A barren back yard is remade with a fresh desert vibe

Share via

When Amnon and Frances Yariv decided to downsize from an elaborate 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival home, they found the perfect spot. The new house was nearby so they could stay in the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena, and its pared-down Midcentury Modern aesthetic was in sync with their desire to simplify. The only snag was the withered front lawn and barren back yard.

Fortunately for the Yarivs, their daughter Gabriela, a landscape designer, was able to envision a new garden that would do justice to the clean lines of William Blurock’s 1960s architecture.

“The minute I saw the back yard’s original latticework fence painted that really cool green, I knew this had the potential to be a gorgeous space,” Gabriela recalls.


Gabriela had designed her parents’ previous garden, a property with a dreamy reflecting pond, terraces and roses. This time around, she turned to a sleek 1940s Palm Springs bachelor pad for inspiration. It was created by architect Albert Frey for industrial designer Raymond Loewy, whose credits include the iconic Coca-Cola bottle and TWA, Shell and Exxon logos. She was particularly dazzled by the back yard, which was anchored to the desert by towering cactus and palm trees and by boulders built right into the pool coping.

The back yard of her parents’ new home, on the other hand, was a disaster. “It was essentially a pool embedded in concrete,” says Amnon, a professor at Caltech.

Careful to preserve the latticework fence and a patio wall of Frank Lloyd Wright-esque textile blocks, Gabriela began the makeover by demolishing an oversize kidney-shaped pool and deck. Some of the footings for the perimeter garden walls were also jackhammered and reinforced to make way for 12- to 15-foot Washingtonia palms, which had to be craned in.

The kidney-shaped pool and deck were demolished to make way for a smaller pool and Washingtonia palms, which had to be craned in.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Then she designed a smaller free-form pool, hand-picking granite boulders at Sunburst Decorative Rock in Irwindale before having them lifted into place so that they jut out from the new deck.

“I had to plan where everything would go ahead of time because hiring a crane was so expensive,” she says.


Against the white garden walls, Gabriela introduced slender lemaireocereus cactus between the palms to establish a bold vertical rhythm. Below those, she punctuated ground-hugging succulents from California Cactus Center in Pasadena with more rocks along the paths and edge of the pool.

The soil was mulched with pea gravel here as well as out front, where a concrete driveway replaced asphalt and drought-tolerant agaves, euphorbias and Jerusalem thorn trees replaced the turf.

“I loved the color of the paint on the latticework and the house trim so much that I designed the plant palette around it,” Gabriela says.

To that olive green, she added gray and a pale celadon green, combining variegated Agave lophantha, Kalanchoe beharensis ‘Oak Leaf’ and flower-shaped Sedum clavatum with more commonplace ponytail palms, aloes and dudleyas. Drip irrigation got the plants started; these days only occasional hand watering is necessary.

Landscape designer Gabriela Yariv loved the color of the paint on the latticework and the patio trim so much that she designed the plant palette in the front yard around it.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

While the same gray-green hues appear in the ceramic tiles lining the pool, Gabriela deployed ‘California Gold’ and ‘Orange King’ bougainvilleas as accents that tie the garden to the interior decor.


Among the finishing touches were an airy Kenneth Cobonpue patio sofa and chairs from Janus et Cie, which helped transform a once-unattractive environment into a private resort. “It’s such a small space, but it feels like an oasis,” she says.

Her parents second that opinion.

Says Amnon: “The patio and garden have become an extension of the living room. Now we like to read and nap outside.”

Get the look

To achieve the look she wanted, landscape designer Gabriela Yariv—her website is—relied on two of her go-to resources:

California Cactus Center: “They grow the majority of their own cactus and succulents and have the widest variety,” Yariv says. “They really are the best, absolute experts who know their botany.” 216 S. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 795-2788.

Sunburst Decorative Rock: “I got Del Rio gravel and boulders here, but they also have a good selection of other materials.” It’s ... one of the best places on the East Side and well-priced.” 282 Live Oak Ave., Irwindale. (626) 230-7535.