Altadena garden thrives with diverse palette


Convinced that they could save an aging 1925 Spanish Colonial Revival and tame its landscape, Robin Colman and Cheryl Bode bought an Altadena house and spent the next decade returning it to its historical roots.

“It feels like you’re taking a step out of the hustle and bustle of city life,” Colman says of the community, set in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

For help with their 3/4 -acre grounds, Bode and Colman turned to Altadena landscape designer Thomas Batcheller Cox. The couple didn’t consider themselves gardeners, but they knew the overgrown and debris-strewn yard needed to be redesigned.


“We had no idea what we were taking on,” Colman says. “We love it now, but we didn’t come in with our eyes wide open.”

For Bode, who retired in 2004 from a career in healthcare administration, the move has transformed her into a plant lover who enjoys collaborating with Cox and landscape contractor Tim Foster of Chaparral Landscaping. She scours local nurseries for just the right flowering azaleas and rose cultivars. She rattles off botanical names like a horticulturist and tends tomatoes, strawberries and beans in the sunny kitchen garden.

The restored residence has a deep, covered veranda that overlooks a strolling lawn, several outdoor dining areas and a formal pond.

“We wanted it to look as if everything belonged here and was built by craftspeople from the 1920s,” Bode says.

A walled rose garden was planted in an area once covered in asphalt. A gate built from turned spindles (echoing the home’s original window trim) provides entry. Sand-colored Santa Rosa gravel crunches underfoot as you walk along the path, a small fountain bubbles at its center, and 32 rose shrubs perfume the air.

A staircase leads to a lower garden populated with nearly hidden seating areas. Even though this side of the landscape borders a well-traveled boulevard, it is quiet and feels private, thanks to a living fence of evergreen pyracantha shrubs, their espaliered branches supported by cables strung between metal fence posts.


The renovations preserved as many old trees as possible, including several deodar cedars and sycamores. A vintage orchard has been nursed back to health, although it took five years of proper irrigation and feeding for many of the citrus trees to resume fruit production.

A diverse plant palette now enhances the gently sloping property and includes palms, Camellia sasanqua shrubs, a rice paper plant, an African cabbage tree and several rare birds of paradise -- a botanical collection that thrives in the Altadena microclimate.

“Our summers are very hot, our winters are cold,” Bode says. “The topography is such that we’re often encased in clouds in the winter.”

Temperate-climate plants that won’t grow in Pasadena seem to perform better in Altadena, she says.

The oval-shaped lower lawn doubles as a dance floor for outdoor parties and is lined with graceful swaths of Mexican weeping bamboo. Beyond it, stepping stones lead toward the deep shade of sycamore trees. Here, a restored pond is landscaped with ferns, hellebores, mondo grass and a trio of golden ginkgoes, planted to commemorate Bode’s late mother. The colors of spring appear, overhead in the blood-red foliage of Japanese maples and at one’s feet in the salmon-pink flowering azaleas that line the path. Dappled sunlight animates the scene, and it’s hard to imagine any place more peaceful.

“I don’t even really want to take vacations anymore, because it’s so beautiful here,” says Colman, an EBay vice president who commutes to Silicon Valley each week. “I come back on the weekends, and I love just being home.”