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Medieval Modern : Collectible Plants Were Preferred to the Traditional Lawn in This Garden Plan Derived From the Middle Ages

January 29, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

SOME GARDENS ARE just too small to accommodate a lawn. And some gardeners are bored by the thought of having one. Both were the case on this pie-shaped lot in the San Fernando Valley. The owners, husband and wife Paul Kirk and Mary Finley, fellow faculty members at Cal State Northridge, wanted plenty of flowers and other interesting plants--but not a blade of grass.

The garden's designer, Chris Rosmini, couldn't have been more delighted with the couple's request: Her gardens are well-known for featuring a preponderance of plant materials other than lawn grasses. Rosmini's plan called for paths connecting all the areas, making the garden look remarkably like the oddly angled streets in an 11th-Century town (although she had a cloistered medieval garden in mind). The main path sets off from the house in medieval fashion--at an angle. But the path is otherwise formal in plan, with a definite end and focal point--a vine-covered gazebo with curving copper pipes. Other lesser focal points anchor the ends of lesser paths: a fountain and plants spilling fountain-like from large pots. To make the paths look longer than they are--to force the perspective--the sides of the paths begin to converge at their farthest ends.

All sorts of collectible plants grow in the areas between the paths. The beds are raised not only because that makes the plantings easy to see and weed but also because many of the plants require both excellent soil and drainage.

At one side of this grid of pathways is a covered patio, and there are several turnouts along the paths from which to enjoy the views (all the walls are wide enough to sit on). At the center of the garden, the paths converge, making for a sort of a central "town square" (which is not truly square in shape). Town squares are said to have originated in medieval times. Norman T. Newton in "Design on the Land" writes: "To most observers, these town squares, with very rare exceptions, have an atmosphere of unaffected simplicity--even awkwardness, on occasion--that is quietly but surely amusing." He continues: "Since they are seldom exactly square or even rectangular, they provide as a group a valuable laboratory in which to question the sanctity so widely but uncritically conferred on the right angle."

Right angles were not sanctified for this house, the work of architect D. Douglas McCallum; there are few. McCallum set the stage for the garden, and Rosmini carried the theme outdoors, making the central patio five-sided.

A garden ornament, yet to be determined, will stand in the central bed, but for the moment the area is full of flowers. And nary a blade of grass in sight.

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