When it came to landscaping his Santa Monica front yard, writer-producer Richard Albarino faced a common challenge: how to get the most from a small space overlooking an open street corner. His house needed privacy, his son needed room to play and he and his wife, Kim Fleary Albarino, a TV executive, wanted a view of something other than passing traffic. The garden style that appealed to Albarino--and harmonized with his updated Mediterranean-flavored house as well as California's climate--hailed from Provence. "Their landscapes have a look I like," he explains, "half-formal, half-ruined, with things mixed together over time: Roman elements, cypress, fan palms, English garden bits, lots of flowers. Very relaxed and well-used."
To bring his thoughts down to earth, Albarino hired landscape architect Katherine Spitz, who designed a frame of low, neighbor-friendly stucco walls to enclose the 37-by-60-foot yard. Inside, she organized the space into two main parts. One, in front of the living room, is formally structured and lushly planted, with a cutting garden at its heart and a fringe of artemisia, mixed lavenders and rockrose. The other, adjacent to Albarino's home office, is a field of decomposed granite decked with potted succulents and edged with more lavender, sage, westringia and echium. A path of pavers from a medieval French town bisects the two areas but ties them together with its warm clay tones.
"The idea," Spitz says, "was to replace a boring lawn with equal and opposite squares, both relatively low-maintenance and unthirsty but each with a different flavor." Originally, the feeling of grass was preserved in a yarrow lawn in front of the living room. But when that failed, Albarino, inspired by French kitchen gardens, suggested patterned beds bordered by myrtle hedges and filled with seasonal blooms--fall dahlias and asters, spring larkspur and delphiniums. For his flower-loving wife, pastel David Austin roses explode in the corners and continue along a side path to the backyard. In contrast, the garden's other side makes a spare, open field for Nicholas, 6, and a showcase for the family's succulent collection. Pots add height and interest to the flat space, and decomposed granite is a gentler surface for play than the gravel Spitz initially considered. Mixed with a stabilizer (to aid compaction) and replenished annually, it keeps its smooth, uniform look, even after heavy rains.
Maintenance consists mostly of pruning. In fact, Albarino jokes, "plants have done so well here that we've had to beat them back with sticks." And the front yard now feels so sheltered that he and his wife might eventually add a table near the door and dine outside on summer nights. "With great food, great wine and a great garden," he says, "we will live with all the gusto of French peasants!"