Come morning, western scrub-jays, mourning doves and ruby-throated hummingbirds gather in the cypress and podocarpus trees surrounding Kathleen Spiegelman's serene hilltop garden, waiting for her to pour birdseed into a fruit basket-shaped cement finial. If she's late, one particularly plucky sparrow pecks at the kitchen window--or, if the back door has been left ajar, flies in and out of the kitchen as if to ask, "Hey, where's breakfast?"
"It's my favorite time of day," says the designer, owner of K. Spiegelman Interiors, a West Hollywood showroom for fine European country furnishings. "I like to sit and drink my cappuccino and watch the birds before I run off to my crazy day--for 10 minutes I pretend I'm in Italy."
Her intimate patio, and the fragrant tumble of rosemary, Mexican sage and purple lantana that fills the hillside beyond, reflect a decade's worth of summer pilgrimages to Italian Renaissance gardens and homes--Villa I Tatti outside Florence and Turin's Villa d'Aglie.
Spiegelman wanted to complement her Hollywood Hills villa with garden elements she loved: stone balustrades and patinated statuary, a trickling fountain, faux topiary and clipped hedges. Only one problem: Her solid concrete patio was part of the home's foundation and anchored the 26-foot retaining walls that loom behind her three-story home. The imposing walls created a cavernlike space--hardly welcoming ground for the flowers and greenery she envisioned.
Unperturbed, she covered the patio with white pearl pebbles that crunch underfoot, then placed long, narrow pots of 4-foot-tall eugenia around the L-shaped perimeter to form a green wainscot. To transform the cinder-block walls into an old-world backdrop, she layered on several coats of plaster and gesso, then hand-ragged a mixture of raw umber and sienna paint, followed by a coat of wax. To solve the vexing--and common--problem of making the walls an organic part of the garden, Spiegelman planted pink jasmine that would trail down the patinated finish from the hillside above. She and longtime gardener Andres Nicolas attached the jasmine, a natural climber, to a wire grid they stretched over the walls. The result is a descending tapestry of vines, with scented pinkish-white blossoms that appear off and on from January to August.
She added a small fountain framed by an antique wrought-iron gate in the center of one wall to create a focal point for the patio garden; nearby stands an armillary sphere, an ancient astrological device. Forming a lush backdrop for her Italianate wrought-iron furnishings are sago palms, white flowering nemesia, geraniums, rosemary, boxwood and citrus--all planted in terra cotta and stone pots (more than 100 of them) in varying sizes. Steep steps at the end of the patio lead up to the next level, where Mexican sage grows through a new cement balustrade and plays host to numerous bees and hummingbirds that dart among its waving purple arms.
The air drifting down from the hillside is spiced with scents of the sage and rosemary that have taken off with abandon since she planted them there five years ago. Along with the lemon and orange trees, they create a heady cocktail of Mediterranean fragrances. "If I close my eyes and take a deep breath," Spiegelman says, "I'd swear I'm in Tuscany."
IN BLOOM: For a gallery of photographs of Kathleen Spiegelman's patio and garden, go to latimes.com/magazine.