When the yard's a blank slate

The designer in Brent Green thinks there might be too many plants in his backyard. "Do you think I've overdone it?" he asks of his first garden. "Everything I ever wanted to grow ended up in this garden."

The Greens moved in just over a year ago, but the garden is already lush and colorful, perfumed by Jamaican allspice and plumeria blossoms. And, no, he hasn't overdone it.

He has the room for all these plants because his is a surprisingly big backyard, like many from the first half of the last century.

The modest homes built in the 1920s and into the '40s didn't overwhelm their lots. Their generous backyards were quite utilitarian, with a garage, an incinerator and a clothesline; outdoor living meant hanging out the wash and burning the trash, and maybe mowing the lawn.

Thousands of these modest homes still surround city centers in Southern California, and when landscaper architects or garden designers come across one, they see a big, blank slate ready to be drawn on with plantings and paving.

Here's a look at how three professionals tackled their traditional L.A. backyards:

Divide and conquer

It never even crossed the Greens' minds to fill their big lot with a remodel. They saw room for a garden and were content rearranging the inside of the little 1,100-square-foot, 1923 house to make it more open. A big patio with a hot tub and super-sized barbecue would add usable outdoor space.

Many people don't know what to think when they see so much empty space, but this Cal Poly-trained garden designer and builder immediately saw the possibilities. He was making sketches of the garden before escrow closed.

He divided the back into areas including lawns, patios, a cutting garden for his wife, Cheryl, play areas for his daughter Grace and so on. Factors such as proximity to the house and amount of sun or shade helped determine these areas.

When Green broke up the old driveway, he used the concrete to make a raised area in back, filling it with excess dirt. Changes in level quickly add interest to ordinary, flat backyards.

Next he "privatized the space" by enclosing it with hedges and screens. Because the property is only 50 feet wide, he made these hedges dense yet shallow by using more than one plant, and then shearing constantly.

"It's possible to be creative even with hedges," he says.

A long chain-link fence disappeared under interwoven jasmines (winter- and summer-flowering kinds), pyracanthas and ficus. The old garage became what he calls a "green box" (and his office), completely covered with cropped bougainvillea.

Thorny bougainvillea and pyracantha make a hedge by the back alley that can't be climbed.

Much of the variety in his garden has been trained or coaxed into tiny spaces. The little front porch has disappeared under potted succulents, many of which have traveled with Green from rental to rental.

There are fountains by every exterior door and two in the garden. Their burbling effectively masks the sound of the busy I-10 Freeway a few blocks away. Between the fountains and the plantings, the city seems a longer way off.

Paths and patios

Landscape architect Andrea Gardner (I'm not making up these names) had similar thoughts and ideas when she bought her two-story, 1929 home. There was plenty of room for a garden.

Gardner designs to a different beat, literally. She likes dance music, so as she sketched she listened to Queen, Donna Summer and the Pretenders.

First she figured out the logical places to put the hardscape — the patios and paving — then she made it private with hedges.

There is a small garage in back, reached by a long and treacherously narrow drive. She and her husband tried parking there but gave up and took out most of the driveway, substituting pavers and lawn.

In theory they can still drive into the garage, but they never will. Her husband's precious Austin-Healey 3000 Mark II sits under a cover in that odd little carport that's attached to many 1920s houses.

As the children and trees grew, the Gardners took out lawn and added more paths and little patios. A big patio just off the house came first, almost 20 years ago, with an outdoor buffet area and a barbecue for entertaining. Strings of clear light bulbs stayed long after a party was over, at night lighting the garden like a living room.

About 10 years ago, when their daughter moved into the family room, they added to the patio, put in a porch swing and pingpong table and made that their family room.

"We didn't want to push out the house and lose the garden or end up with just a little slip of shade," says Gardner.

They ringed the garage with king and fishtail palms, gingers, tree ferns, canna lilies and bromeliads for a tropical look. "Caribbean, maybe?" she asks.

Always 'tweaking'

It took quite a few years for garden designer DeAnna Kanner to completely abandon her impossibly narrow driveway to the garage in back, but now a raised vegetable bed sits smack in the middle of it.

The backyard was filled with a lawn while her kids were growing up. A deck was the first thing she added to the garden, though it was replaced after she stepped though a spot weakened by termites.

Now the vine-covered deck is sturdy and commanding, and it visually carries the bedroom into the garden, which is the same height off the ground.

Kanner is an expert gardener, growing nearly 50 kinds of plants in the front and side yards and more than 100 kinds in back. When her garden was part of a tour recently, she handed out a four-page, single-spaced plant list.

All of this variety is arranged around various paths and patios made from gray-brown Bouquet Canyon stone; nearly every gap between the stones is filled with some kind of little ground-hugging plant.

The garden and plantings have been "tweaked a million times," she says, "because I live here and can't leave it alone."

Kanner is always trying new plants and combinations. At first the garden leaned toward pink and blue, but in 1994, the year she stepped though the weakened deck, she decided to eliminate most of the pink flowers and make the garden more complicated and dependent on foliage.

Flowers became the little gems amid the greens and grays, much like the little glass marbles she embedded in the new, raised bed for tomatoes and turnips.

Robert Smaus can be reached at