How a Hollywood set decorator channeled movie magic into her Altadena garden
When Peggy Casey first saw the 1972 film “Silent Running,” a science-fiction tale in which all plant life on Earth is extinct, it left an impression that still resonates.
“I saw the film when I was a little girl, and it imprinted forever the preciousness of all living things,” Casey says. “I’ve always had a garden. I’ve never lived without one.”
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said Casey was the set decorator on “Batman Returns.” Casey was the art department coordinator. Cheryl Carasik was the set decorator.
As a set decorator for film and television shows such as “Parenthood” and “About a Boy,” Casey relies on her keen design instincts; the same goes for her Altadena garden.
When Casey and husband Erik Hillard bought the 1950 Norwood & Delonge-designed home four years ago, the sprawling property — just shy of ¾ acre — consisted of lawn, ivy and 16-foot-tall hedges.
The couple transformed the grounds slowly, removing the lawn in parcels and replacing it with mulch and new plants. “I’m really big on mulch,” Casey says. “I use a lot of my tree trimmings, which I chop in a wood chipper. Just like in ‘Fargo,’” she adds with a laugh.
Today, the backyard is a lush retreat composed of several gardens and outdoor lounge areas complemented by a beehive, a chicken coop and an 8-by-10-foot chicken run. “It’s like the Taj Mahal for chickens,” Hillard says.
Separate work spaces — a garden shed for her and a small dwelling for home brewing and mountain bike maintenance for him — also entice the couple outdoors. The couple assembled each shed off-site with recycled materials from the Habitat for Humanity store, and then had a crane drop them on the property fully assembled.
The gardens circle the house and add a softness to the clean lines of the cabin-like Midcentury home. “I just planted what I loved,” Casey says.
The grounds are jam-packed with colorful plants and flowers of all shapes and sizes, including California and Australian natives, neat rows of edibles, culinary herbs, pretty ornamentals, unusual drought-tolerant grevilleas, traditional white David Austin roses, hardy succulents and tall Pride of Madeira to attract bees, butterflies and birds. Casey also planted native California milkweed to attract monarch butterfly caterpillars and buffalo grass for her four rabbits.
“She doesn’t have green thumbs,” Hillard says with a laugh. “She has green arms.”
Casey grew up in Santa Barbara, where she learned to garden from her father, who grew his own food. Inspired by her dad, Casey is growing D’anjou pears, eggplant and Swiss chard, red celery, heirloom tomatoes and peppers, bicolored corn, cucumbers and fennel this season. Last year she let pumpkins overtake the backyard. Another year she even managed to grow French cantaloupe, a feat that was initially met with skepticism at her local nursery. “The guys at the nursery laughed at me because our Altadena soil is so difficult,” she explains.
There are no rules or conventional gardening strategies when it comes to plant selection, but Casey does like to keep a fixed color palette of orange, red, yellow and white. “You want to repeat color themes,” she says. “Big swaths of color make you look like a pro.” She spot-waters twice a week and prunes constantly. “It’s like giving yourself a really good haircut,” she says.
Peggy Casey’s screen gems
Peggy Casey, a film and TV set decorator and gardener, shares her favorite garden sets from the big screen:
Vegetable/raised-bed gardens: “It’s Complicated” (2009), “Practical Magic” (1998)
European gardens: “Being There” (1979), “A Room With a View” (1985), “Under the Tuscan Sun,” (2003), “Greenfingers” (2000)
Outer space garden: “Silent Running” (1972)