Paint isn’t usually found in a garden-maker’s toolbox, but it should be--particularly in the small urban spaces of Southern California. Flowers, furniture and garden ornaments are often seen against blank walls instead of lush trees and shrubs, so painting these surfaces can help blend house and garden into a harmonious whole. In the three gardens shown here, lawns gave way to plants that are thrifty with water, but that was almost coincidental. The main objective was to create--using a little paint, a little paving and a rich palette of plants--gardens that look right in our dry and sunny climate.


Like a drab cocoon, Cheryl Lerner’s Hancock Park house once was painted barracks beige and floated in a sea of suffering lawn. Four years ago, it emerged a glorious butterfly, splashed with nine different colors and surrounded by a stunning garden.

L.A. architect Brian Tichenor began the metamorphosis by painting the Italianate house Mediterranean red, ocher and green, and laying out paths and patios. Lerner, starting her career as a garden designer, choreographed the yellow, gold and orange plantings. Having lived in Italy, she had Portofino and its brightly painted houses and gray-green landscapes in mind.


Together, owner and architect tackled the small back yard where previous residents tried to grow a lawn in water-logged soil. Terra-cotta-colored concrete and a fanciful outdoor fireplace turned the space into a cozy garden room, where walls are hung with vines and potted plants.

The side yard, an old driveway closed off from the street by a massive gate, became another room. Cracked concrete was visually softened with earth-colored chemical stains and, along pathways, combined with mosaics of Italian tile that simulate puddles. Lerner covered all four walls with antique and modern varieties of climbing roses, lightly shading one corner with a blue palo verde ( Cercidium floridum ).

In front, two gardens enjoy privacy behind a hedge of misty gray Pittosporum crassifolium , a row of lavender and a still-lower line of Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’. Rambunctious Mermaid roses climb the red wall in both spaces. An olive and several buddleias in large urns shade one garden, while the other is simply a path through a mix of perennials, herbs and small shrubs. Everything grows with abbondanza , the Italian word Lerner uses to describe the chaotic but cheerful abundance.



Venice landscape designer Barry Campion encountered a handsome Mediterranean-style house encircled by an unlikely lawn, but in this case, the back yard featured a charming old fountain that looked as if it had been plucked from a Spanish courtyard. While house and fountain complemented each other nicely, the surburban carpet looked out of place.

To remedy the situation for the new owners (who had recently remodeled and repainted the Santa Monica house), Campion repaired and re-tiled the fountain and gave it a proper setting with slabs of sandstone and decomposed granite paths. The decomposed granite suits the clay color of the house, but Campion chose it for another reason: She could plant through it. What often happens naturally in older gardens--seeds sprouting in unplanned places--Campion made sure of. Tucked here and there, even growing under a garden bench, her sun-loving plants take the shine off the garden so that it doesn’t seem so new next to the gracious old residence. Did the sunroses, salvias, thyme, snow-in-summer and Swan River daisies from Australia seed themselves, or were they planted? It’s hard to tell.

To make the most of a good thing, Campion framed the fountain with a pergola that stretches along the back of the property. A massive affair, it was built to hold its own against the two-story house. Stuccoed pillars were painted the same shade as the building to tie the two together. In summer, climbing roses provide much-appreciated shade; in winter, they are bare to let in the warming sun.

Now the sparkle and splash of water are seen and heard amid rich-hued paint, neutral paving and dry-weather plants, in a setting where all of the details are in keeping with the home’s Old World character.



Photographer Mike Chesser had already borrowed colors from his 1950s Los Feliz house and, with paint roller in hand, transformed his concrete-block garden walls from a liability into an asset. Then Sierra Madre landscape designer Roy Wiskar, with an astonishing assortment of plants, turned the garden itself into a horticultural gold mine.

Australian kangaroo paws ( Anigozanthus ‘Bush Gem’) and New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax ‘Maori Sunrise’) echo some of the burnt orange walls. The gold walls silhouette the flaming orange flowers of lion’s tail ( Leonotis ) and red-hot poker (Kniphofia ) and the lipstick-red blooms of the misnamed California fuchsia (which is very un fuchsia-like in that it loves heat and drought). And the house’s subtle shade of green is repeated in the olive leaves of elaeagnus and Eucalyptus nicholii , which rings the landscape with peppermint-scented foliage.

Wiskar calls this a “walkabout garden” but not because there are so many Australian trees and shrubs. Steppingstones lead everywhere, covering a good deal of the ground. Between the pavers, blue fescue, lamb’s ears and thyme soften the trek and perfume the air.


The goal of all this planting was to screen a swimming pool from view and create the illusion of a larger back yard. Most of the surrounding concrete was trucked out, leaving just enough for two sitting areas. Plants were layered between house and pool--a drift of chest-high perennials and shrubs, then a path, then another windrow of plants and another path. So while the pool may still be the ultimate destination, there is much to entertain the eye while getting there.