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GARDENS

In the Best Gardens : Landscape Contractors Install the Latest in Design Trends--Mini-Meadows and Waterfalls--in Award-Winning Settings

November 29, 1987|JUDITH SIMS | Judith Sims is an editor at Los Angeles Times Magazine.

AN EXECUTIVE'S PRIVATE balcony; a gem-like, Japanese-style backyard in Santa Monica; a serene San Marino retreat set in a woodsy, bouldered glen, and an eat-your-heart-out 8 1/2-acre estate off Benedict Canyon are this year's winners of the California Landscape Contractors Assn. 32nd Annual Beautification Awards.

Each of these gardens is artfully designed, functional, tailored to the needs of its owner--but the designers are not the award winners. Landscape contractors install the pools, gazebos, plants, paths, decks--all elements of the designs conceived by landscape architects--and many will maintain the gardens once they're put in. The Beautification Awards call attention to the craft of gardening by illustrating that proper construction, planting and care can make the difference between an evolving, always-pleasing garden and a once-lovely plan that went to seed.

Still, it is difficult to look at these gardens without noticing certain obvious design trends. The "natural" look--which is definitely not natural but gives the illusion of an unplanned forest or a mini-meadow--is enormously popular, and splashy flowers are never out of favor. And, according to Richard L. Segal, Santa Monica-based landscape architect and board member of the California Landscape Contractors Assn., the architectural elements, such as arbors and pergolas, are appearing in all the better gardens. "They make a very inviting statement," he says. In addition, designers are becoming more artful and ambitious in adding water to our desert landscapes, Segal says: "Not just waterfalls or a statue spitting water, but more like a soft bubbler that gives you the sound of water."

Segal also sees a trend--reflected in these gardens--to limit the scope of plant selection. Instead of using many different kinds of plants, landscape architects and contractors now prefer to mass several plants, especially trees, of the same variety. This often creates a satisfying unity of design--and is in fact more "natural"--but it can also present a predictable sameness and lack of excitement. You can't find too many recently designed Southern California gardens without at least one Podocarpus gracilior , azalea, impatiens, agapanthus or nandina (not one of which is native to this area).

Three of these familiar plants flourish on the winning executive balcony, on the fourth floor of a West Los Angeles office complex overlooking Olympic Boulevard. The views there are not spectacular, so West Los Angeles landscape architect Steven A. Ormenyi's design draws the eye inward, into the balcony, with colorful flowers and shrubs in terra-cotta-colored containers that complement the simple teak lawn furniture. You could spend many a futile hour here looking for dead leaves and spent flowers. Toddco Landscape Co. of West Los Angeles won the best Small Commercial Maintenance award for this balcony as well as a special award for colorscape: choosing and planting new flowers, which they do about three times a year. In the containers--made of fiberglass and filled with an especially light soil mixture because the balcony could not hold the weight of clay pots and potting soil--are planted gardenias, azaleas, impatiens, ivy, agapanthus, lobelia, oleanders, an unusual tricolor-leaf bougainvillea called 'Raspberry Ice' and several handsome Metrosideros tomentosa , New Zealand Christmas trees. But the first things we see are a topiary lion and elephant, welcome touches of whimsy in an otherwise no-nonsense urban space.

In Santa Monica, Allen and Sheila Enelow have transformed their average-size backyard into a Japanese-style sanctuary. Designed by Takao Uesugi of West Covina and installed by Koyama Landscaping Inc. of Temple City, the 85-by-50-foot area is crammed with separate features. Yet there is an open, uncrowded feeling. In one corner is a teahouse, with an office attached, a narrow deck in front and an arbor on one side; near the teahouse is a small stone basin with water trickling into it from a bamboo spout. A stone waterfall bubbles off to the right of the concrete-and-stone pool that dominates the center of the yard. Japanese-character plants surround the pool: black pine, Japanese maple, nandina, three kinds of bamboo. Perhaps most inviting is the small walkway that encircles the yard, winding up, down and around, allowing strollers to discover small treasures and different perspectives. Although a neighbor's house looms in the back--a plain beige eminence--it will soon be obscured by the bamboo.

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