Serenity is only a backyard away
Brenda Wehle is appearing on Broadway in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which opened last week at the Biltmore Theatre. John Carroll Lynch is in Vancouver shooting “Traveling,” a film with Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston. .
When the actors complete their out-of-town commitments, they will return home to a different sort of show: their fragrant, joy-inducing garden in the San Fernando Valley.
“It’s a real haven,” Wehle says, from her New York apartment. “When I come home in March, I plan to ‘set a while’ in the garden.”
Her husband, most recently seen as Capt. James Embry in Fox’s “K-Ville,” describes the garden as a “renewing” place. “I often find Los Angeles very isolating,” he says, via cellphone while on location. “As an actor, I get in my little metal box and drive to another little metal box -- a trailer. Most of the time, I’m hanging out in a parking lot. So when I get home and walk out into the garden, it has a beautiful, calming effect.”
Although it occupies barely a quarter of an acre on a Sherman Oaks hillside, the landscape feels expansive, thanks to a design that pleases the senses and captures stunning views.
In 2004, after renovating their one-story, circa-1958 home, the actors knew they wanted a garden compatible with the sun-drenched stucco architecture and their neighborhood’s topography of canyons and hills. They contacted Marilee Kuhlmann of Los Angeles-based Comfort Zones Garden Design and asked: “Could you help us make something beautiful here?” Wehle recalls.
The property’s best feature is a view across the canyon toward Mulholland, visible from most rooms of the house. “That view spoke to us,” she says. “I wanted our garden to disappear into that geography.”
Lynch adds, “Our desire was to honor the piece of land with a garden worthy of it.”
Kuhlmann, who studied landscape design at UCLA Extension after a successful computer sales career, agreed. “We wanted no obvious separation between the garden and the view,” the designer says. In order to seamlessly connect the 8,000-square-foot, pie-shaped lot with vistas of live oaks, native shrubs, mature Italian cypresses, palms and eucalyptus trees, Kuhlmann suggested removing three backyard distractions: a leaky 1960s swimming pool encircled by brick and concrete, a 4-foot-high block wall that spanned the property’s west perimeter and the expansive lawn.
In their place, the new design features a low-profile infinity swimming pool; several informal seating areas connected by Arizona flagstone pathways; and a tapestry of California native perennials and shrubs, graceful ornamental grasses, Mediterranean olive trees and low-maintenance ground covers.
The unsightly, view-interrupting wall has been removed so that when Wehle, Lynch and their guests are in the garden, their eyes are drawn through gold and green textures of stems, leaves and blades, past the undulating edge of the pool, toward the distant hills.
On the rare occasions when they are home together, the couple enjoy a ritual of viewing the sunset from the garden.
“I love the warmth, the light, the air here,” Wehle says. “The sunset is like a living painting, and when the moon comes up, it is reflected in the pool.”
The garden succeeds visually, thanks to the artful grouping of plants. “I like to combine plants that have good foliage texture with ones that have bold leaves. Then I use something soft, like a grass, to unify the design,” Kuhlmann says. This design “recipe” accentuates strong leaf shapes and fine textures alike, ensuring that every plant receives the notice it deserves.
Kuhlmann wanted the new garden to be aesthetically pleasing and functional. For example, she transformed the utilitarian side yard, previously used to store trash and recycling cans, into a quiet entry garden. She relocated the unsightly air-conditioning unit and gas meter to free space to add a cozy outdoor kitchen. A pair of cushioned banquettes provide comfortable seating and lure parties into the garden. “We wanted it to be more than just a barbecue area,” Kuhlmann says. “It’s also the cocktail lounge.”
Climbing plants add a layer of privacy in a neighborhood in which homes are sandwiched close to one another. A white bower vine is trained along the garden wall to fill gaps between shrubs. Grapevines twine around two custom arbors, which span the 9-foot-wide side garden and form the canopy over a small breakfast patio.
Existing raised planters and new terra cotta containers hold slender evergreen shrubs such as lemon-scented tea tree, several types of pittosporum and purple hopseed bush. Kuhlmann’s selection of mostly drought-tolerant plants is a plus for this landscape’s on-the-go owners, although a gardener comes once a week to prune shrubs and train vines, among other projects.
The calming gray-green and plum-colored foliage stands out against the sun-drenched spectrum that Wehle and Lynch chose when renovating the house: light mustard yellow, gold, sage green, silvery gray and terra cotta red.
“I have always wanted to live in northern New Mexico, so I thought I’d bring a little bit of it to me,” Wehle says. “Together, the warm colors and wood trim suggest different areas of the planet -- it’s part California, part Tuscany and part New Mexico. It’s dramatic in color and tone.”
The saturated colors, Mediterranean plantings and coppery-hued flagstone paths inspired Lynch to name the garden Tuscafornia.
Kuhlmann says she realized at one point that “Brenda reminded me of a woman in a Modigliani portrait.”
She and Wehle discussed incorporating hints of the Italian-born painter and sculptor’s work into the landscape.
The idea pleased Wehle, who is fond of a 1911 Modigliani drawing of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet. “My good friend Rebecca Schull is working on a one-person show about Akhmatova,” Wehle says. “To me, this is one of those ‘cosmic winks’ that happened while we created the garden.”
When Wehle opens doors to transform her bathroom into a private, alfresco spa, she observes a pair of terra cotta planters finished with Modigliani-like nudes.
On the opposite side of the house, she looks outside the kitchen window to a metal sculpture inspired by the Akhmatova sketch. Mounted on a small bubbling fountain, the piece is lighted at night. “I’m washing dishes, and she’s out there with her hand resting in the water,” Wehle says of the silhouette cast by the sculpture. “I love the way the light and shadows reflect against the ferns and the green wall.”
Wehle likens the landscape to the female body. “I don’t see squares in nature. I see undulation. I don’t see hard, masculine lines, but I do see soft, feminine ones.”
Similarly, she views the garden as a “transforming” space that nurtures and soothes its occupants. “When people enter the garden, I can actually see their shoulders drop, their eyes widen and then close slowly,” she says. “It’s just a wonderful place to enjoy and share with friends and family. Anywhere we sit in the garden, we look at glorious swaths of plants, out toward the view beyond.” Although she won’t return to Los Angeles for a few months, Wehle says she visits her garden daily.
“I look at pictures on the computer -- and I’m there. And that is very sustaining.”
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Makings of a calming hideaway
To create a seamless connection between the canyon backdrop and the Wehle-Lynch garden, designer Marilee Kuhlmann ( www.ComfortZones-GardenDesign.com) used these techniques:
* Planted perennials where they would repeat nearby foliage colors. For example, the red-orange flowers of California fuchsia echo pink- and copper-streaked blades of adjacent New Zealand flax.
* Used olive trees to unify silver and green-foliage plants in the landscape. Two of her olive favorites: Olea europaea ‘Little Ollie’ (a dwarf variety) and ‘Swan Hill’ (bears no fruit and has little or no pollen).
* Animated the landscape with ornamental grasses of varying heights that rustle in the breeze and make pleasing sounds. Kuhlmann planted several types of reed grasses, sedges and pink muhly.
* Edged walkways with fragrant plants for heightened enjoyment. Their scents perfume the air when brushed by legs or arms. The plants include Australian mint bush, lavender and coastal sagewort. For trees, shrubs, vines and perennials with aromatic blooms: manzanita, strawberry tree and Copper Canyon daisy.
* Placed moisture-loving plants near the outdoor spigots, where extra drips of water will be welcome. A merlot-colored flowering maple (Abutilon ‘Nabob’) drinks up the excess water that’s spilled when the garden hose is turned on and off.