Nine years ago, Douglas Pierce Hiatt bought a good house with a bad yard in Beverly Hills. Cemented, heavily shaded and squeezed against a lofty hill, the little plot seemed hopeless. But instead of struggling with its faults, Hiatt, an interior designer, learned to work with them.
He disguised an ugly cinder-block retaining wall with vines, a stone grotto and a waterfall. He preserved an old cement patio but gave it character by peeling off some of its paint, adding redwood accents and growing moss around its edges. He became a connoisseur of shade plants--foxglove, gardenia, hydrangea, impatiens--which he grouped in pots along his deck, creating the lushness of flower borders. Just above, on the shaggy hill, he set topiary animals--grazing deer, a fox and hounds--and elsewhere, blooming birdhouses and a topiary tea party. "A lot of little scenes can make a small landscape seem larger," says Hiatt, who has gardened since childhood and traveled widely in Europe visiting gardens.
His vine-clad grotto was inspired by a memory from the South of France: the doorway of an ancient house built into a mountainside. Another French touch is the bit of clipped box hedge that intermittently tops the wall above his patio. "The suggestion of formality--not formality--was all I wanted here," says Hiatt. Rather than carve terraces into the granite-heavy slope, Hiatt planted vinca, plumbago, Santa Barbara daisy and English roses for a rugged effect. When Algerian ivy, a notorious pest, began to creep into the mix, he coaxed it into patterns on his garden walls. Such encroaching greenery makes the landscape seem old and established, an illusion Hiatt encourages by spraying pots with plant food and water to make them mossy.
While moss thrives in his shady glade, some of Hiatt's other garden favorites don't. Primroses failed to bloom enough to justify their keep. Bulbs wouldn't flower in the shadows either. To discover others that would, Hiatt hung around nurseries and experimented. He spent a lot of time outside, looking for the odd sunny spot for potted roses. To animate the darkest corners, he simply added more topiaries of his own design, either planting them with English ivy or stuffing them with moss. Now, though he labors steadily in his garden--clipping, feeding, rearranging his vignettes--the work is nowhere near as arduous as it has been. "My last garden was an acre," he recalls. "After that, with all its flaws, this one is a great relief. A small garden has limitations, but at least it gives you the illusion of control!"