Los Angeles is a restless city, where the evidence of history is forever being scrapped and rebuilt. But there's a longing for roots here, too, which tends to show up, rather fittingly, in our gardens. Despite being ethereal, gardens can suggest a certain vine-clad permanence. They may evoke the mood of an old house or create a past for a new one. In the garden-maker's hands, walls, paths, pools and things that grow can make us feel, despite having just arrived here, that we are home.
Like an ancient count in frayed evening clothes, the house of Naomi Foner and Stephen Gyllenhaal exudes a falling-down splendor--from its viney eaves to its rangy flower beds. While the building, born in Hancock Park in 1918, looks as old as it is, the garden is new, designed by Los Angeles landscape architect Mia Lehrer of Lehrer Architects and B.L.S. Environmental Design. "We wanted everything to look faded, worn, overgrown," says Gyllenhaal, a Pennsylvania-born film director disturbed by the rootlessness of Californians. Foner, a screenwriter and self-described "New Yorker who grew up looking at grass sprouting through a sidewalk," had long yearned to live outdoors and to pick lemons off her own trees while the seasons changed, albeit subtly, around her.
The designers opened the house to the garden with French doors and a vine-wrapped porch. To complement the scale of the house, they planted huge deciduous trees--a native sycamore, willows, liquidambars and corals--in addition to a small fruit orchard. The texture and tone of other plantings softened the structure's hard, gray edges: silver santolina, rosemary, 'Iceberg' roses and lacey Westringia rosmariniformis tangle together along a path to a secluded shade garden. Taking cues from the classically detailed architecture, the designers created a pool with rose-clad wall, trickling fountain and atmospheric water stains Gyllenhaal applied with brown dye.
"A wonderful house teaches you how to look at things," he says, "how to observe every detail." At the same time, Foner adds, "We're not so much careful people as exuberant. We cut the flowers, we eat the fruit, we really live here."
Rooted in Tradition
When New York architect Michael McDonough designed a Westside residence, he used L.A.'s architectural past--the designs of Greene and Greene, Richard Neutra and Irving Gill--as inspiration. Likewise, Katherine Spitz (formerly of Burton & Spitz, now of Katherine Spitz Associates in Marina del Rey) created garden spaces reminiscent of Alta California and the Pasadena Arroyo. Carving landscapes from a small lot, she made a front courtyard with a Mission-style spareness. At its edges are tough inhabitants of desert and chaparral: Ceanothus and sage rise above silver-blue waves of Kleinia mandraliscae. Cacti, yuccas and agaves throw spiky forms against the simple plane of the house.
The back garden explodes with a lusty fullness meant to suggest a Craftsman heritage. A mountain of foliage--more grasses, rockrose and helichrysum--overflows a stone retaining wall into an outdoor dining room. Potted roses crowd against the house. A raised terrace is almost fully enclosed by living walls. Below, like a tiny green jewel, a child-sized pool sparkles beneath a shock of a white bougainvillea. These gardens, Spitz says, embody the Craftsman celebration of wild nature: "tumbling rocks, lush plants, the whole hillside spilling down."
Plants With Patina
A rose that rambles gamely across a city lot for 85 years deserves to be rewarded. For an old Cherokee climber in Brentwood, the prize was a whole garden that landscape architect Pamela Burton (formerly of Burton & Spitz, now of Pamela Burton & Co. of Santa Monica) designed around it. Within the garden's straight stone walls, layered overgrowth speaks of history as eloquently as the rose does. At the center, on a pergola, reclines the Cherokee, its massive three-part trunk below, its crown of blooms visible everywhere in the Italian-style landscape.
Organized as an agrarian retreat within the city--a reverse image of the classic villa garden in the country--this California version divides along the axis of the pergola into two main rooms. One is a kind of crazy orchard, its mix of fruit trees marooned in knee-high clover and nasturtiums. The other is a recessed lawn framed by Santa Rita stone steps and lavish flower borders. While changes in levels on the lawn side make the whole place seem larger, the orchard alludes to the owner's lifelong career in California agriculture.
Elsewhere, in their own discrete courtyards, are all the amenities of outdoor living: a dining terrace, a simple spa, an herb-filled kitchen garden. Unusual plants--such as Chinese tallow trees ( Sapium sebiferum ) and macadamia nuts ( Macadamai ternifolia )--enliven the rooms, and huge oil jars engulfed by Santa Barbara daisies ( Erigeron karvinskianus ) add to an overall mood of timelessness. Throughout the garden, too, are more roses. Splashy hybrid teas bedeck a border, a Belle of Portugal claims a portion of the pergola and a Cecile Brunner climbs a wall. All echo the spirit of the Cherokee, the gutsy briar that started the show.