a nice counterpoint to the eucalyptus.

Fanning has lived there for 20 years, but it is only in the last few that the place has really begun to feel like hers, she says.

“After my divorce” 10 years ago, she said, “I began redecorating to make the house feel more like mine--especially after I got the opportunity to purchase it two years ago. Then, when I was finished, I wanted the outside to reflect the inside.


“I’m really glad I went ahead with the renovation. The garden is a pleasure to look at when I leave for work in the morning and when I come home again at night. It’s like a gift I gave myself.”

John Anguiano, also of Brea, has no regrets about springing for a garden renovation either--although the project, at $33,000, cost three times more than he had originally intended to spend.

“Most of the additional cost was for decking and an arbor--ideas I hadn’t thought of but liked right away--so I don’t regret the extra expense,” Anguiano says.

Rue added those to give Anguiano more outdoor living space. The house, which has all the most frequently used rooms--family room, dining room, master bedroom--facing the back yard, was ideally structured for that kind of expansion.


“I didn’t really know what I wanted when I started,” Anguiano says. “I’d spent most of my landscaping budget on the front yard when I moved into the house. All I could afford in the back was a lawn and a few trees. And then that was washed away a year and a half later in the flood, and I spent the next five years looking at dirt and weeds.

“All I knew was I wanted something pretty out there for a change.”

Rue designed a sheltered outdoor living area that wraps around one side of the house. It consists of a wooden deck shaded by a camphor tree, a slab where a hot tub or spa will eventually be installed, and a two-tier vine-covered arbor.

On the other side of the property, a decomposed granite walkway traverses a small bridge over a mock dry river bed. It leads to a slate slab deck that has a bench where Anguiano can sit and look upon something scenic.


“I wanted to create the feeling of being in the woods when you’re in the spa,” Rue said, “and also to give more character to the back yard.”

Verbena in a hot pink shade provides the major ground cover for both sides of the walkway, and it also spills out of planter boxes on the side retaining walls. (“I told Kathy I didn’t want anything I had to mow,” Anguiano says.)

Cape honeysuckle and espaliered jasmine soften the retaining walls. A number of fruit and flowering trees add vertical interest.

The citrus trees, like Thompson’s roses, also have a sentimental value. “My father was in the nursery business--mostly citrus,” Anguiano says. “The lemon, orange and avocado trees remind me of him.”


Chances are, if you’ve lived with the same garden for more than five years, it could stand some renovating, Parker of Orange Coast College says.

“Plants are not static things. They grow. And when they grow, they crowd out or shade out something else. So a landscape is in continual evolution. Ideally it ought to be re-evaluated every three to five years.”