When you enter Amy Stark's garden, you feel like Alice walking into Wonderland. Every available inch is covered with plants, many of them flowering, and the sweet smell of jasmine fills the air. A water fountain bubbles and birds chirp, compelling you to sit down and read or just daydream.
Serenity is the purpose of Stark's secret garden, which is tucked away in her Laguna Beach back yard.
"It's important to have a place of bliss in your home," says Stark, a psychologist. "People go away on vacation to find a sense of peace and happiness. Why not create a tranquil spot in your own back yard? You can still go away, but you don't have to leave your home to find happiness and serenity. Any time I want peace, I go into my secret garden."
You don't need a lot of space for such a garden.
"It's possible to create a secret garden for just about any space," says Erik Katzmaier of Katzmaier Newell Kehr, a landscape architectural and architectural firm in Corona del Mar. "We installed a garden off a guest bedroom that had just three to four feet of space. In front of a block wall, we put trees, a trellis with vines and a collection of shade-blooming roses. Whatever size or shape yard you have, you should be able to do something."
Stark's garden is about 450 square feet. When she moved in three years ago, the back yard consisted of nothing but a rotted deck. Today she has a two-tiered deck that overflows with plants such as elephant's ear, roses, foxglove, irises, lilies, fuchsias, trumpet vines, gardenias, orchids, begonias, wisteria and various trees. The bottom deck houses a spa and the top deck has a table, chaise lounge and water fountain.
To achieve a peaceful effect in the garden, you will need more than pretty plants and pleasant scents; a sense of privacy, running water, birds and butterflies make for a place to relax.
The first step, says Katzmaier, is defining the space. "Will it be a garden for viewing or walking through, or do you want to spend some time there, and if so, how much space do you need? Each shape has its own conditions."
Research the flora before you plant to determine if growth habits will match your desired results.
"Plan for the future," says Scott Lathrop, a horticulturist at Flowerdale Nurseries in Santa Ana. "Determine how much space you have available and then choose plants that will fit nicely into that area once they're mature. Always find out a plant's ultimate size. You wouldn't want to plant a Sago Palm in a two-foot area, because it will eventually take up six feet."
Walls make it easy to block out the world.
"Many people let vines grow on their walls, which creates a dense, attractive barrier," says Gene Sottosanto of Green Gene's Landscaping in Laguna Beach. "You can also add bushes and let the plants intermingle. This will give you good screening for at least six feet."
For privacy, Sottosanto suggests shrubs like the fast-growing acacia, ceanothus (wild lilac), cotoneasters, dodonaea (purple hop bush), escallonia (an evergreen shrub with flowers that smell like gum), various privets, myoporum, lavender starflower and pittosporum.
Some good vines choices include Boston ivy, various roses, jasmine and fatshedera, which is a shrubby vine that is quick to grow, yet doesn't get too large.
Hedges can create thick living walls. "The Texas privet makes a nice hedge, as well as the mock orange and European bay, which is a cooking bay. These can all be trimmed very tightly," Katzmaier says. "You can also plant hibiscus, although they can't be pruned too heavily or they won't flower."
In addition to screening, the use of vines, hedges and shrubs has another advantage: They block out sound.
"Plants provide noise barriers, such as the Waxleaf privet, which grows to about 10 feet," Lathrop says. "I was in one established garden that had an oleander hedge separating it from the street and the traffic was barely noticeable."
Another element of a secret garden is the sound of running water.
"The flow of water has a soothing, calming effect," Lathrop says. "Many of the fountains on the market are attractive, take very little water and are easy to maintain."
Sottosanto suggests being water wise if a fountain is installed: "Use the (run-off) water to water plants."
Choose a fountain of good quality. "Buy one made of stone, terra cotta or cast concrete," says Katzmaier. "Stay away from fiberglass, because it will deteriorate and look bad after a couple of years of sun exposure."
Homeowners can construct their own fountain with a slow-running hose hidden in a garbage can, says Sottosanto. "You can also bury a thick plastic liner in the ground, fill it with rocks and let a hose drip into it. Keep in mind that the further the water has to fall, the nicer it sounds."
Running water lures birds to the yard, which is another appealing element in a secret garden.
"Birds bring life to your yard, are attractive and often make pleasant noises," Sottosanto says.