Judy Kameon offers tips on creating inviting outdoor spaces


Lush plantings in alluring hues and textures. Brightly colored lawn furniture and accessories. Inviting seating areas. These tools make up the arresting outdoor spaces that Elysian Landscapes designer Judy Kameon is known for.

“I try to create something that transcends what one might expect in their backyard,” the L.A. designer said recently. “I like to defy people’s expectations and create an environment that is a sanctuary.”

In her sublime new book “Gardens Are for Living: Design Inspiration for Outdoor Spaces,” ($50, Rizzoli), Kameon offers practical advice for creating welcoming gardens and outdoor living areas that maximize your living space. Look for further tips when Kameon makes appearances this month at Nathan Turner (2 to 4 p.m. Thursday) and Design Within Reach in West Hollywood (6 p.m. May 20).


In a recent interview with L.A. at Home, Kameon shared some of her favorite drought-tolerant plants, design elements and ideas on how to get started.

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

I wasn’t interested in doing a monograph. I wanted to create something that would provide tips, strategies and resources. I wanted it to be a call to action, something that was vital and dynamic and relatable. People are always telling me, “I have this outdoor space and I don’t know what to do with it.” When I bought an empty lot in Elysian Park and started gardening, I was thinking, how do I start? I wanted some guidance. I found my own way. I just wanted to demonstrate the myriad of possibilities that can happen. I truly believe the more time people spend outside, the happier they are. It can be as simple as growing a pot of herbs on your window sill.

As you mentioned, designing an outdoor space can be overwhelming. How do you begin?

Set realistic goals for your garden project and break it up into bite-size pieces. Don’t try to do it all at once. Make a list. I always tell people to make choices with intention. By that I mean, step back and understand your space and what it needs in terms of light conditions, soil and how you want to use the space. How much maintenance are you willing to take on? Know what you want. If you don’t want a weekly gardener, then don’t put in a lawn. It’s not a judgment. It’s about having a clear vision. Ask yourself what you can manage. Your garden shouldn’t be a source of guilt or burden. It should be a sanctuary.

Plants and accessories play off one another to wonderful effect in your outdoor spaces. Can you talk about how you choose a color palette?

My background as a painter is all about color, form and pattern. That is definitely how I think about landscape design. When it comes to choosing a color palette, I always start with the plants. I am informed by the site conditions. Shade gardens, for instance, are going to be more of a green palette. Then I will often look at the architecture and the interior design because I feel that it should be a fluid experience. I don’t think you should go from one language inside to another one outside. I always like to have a range of colors. If plants are too monotonous, or all the same shade of green, the landscape looks flat. I am always looking at the shifts: bright greens, sage greens, some variegation, some chartreuse. That alone adds interest, texture and form. I have certain colors that I love: orange with chartreuse and deep blues. I always start with foliage and then I layer in flower color. My gardens are not particularly floriferous. But they pack a lot of punch. I also look at the season. I like to weave in different things that bloom at different times.

There are some interesting outdoor lighting installations in your book.

Lighting is one of the best tools I have in my toolbox. I like how romantic it is. I love my garden so much at night. It’s more mysterious and it feels magical. That’s what lighting can bring. It speaks to the reality of our very busy lives. Most of us are not home during the day and don’t have the time to enjoy our outdoor spaces. So we’re seeing them at night and during the weekends. Lighting a garden extends your use of it on a practical level. If you have a dining area and it’s well lit, you’re going to be more inclined to use it. We often experience our gardens from inside our house. We are looking at them through a window. If it’s lit we have a beautiful image to enjoy. All of our projects have lighting that comes on automatically, is low voltage and is energy efficient. I’m a huge proponent of having permanent landscape lighting in place and having it on a timer. You can tackle it on your own if you’re handy but it’s not a bad idea to have a professional do it.

Water is such a concern right now in terms of gardening. Do you have some favorite plants with low water needs? We live in the most incredible climate. We have a wealth of choices when it comes to plant material. There are thousands of incredible plants that require very little maintenance to almost none. I have my go-to plants and I’m always experimenting. These plants are drought tolerant, but what I always tell people about drought-tolerant plants is this -- they will survive with little to no water, but it doesn’t mean they will thrive or look beautiful. That being said, these are some tried, true and tough worker bees:

  • Adenanthos cunninghamii
  • Aeonium ‘Cyclops’
  • Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’
  • Aloe arborescens
  • Arctostaphylos ‘John Dourley’
  • Arctotis acaulis ‘Big Magenta’
  • Calandrinia grandiflora ‘Jazz Time’
  • Ceanothus ‘Centennial’
  • Cordyline australis ‘Red Star’
  • Echium candicans ‘Select Blue’
  • Euphorbia characias ‘Bruce’s Dwarf’
  • Kalanchoe orgyalis
  • Myoporum parvifolium ‘Pink’
  • Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’
  • Senecio mandraliscae
  • Westringia fruticosa ‘Mundi’
  • Yucca recurvifolia

Under “Simple Strategies for an Inviting Space,” you suggest “Create Privacy,” followed by “Create More Privacy.” Do you have any tips on using plants to provide privacy?

Privacy is our No. 1 request. It’s a really important thing to have, otherwise you won’t feel comfortable in your space. Only plant screens as high as is absolutely necessary. If you need 10 feet of screening, don’t put in something that is going to grow to 30 feet. You want to keep open sky. It’s a tip that people overlook. Don’t buy a plant until you know how it’s going to grow. Here are some plants for screening:

  • Podocarpus elongatus ‘Monmal’ and Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Sheen’ for a beautiful hedge with foliage interest
  • Podocarpus gracilior trees for upper screening above fences and walls
  • Bambusa ventricosa for tall screening 25 feet or more
  • Laurus nobilis is a California native I like to use for screening in an informal setting (also has low water needs)
  • I also like to mix and layer shrubs to create screening that blends in with the landscape, with shrubs such as Elaeagnus pungens ‘Fruitlandii’, Dodonaea viscose ‘Purpurea’ and Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ (also has low water needs)