A tiny garden full of color

Share via

As a color-packed accent to a 1905 Craftsman bungalow, the front yard of Lisa Little and Phil Brennan’s Chartreuse House is an example of how much great design can occur in a tiny patch of soil.

Before choosing a zesty palette of drought- and salt-tolerant plantings, designer Stephanie Bartron of SB Garden Design in Los Angeles had to address some of the less visible challenges. Prior owners had piled layers of topsoil over the sandy native soil, creating a drainage mess.

“I needed to lower the grade of the front yard in order to move water away from the house,” Bartron said. “We calculated the volume of soil to excavate and used that amount to fill two raised planters. That way we didn’t have to haul away any material.”


Divided by a permeable walkway of concrete tile, the planters are formed by boxes of thick steel plating that has been roughed up to encourage rusting. Now weathered, the boxed beds replicate the Corten steel used to make the vertical planter in the home’s courtyard. The same weathered steel forms a slender raised planter at the base of the charcoal fence facing the street. It is filled with a ribbon of golden oregano and a type of Sedum rupestre called Angelina, both of which dazzle against the darker fencing.

Bartron asked the metal fabricator to cut wave-shaped details along the top of the larger planting box. In it she installed a sedge meadow, a nod to the nearby beach. Privacy screening comes from a hedge of weeping Mexican bamboo and alternating chartreuse- and yellow-flowering kangaroo paws.

“The plants create a punch of color in such a small space,” Bartron says.

The lacy bamboo fronds, the tall kangaroo paw stalks and the undulating drifts of sedge are constantly moving, thanks to the ocean breezes. Little added a eucalyptus tree to the front, situated so that it will eventually grow high enough to screen the house’s topmost windows.

For the smaller of the two planter boxes, Barton paired dramatic clumps of smooth agave (Agave attenuata), known for growing well near the ocean, with Mexican feather grasses, the dark purple Aeonium arboreum Zwartkop and yellow- and green-variegated New Zealand flaxes. The entire bed is under-planted with more chartreuse sedum. It’s a diminutive landscape that causes visitors to slow down and look while approaching the front door.

The garden has many sustainable features, including low-maintenance plantings and permeable surfaces that absorb rainwater and reduce runoff to the ocean. Yet the garden’s is ultimately a response to the architecture, Barton said. “This is such an artsy, whimsical place, and I see the garden as a colorful jewel box for Lisa and Phil to enjoy.”