Creating landscapes in the spirit of the past

Last summer, architect Hugh Maguire stumbled upon the 1931 book “California Gardens” by Winifred Starr Dobyns. While flipping through it, he was startled to find three black-and-white images of what was unmistakably his former backyard in an old Pasadena neighborhood.

“Sure enough, there was the wisteria trellis and a scoop-topped gate,” he says. “And then I saw the herringbone brick path -- that was the real confirmation.”

When Maguire purchased and renovated the 1926 Mediterranean-style bungalow 20 years ago, he knew its garden was special. But until he found the landscape documented in the book, he didn’t realize its historical significance. Maguire sold the property in 1990 and has remained friendly with its current owner.

“She really has taken it back to what is more original than I had done,” Maguire says, citing salvaged architectural fragments, antique urns and a collection of potted cycads and succulents that occupy the Italian-inspired setting. “It’s like she channeled the way it used to be in those photographs.”

Students of garden history and owners who want their landscapes to reflect a home’s architectural period can learn from several old gardens, including the one Maguire once owned, at “Gardens That Re-Make Themselves: A Discourse on Regeneration, Sustainability, and Preservation,” Friday and Feb. 28 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia. Presented by the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit that preserves notable American gardens, the two-day seminar and study tour will feature lectures by local designers, landscape architects, botanists, architects and historians.

Because so many neighborhoods have older homes, and with interest in preservation rising in Southern California, more people here are looking for evidence about their landscape’s past, says Ann Scheid, an architectural and landscape historian who manages USC’s Greene & Greene archives at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

“Hardscape defines what is left,” she says. “It is often the one thing you can find, even if it has been covered with vines and overgrowth.”

Plant fashions change, as does the availability of heirloom cultivars, so owners may have to reinterpret and adapt planting schemes in the spirit of what historical documents reveal. Libraries, museums and municipal records are other good sources, Scheid says.

Whether a vintage landscape dates to the Victorian era or is midcentury modern, it often inspires a sense of stewardship in its 21st century owners, says Betsy Flack, the Garden Conservancy’s West Coast program manager.

“When people understand the blueprint of what they have and value ideas of the past, they can restore and edit their garden in a way that suits them for today,” she says.

Carol Soucek King and Richard King, whose garden also is on the upcoming tour, did just that. In 1979, the couple commissioned architects Conrad Buff and Donald Hensman to design a home on a 2-acre parcel near the Arroyo Seco, literally in the shadow of Pasadena’s Colorado Street Bridge.

The architects planned a modern, one-story residence near the edge of the canyon. Rather than install traditional staircases at the home’s entry landings, they placed native Arroyo boulder-steps, salvaged from the property. Rugged and oversized, the boulders echo a rustic river-rock retaining wall, believed to be at least a century old, that was found covered in overgrowth and restored during the home’s construction. The wall -- the “last intact vestige of an old mill,” according to the architects’ description -- remains a focal point of the landscape.

The Kings wanted their property to speak with “one voice,” so they asked Buff and Hensman to design the interiors and landscape too.

“Our original concept was to have a manicured appearance near the house and leave things beyond it wilder,” Soucek King says. “The house has very few materials, which makes it feel spacious -- and that idea is true for the garden as well.”

The past holds similar lessons for gardeners today, the conservancy’s Flack says.

“A really sustainable idea for a garden is good design, lasting design,” she says. “Look at the stable of plants in older gardens, such as pittosporum, myrtle and boxwood. They often last because they don’t use a lot of resources once established.”

It’s possible to look forward by studying the past, says Stephen Orr, a design writer and former garden editor for House & Garden magazine who will open the seminar with remarks on sustainable practices.

According to Orr, “today’s garden-makers should be asking: ‘How do you design a landscape now that will be around in 50 or 100 years? How do you move forward from a preservation standpoint?’ ” The answer is a design approach that wisely uses resources, including water and human labor, he says.

“Because of the new economy we’re in, even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘green warrior,’ you can’t afford to have vast teams of people taking care of something that must be constantly maintained.”