Keeping It Simple

It's not hard to overdo a garden. "Too many things going on in a small area produces a restless quality which will leave the onlooker dissatisfied," wrote landscape architect Thomas Church in his classic 1955 book, "Gardens Are for People." A preeminent gardener of mid-century California, Church presented an alternative to overkill, what he called "a green oasis." The new garden was understated and intended to complement a small-scale, postwar house whose functions spilled outdoors and whose busy owners wanted to go out and enjoy it, not slave to keep it up. Like the gardens pictured on these pages--designed recently for mid-century Southern California homes--Church's gardens were low-key and low-maintenance. Rather than featuring a slew of plants, they showcased only a few.

Simplicity was one of Church's fundamentals. "Landscaping is not a complex and difficult art to be practiced only by high priests," he wrote. This approach works even if your architecture is more elaborate. Before you hit the nursery, ask yourself, what's the point of the space you're shaping? Is it for sitting or strolling? Is it a view garden for a room or a setting for a pool? When it comes to plants, keep it simple. Play with contrasting tones and textures, but if you want peace, don't clutter. Remember Church's oasis, where "fewer and simpler lines" create a rest for the eye and a clear connection to the house. Three Los Angeles landscape designers follow Church's lead.

Two and a half years ago, set decorator and designer Lauri Gaffin bought and renovated her first house, a 1951 structure built by modernist A. Quincy Jones. Perched in a Brentwood canyon, it had a distant, woodsy view, but up close it faced dirt and cracked cement. The living room features floor-to-ceiling glass with the sliding doors of an airy porch, so Gaffin wanted a terrace that would enhance the indoor-outdoor feel. "I imagined walking out to a quiet place to just relax," she says, "and I wanted to look out and see a painting. I didn't have a lot to spend and I'm very busy, but I needed entertaining space and peaceful plantings that wouldn't take much tending."

The designers she hired, Jay Griffith and Russ Cletta of Venice-based Griffith and Cletta, let the house dictate the garden's forms, repeating its horizontal lines in practical concrete carpets that maximize the usable space. They planted the terrace with soft, silvery greens including lavender, helichrysum and grasses. "Lauri and I went to the nursery and chose lots of plants," Cletta says. "But we narrowed the palette to just a few. If the garden were too busy, it would detract from the strength and drama of the building."

To add elements of richness, he and Griffith planted the seams of the concrete paving with succulent sedums. Beside a space Gaffin uses for outdoor dining, they introduced a single round pot of burgundy aeoniums and repeated the color in the cushions of her benches. They also used similar plants, leaf shapes and foliage tones in other beds around the house to link the garden spots and tie the house more firmly to its setting.

Gaffin says the garden's maintenance is "mostly light pruning, cutting back the helichrysum and, once a year, the grasses. I don't do much except enjoy it. I watch the leaves flutter, I hear them rustle. It makes me feel alive."

Furniture designer Kathy Guild lived in a 1949 house for the same reason: "The simple, clean aesthetic helps me think straight," she says. She appreciates the order, the matching lines, the idea behind modernism--"that the quality of design affects the quality of your life."

Designed by JR Davidson, her simple, low-slung Los Feliz house, with its flat roof and generous windows, doesn't so much face the garden as inhabit it. Its living room, which is in the back of the house, a modernist innovation, is oriented toward a swimming pool edged with lawn and trees. When she arrived in 1994, her primary task was to simplify the landscape to suit the house. The former owner, a gardener with eclectic tastes, had filled the borders around the lawn with clivias, camellias, bluebells, spider plants and broom. There was a messy powder-puff hedge along the pool, and poolside trees were a "fruit salad," Guild says. "I couldn't bring myself to rip it all out. I had cost considerations, especially concerning trees. But I felt the ghost of the former owner too. She loved her plants so much."

With the help of Los Feliz garden designer Sarah Munster, Guild pared away certain elements--the broom and powder puff, some rangy yuccas--and thinned out the bluebells and camellias. She relocated clivias and added shade-tolerant abutilons. "And Sarah convinced me that, given the linear forms of the house, we needed some rounder, softer shapes and plants that move and catch light," Guild says.

Munster also suggested streamlining the pool edge by extending the lawn, which initially flanked two sides, to wrap around a third side under the backdrop of trees. To add drama and movement to the scene, she added ornamental grasses and rosette-shaped agaves.

When Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, bought his Santa Monica house in 1997, its most dramatic garden element was a neighbor's tree, an old Canary Island palm. "She had planned to cut it down. I convinced her to keep it, and she kindly agreed when I promised to maintain it," says Whalen, who sees its fronds wave from the windows in his living room. The tree required some kind of foreground to set it off, as the 1950 house sat on a virtually blank lot.

"What can we do here?" he asked a friend, Myva Newman, who heads the landscape department at Tichenor & Thorp Architects in Beverly Hills.

To Newman, who was just as smitten by the tree but more experienced with gardens, Whalen's dirt patch had promise. "It was not only the view from the living room and his outdoor dining terrace, but the corner itself has a small ocean view," she says. "It just needed definition--a frame, a shape and a way to walk through it." Given Whalen's plain, blocky house, she adds, the garden couldn't be fussy. Nor could it demand much maintenance, since his job often takes him out of town. Fortunately, he and Newman share a list of favorite blue-gray drought-tolerant plants that thrive with little care.

Newman layered these plants like watercolor washes against the crisp wall of a freshly sheared Eugenia that bordered the property. Tall echiums--which raise purple bloom spikes in March--went in a line along the back, nearest the hedge. Smoky lavenders were next, and in the front, setting off a new stepping-stone path, went flowerlike Agave attenuatas, whose splayed shapes echo the splayed palm.

Woolly thyme, fragrant underfoot, floods around the walk, and iris blooms at its edges. California poppies volunteer in spring. "At first, we over planted," Newman admits. "We went back and took out salvias and sedum, which undercut the graphic impact from a distance."

Three times a year, gardeners help Whalen shape the hedge, cut back shrubs and thin his neighbor's palm. Otherwise, if he's home on weekends, he's got his clippers out, "fine-tuning," as he walks his path, enjoying the ocean and the tree.

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Resource Guide

GARDENS, Pages 24-29: Griffith and Cletta, Venice, (310) 399-4727; Sarah Munster, Los Feliz, (323) 663-4609; Myva Newman, Tichenor & Thorp Architects, Beverly Hills, (310) 358-8444.

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