Among the playful elements in Newmar’s garden, a sculptural gecko that she says is “sipping water from a stone container that the neighbor cat also likes to visit.”(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
In a career that has stretched lithely across seven decades, Julie Newmar, the early blooming classical pianist and dancer who grew up to be TV’s first feloniously feline Catwoman, has earned a Tony Award for her first speaking role on Broadway and received two U.S. patents for pantyhose and brassiere designs. But on Sunday, as guests prowl through her florid Brentwood grounds during the Garden Conservancy’s Los Angeles Open Day tour, Newmar will receive accolades that are much closer to her heart.
“Being part of this tour is the Oscar of all garden shows,” she says. “I live in paradise, and everyday I get to experience the ecstasy and choreography of nature. It is nonstop art, and I am happy to share it.”
It is an encore for Newmar, who opened her garden to visitors in 2011 for the nationwide program, which includes tours of four other Los Angeles properties.
“I’ve been told that my garden is one of the most popular because it’s the most personal,” says Newmar, who has spent the last 30 years cultivating the grounds that surround her 2,000-square-foot bungalow. Shrouded by fruit trees and towering Australian ferns — a soft and feathery alternative to palms — the garden is a touchstone that connects the men in her life.
“When I lived on Clayton Avenue in Los Angeles, my father built our house and gardens, and that was the place I was happiest as a little girl,” she explains. In turn, she says, she has fashioned her yard as a magical place for her handicapped son, John, who is now 34. “It’s always the child that you have in mind,” says Newmar, who added four secret gardens and touches such as prehistoric stones, modern sculpture, a mirrored “Alice in Wonderland” gate and whimsical animal figurines, including a rubber snake wrapped around a tree trunk. “It is really for his enjoyment. And for me, it is a powerful place of healing, resolution and renewal.”
It is also a master class in creative and accessible design. “Julie’s garden is passionate yet wonderfully inviting, with an abundance of texture and color,” says acclaimed landscape architect Joseph Marek, the Los Angeles regional representative of the Garden Conservancy. “Visitors can see how much garden you can pack into a smaller space.”
Indeed, in less than 1/4 acre, Newmar has built a small arboretum with trees including Japanese butterfly maple, olive, lemon, loquat, silk floss, filbert, weeping cherry, apple and jacaranda, along with azalea, jasmine and blueberry bushes. In shadier spots, she raises hellebores, philodendron, rabbit’s foot ferns, bromeliads and orchids. Newmar’s garden beds contain nearly 100 rose bushes, about 80 types of begonia and numerous day lilies—including varieties of all three flowers that are named for her--and scores of cutting flowers including delphinium, foxglove lilies, snapdragons, hydrangea and irises, all bordered with colorful annuals such as coleus and pansies.
On a recent visit, Newmar offered a walk-through of her gardens. In the frontyard, there’s a who’s who of celebrity-named rose bushes: Marilyn Monroe, Betty White, Julia Child and Oprah Winfrey. Newmar’s driveway is dotted with potted irises, her most recent floral obsession.
“Did you know that the perfume extracted from the iris is the most expensive in the world?” she asks. “They take your breath away.”
Passing through her modest abode — “To me, small house, big garden sums it up,” she says — the backyard is accessed through a home office. In contrast to the Anglo-Franco frontyard, the back has more of a Mediterranean and South Seas vibe, with staghorn ferns growing on a massive olive tree and stands of bird of paradise, ginger and variegated Tasmanian Devil euphorbia. Amid such exuberant exotica, there are more manicured touches: boxwood hedges that serve as a backdrop for the flowers that line a brick pathway and include the begonia Julie Newmar, a 2010 best new hybrid award-winning variety created by California grower Paul Tsamtsis.
Such a lush garden is not necessarily drought-insensitive, notes Bradley James Bontems, Newmar’s landscape designer for 11 years. “You can do more things with less water than you think. We use a special drip system and redwood mulch and give them a heavy watering of eight to nine minutes on Monday and two to three minutes on Wednesday, and then eight to nine minutes on Friday.”
For Newmar, author of the 2011 book “The Conscious Catwoman Explains Life on Earth,” the garden is central to her existence. “Whenever I have any problems, I can go into the garden and things come into focus,” the 81-year-old says. “I observe nature re-creating itself. What you learn is that everything is timing.”
Los Angeles Open Day
What: A Garden Conservancy tour of Julie Newmar’s gardens and four other L.A. properties.
Where: Maps and tickets at the Grow Native Nursery inside the Veterans Garden, 100 Davis Ave., West L.A.
When: Tickets sold 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. May 3
Cost: $7 for individual gardens or $21 for a five-ticket booklet for conservancy members and $35 a booklet for non-members.