In Praise of Chaparral

Landscape designer Jay Griffith is characteristically blunt about his move to Malibu. The world is falling apart. Civic pride is at an all-time low. Who's to blame? "Every property owner in a county that ignores trash in front of buildings, weeds in alleys and scruffy parkways."

Malibu, on the other hand, has "a responsible, preservationist mind-set." It's also big. Very big. And Griffith, long associated with the stamp-size lots and funky bungalows of Venice, needed a larger palette. "This is a canvas I'll be scribbling on for 20 years," he says of four ocean-view acres with two hilltop homes he has acquired since 1995.

While he still spends weekdays in Venice ("much more diverse and intriguing than sleepy Malibu"), his weekend acreage is ground zero for some new ideas, including a lounging terrace he has built from plywood and hay bales and a "post-nuclear" arbor he's about to make out of galvanized pipe and '60s plastic collectible grapes. "I have 100 plans for designs here," he exults, "from the ridiculous to the sublime. And since I'm my own client, I can pitch the goofiest concepts and I sign off on every one!"

Before he could start the pitching, he had to clear the slate, beginning with the first property he bought, three acres and a rundown '50s ranch house. There he scrapped legions of view-obscuring eucalyptus, pruning the rest into sculpted specimens. He then moved downhill to sweep fennel, castor beans and mustard thickets from a stream bed, preserving only native plants such as baccharis and sage. He renovated the house--demolishing walls, adding windows, letting the outdoors in--and repaired a tack room and stables that smacked of Wild West stage sets.

He'd been at it three years when an adjoining property came up for sale. He bought this smaller house and hill, envisioning it as linked to the original property via a tapestry of plants.

Along with the local mountains and equestrian trails, the cowboy-style stables inspired his plant choices, a mix of succulents and silver-greens akin to natives but without their seasonal fluctuations. Artemisias, sycamores, westringias and agaves are arranged in fluid beds that curve down between the houses, in place of rigid, formal terraces that would have clashed with the setting.

Such clashes, concedes Griffith, are de rigueur in Malibu, where, despite the feeling of community, people sometimes ignore all sense of place. "The attitude is, I want my tropical suburban garden in the middle of the chaparral.

"It doesn't work," he opines.

His own landscape evolved naturally around views, topography and his goals for outdoor life. He planned the pieces as he always does, "by walking around, noticing where I'm moved to stop and sit, where the vantage points are and how I instinctively progress through space." Altogether he has mapped out 60 garden rooms, and with the help of his business partner and landscape contractor, Alfonso Zarraga, roughed out 12 so far. Among them are an ocean-view living room with concrete tables and sofas, and several dining and napping spots. ("I aspire to naps," he confesses.) Still to come is a glass conservatory for carnivorous plants.

"It's all about having a more enjoyable stay in this frail little life. That's all," says Griffith, who enjoys deflating the pretensions of his competitors. "This is fashion. It's not life-altering work. How profound is a frock from Paris?"

Of course he loves his blufftop ranch. But he's also pleased with the award he received from the Malibu Trails Assn., sponsor of riding paths throughout the region. His achievement? "I restored a trail that abuts my land, without being asked." He grins and shrugs as if embarrassed at having blown his own horn. Then he remembers his earlier rant. "It was nothing," he says, grinning. "Just an example of someone carrying out his civic duty."

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