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STYLE: GARDENS : Together At Last

Hillside homes often don’t relate, or even physically connect, to their gardens--a problem Mali Whaley remembers well. “We had to jump off the deck to get to the garden. It was a good four-foot drop,” she recalls. So even before they bought furniture for their newly purchased Altadena home, Whaley and her husband, John, brought in Los Angeles landscape designer Chris Rosmini to build a series of broad steps, patios and terraces, and add plantings appropriate on a hillside.

To bring together house and garden, Rosmini replaced a barrier of deck railings with low benches and installed steps that lead down to the first of several terraces. This upper terrace, paved with adobe-like blocks, provides ample room for entertaining. “There was a steep little patch of lawn here, but it was useless,” Whaley says, “You couldn’t even put a table and chairs on it. They’d tip over.” Now the area comfortably handles parties of 20 or more.

A free-form ornamental pool eases the transition from tall deck to terrace. From the deck, visitors look down into the pool; at terrace level, they can perch on its edge and feed the goldfish. This duality of views exists everywhere in the garden, which was designed to be walked through and gazed upon from rooms that tower two stories above.

Graceful grasses, such as sweet vernal grass ( Anthoxanthum adoratum ) and blue moor grass ( Sesleria caerulea ), form a meadow on the next level, probably the closest thing to a lawn ever planted by Rosmini, who prefers handsome foliage or flowers to grass. In most gardens, lawn guides strollers, but here and in other Rosmini gardens, paths do the job, lined on all sides with a fascinating variety of Mediterranean plants.

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Sturdy wood bridges are there for a purpose, not affectations. The house sits at the base of a small canyon and torrents of water used to run through a sandbagged ditch every time it rained. To channel the water more aesthetically, Rosmini designed a rock-filled streambed, dry most of the year but like a real stream in winter, to carry runoff to a storm drain at the far end of the property. While still quite new, it handled the deluge of 1993 and, more recently, the torrents of water from this winter’s first storm.

Not bad for a garden that guests once assumed belonged to the neighbors.


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