Gardening in the Land of Good and Evil

Los Angeles Times

“This is what a gardener drives in Los Angeles in the ‘90s,” Jay Griffith is saying.

If you’re picturing a black Mercedes convertible, any model, you’re close enough. Griffith is about to step into the chariot that was bankrolled by his talent for bringing the outdoors in, and the indoors out. He’s the guy who enchanted magazine editors everywhere 17 years ago when he hung a crystal chandelier in his garden as a “lollapalooza of a Christmas ornament.” His fanciful eye has made him the landscape designer of choice for Hollywood heavyweights like Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as artist Alexis Smith and a petition’s worth of his Venice neighbors.

And now we are going to see what Griffith hath wrought south of California Avenue, between Lincoln Boulevard and the ocean. We sail by fences topped by exotic tangles of palms and tree ferns. Behind a blue door stands a Griffith-ized tableau out of any slick design magazine--an outdoor stage edged by Greek-style urns, agave and Japanese iris. Above it hangs an aluminum curtain and luscious pink bougainvillea.

The garden is what the guy who dreamed up the Taco Bell Chihuahua did with his money. What happens on that stage?


“It’s a stage set for life--tragedy, comedy,” he says.

And more important, dinner parties. Because Griffith is, in a sense, the quintessential Angeleno. The son of a studio lighting director, he’s the first Griffith boy in three generations not to work in the movie industry. Instead, he takes that great California resource--the ebullient outdoors--and does for gardens what Hollywood does for life.

And Saturday, there’s a special Griffith production. He planted the seeds for the fifth annual “Secret Gardens of Venice” walking tour benefiting the Las Doradas Children’s Center. Twenty private homes and gardens, most of them Griffith-ized, will be open to the public, including the house with the stage.

“I love to be able to walk around my neighborhood and say, ‘You know I planted that tree. I did that house there.’ I did the dog park, some of the parking lots. We did the designs for that pro bono. It’s like the Garden District in New Orleans or in Savannah.”

Griffith is also landscaping Brad Pitt’s Craftsman home beneath the Hollywood sign. Because Japanese design influenced the home’s architecture, he’s planning a garden that’s Japanese in flavor..

“Everything is done in asymmetry. There are practically no flowers in the garden. Everything is done in the colors of foliage. It’s pretty cool. Brad has extremely sophisticated taste. He’s not into cars. He’s not into chasing skirts. But he’s really into his house and his garden and his art collection.”

If only there were more Brad Pitts out there. And not just for you girls.”Some of the clients are so unbelievably demanding. Our clients eat people alive daily.”


But aren’t gardens, by definition, pastoral?

“Dear, we’re in Hollywood. People here are, ‘I want it beautiful and I want it yesterday. OK?’ People come here from all over the place, and they really want to appear like they’ve arrived. They buy silly houses and drive silly cars and hire silly people and I’m just one of the ridiculous people in their lives.”

Or not. One big television producer gave Griffith the boot after he balked at the producer’s plans to destroy much of his garden by building a garish, 2,000-square-foot entrance hall onto an already baronial French Normandy country house.

“I said, ‘You need to go at this with a buffing brush, not with a bulldozer. You need to step lightly on this very beautiful house.’ I’m a little too outspoken for some of the biggest names. They say, ‘Who is this clown? Get him off the set.’ ”

For tour information, call Mikki Jones at (310) 390-6641.