The Echo Park garden of designer Andrew Cao is covered with a most surprising material--crushed glass.
The glass is everywhere--around plants, on paths, piled in mounds, even plastered on walls. The garden sparkles like King Solomon's legendary lost mines.
Broken-up bottles and other recycled glass--45 tons of it--give this garden its glitter, and the effect is quite astonishing.
"You should see it on a moonlit night," Cao, 32, said. "It's magical." But even on a dull, overcast day, this garden of glass glimmers; when the sun comes out, it actually shines.
If a glass garden sounds slightly dangerous, the crushed glass turns out to be not all that different from gravel, except for that jewel-like sparkle.
The glass is crunchy underfoot but easy to walk on, even though you are literally walking on glass.
Cao and his partner, photographer Stephen Jerrom--who is helping him with this glass vision--walk on it in stocking feet, and cats don't hesitate to use it as a litter box.
The garden is easy to dig in or rearrange; as proof, Cao shows skeptics his hands, which haven't a Band-Aid on them. Pruning roses is probably more hazardous. The edges aren't terribly sharp because the glass has been crushed into small rounded pieces. It could be made smooth, but "then it would lose its luster," Cao said.
Cao (pronounced "Gao") grew up in Vietnam and, at the age of 13, moved to Indonesian refugee camps with his family in 1979 and then to Houston.
The family moved to California while he was studying architecture at the University of Houston, and he transferred to Cal Poly Pomona, changing his major to landscape architecture. At the same time, he studied art at Orange Coast College.
Out of this medley of disciplines came the vision of gardens using recycled glass instead of gravel and ground bark.
To test this daring idea, he tried it first in his own garden.
His experimental garden is about a year and a half old, and Cao says he's changed everything at least three times, just to find out what worked and what didn't. It's an ongoing experiment, and neighbors have caught his enthusiasm, letting the landscape expand a little onto their property.
About halfway through his project, Cao spent several months helping artist Mierle Lederman Ukeles construct some giant mounds with about 600 tons of crushed plate glass for an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Assisting with that project "gave me just the push and inspiration I needed to follow through and finish my own," he said.
Actually half art form, half practical landscape, Cao's gleaming garden uses plants and images that would be familiar to anyone from Southeast Asia.
Plumerias, lemon grass and a nocturnal flowering cactus called "queen of the night" (Hylocereus undatus) are popular plants in Vietnam and grow along the arterial path that travels from front to back through the sideyard.
The path models Vietnam's Highway 1, which, like our Highway 1, follows the coast. It's the inspiration for all the amazing forms in this sculpted landscape.
Cao hoped the garden would evoke memories of Vietnam and is curious to see if Vietnamese friends will make that connection; they invariably do. He's heard "it looks just like home" more than once.
The crushed glass path begins flat and level, as the highway does on Vietnam's southern plain, though the tall retaining wall to its right is covered with embedded blue and green glass in wave-like swirls and ripples.
This otherwise ordinary block wall was covered with a slurry of broken blue and green glass mixed with mortar, to stunning effect. As the mortar dried, Cao scrubbed it with a brush, revealing the brilliant glass flakes.
This representation of the coast follows the path to an area where piles of gold and green glass are heaped on either side. Cao says that in certain seasons, Vietnam's coast highway is nearly blocked by the similarly colored mounds of newly threshed rice.
On a practical note, the path here is made of beer-bottle brown glass because there is a pine overhead and the fallen needles aren't so visible against the brown glass.
He admits that maintaining this garden is similar to the raking and preening needed in a Zen gravel garden.
Weeds do come up through the mulch of glass in some spots, but Cao says that the glass mulch keeps down most. (Gardeners take note: He says it will actually kill horsetails, one of the more difficult spreading plants to get rid of.)
Follow the path around the corner of the house and neat, funnel-shaped piles of white glass are randomly spaced in a nearly black pool, a representation of the evaporation ponds filled with tidy piles of salt in central Vietnam.
Here Cao has experimented with fiber-optic lights that shine up through the piles of glass, making them glow at night. The path ends in the terraced and flooded rice paddies of northern Vietnam. In Cao's garden, the rice and flooded paddies are depicted by fine-leaved Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) and liquid blue glass.