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Sunset Breaks New Ground at L.A. County Arboretum

Landscaping Magazine's demonstration gardens have been completely revamped, with an eye toward environmentally friendly products and native plants.


Gardeners in search of bold new ideas for their yards should visit the redesigned and rebuilt Sunset Demonstration Gardens, which opened on Monday at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia.

Gone are the rotting redwood decks, teetering fences and aging aggregate paving, replaced by materials like Trex, a decking made from plastic bags; and Rastra, carveable, precast wall sections made with packing peanuts.

The redesign uses new-millennium materials, recycled redwood, native and other drought-tolerant plants, fake but believable boulders, even quake-proof sound-barrier walls.

They replace the old gardens, designed in 1956 by such notable landscape architects as Edward Huntsman-Trout and Owen H. Peters, but which were still teaching people a thing or two about garden design.

But even attitudes about our oldest pastime change, and new concerns have arisen since the gardens were built, back when DDT was still on nearly every gardener's shelf and logging first-growth redwoods was considered OK.

"These new gardens reflect the interest in natives and the land, the easier maintenance that happens when you choose appropriate plants, and the interest in year-round entertaining outdoors," said Kathleen Brenzel, the Sunset's senior garden editor.

The architecture and plantings are radically different from those of the earlier gardens or even from current garden practice--as different, say, as a spindly MG-TC from a beefy Dodge Viper.

Besides, the old decks had already been replaced twice and the trees were now so large that they were ripping up the paving.

In many ways the demonstration gardens are like a semipermanent garden show. As they often do with show gardens, the designers used the opportunity to try new ideas and materials. Unlike show gardens, however, they built these to last--for at least 40 more years. There are no stage dressings or temporary back-lot-like structures.

The plants are not packed together for instant effect, and it will take time for them to fill in, so things look a little bare at the moment.


What you most notice is the architecture--the walls, paving, paths and two huge outdoor fireplaces. These were a pet idea of senior writer Peter Whiteley.

"Outdoor fireplaces are probably the best thing you can put in a garden," he said, and on a chilly night, garden guests would undoubtedly agree.

Whiteley also made sure that as many new, environmentally sound materials would be used in the gardens as possible.

Eight separate gardens replace the original four, "each designed by a Southern Californian, for Southern Californians," Brenzel said. The designers worked together so one garden room flows gracefully into the next.

The first garden to the right as you enter under the sandblasted recycled redwood pergola was designed by Jane MacDonald Adrian of Environmental Interests in La Crescenta, who has done several intriguing gardens for the Los Angeles Garden Show.

Its spacious deck is not wood, but Trex, made from recycled plastic bag and wood fibers, and the trellis overhead is re-planed, recycled redwood from the California Redwood Assn. A whimsical ceramic fountain sits in front of a colorful, sponge-painted wall and an elegant granite fountain gurgles on the deck, splashing into a simple pool.

Some of Adrian's handsome, homemade pavers (cast in plastic nursery flats) lead down to the next garden, by Nick Williams & Associates of Tarzana.

Williams built the patio's fireplace and walls from precast wall sections of Rastra, made from recycled styrene-packing peanuts and cement. Because the material is easy to shape with saws and rasps, Williams could round the corners into a flowing design.

The paving in this garden is fascinating because it mixes a few slabs of real stone with imitation stone molded from concrete, which saves money and resources. Most of the big boulders seen in the gardens are fakes.

The see-through back wall was made from timbers that came from the late director John Huston's home during the 1940s. Given to Williams during a remodel of the home, they're stained with a paint that contains tiny particles of copper to give it touches of verdigris.


The garden by Jerry Williams of Outer Spaces in Toluca Lake evokes an earlier era in garden history, with modern updates, including the only lawn in the demonstration garden, just large enough for children to play on.

Tucked in the corner is a woodland garden constructed under old Canary Island pines, designed by Anna Armstrong and Richard Walker of Armstrong & Walker Landscape Architecture in Monrovia.

Located next to the parking lot and busy Baldwin Avenue, this garden is protected by a sound-blocking wall made by Designer Concrete Fences in Studio City that works quite well.

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