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THE BEST OF SUMMER / SUMMER GARDENS

WATER WORLDLY : A poolside landscape as mesmerizing as a vision in a dream

June 07, 1998

When Celeste Tubman first saw her acre property in Brentwood, she said: "Bring me a jackhammer." Concrete covered the earth, stretching from a mammoth driveway to a baking pool deck to a giant paddle-tennis court. The hard edges made her blocky ranch house look more severe and dulled the views from her windows. And although a few greens grew in the borders, they were boring mondo grass, impatiens and ice plant.

Desperate, Tubman started demolition and called in garden designer Jay Griffith. In no time, the two were arguing. "I wanted to talk about plants. He wanted to talk about space," remembers Tubman, a film editor with two children. "He sat inside for six hours staring out."

What Griffith was studying were the home's sheltered courtyards, which he envisioned as garden enclaves. He imagined the dining and living rooms overlooking a jungle and the master bedroom with a view of a hill blanketed with hot-colored plants. "There was a certain plantation feel here," Griffith recalls. "The property had the essence but not the trappings of what she wanted--an Italian country house with exotic elements, not the landscape of suburbia."

Before focusing on the details, Griffith had to set the stage, creating "set pieces from a piecemeal jumble" and tying them all together. He began with the pool deck, a clumsy corridor between the front drive and backyard. "Imagine a sunken Roman bath," he told Tubman and her physician husband, Roger Novack, as he squared off curves, raised the surrounding deck and introduced a rusty, slide-away fence. Behind the house, he kept functional retaining walls but swathed them with Artemisia arborescens, suggesting overgrown ruins. He turned the flat paddle-tennis court into a rolling lawn and added a dining/lounging spot complete with burlap shades.

Recycling plants wherever he could, Griffith also sawed up old concrete and relaid it into patios seamed with grass. He opened the house to its new views with single-pane glass doors and kept the planting palette simple: "In the front and along one side, it was bamboo, bamboo, bamboo," he says. Grinning, he adds: "Celeste wanted 100 roses; I allowed her 10. She wanted vegetables; we mixed tomatoes and artichokes in the flower borders."

He also used tough papyrus and leonotis, which he lightened with silver artemisia and backed with hillside colonies of agaves and flaming cannas. "It's transporting and otherworldly," admits Tubman, who has embroidered on Griffith's design. Most recently, she raised 70-pound pumpkins in one of the borders. "They looked right at home, of course!"

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