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A Slice of Beauty on the Side

A long, skinny sideyard is transformed into a haven for gardening, vegetable cultivation and arbor-shaded dining.

April 06, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

What passes for a backyard at the Fair residence in Costa Mesa is actually a sideyard, long and skinny, about 1,300 square feet in all but barely 9 feet wide for almost a third of its length. It runs alongside the house--from a pair of shutter-like entry gates topped with a vigorous rose named 'Dream Weaver' to an alley at the rear--for 102 feet, enough space to park six Ford Excursions bumper to bumper.

Rather than being restricted by the string-bean shape, Blythe and Jerry Fair have created a garden that takes full advantage of it, with a winding path, raised beds filled with herbs and flowers, a splashing fountain and a rose-covered arbor for outdoor dining. Helped by Christin Fusano, a Laguna Beach garden consultant, they have managed to pack in all the amenities that a good cook, her family and guests could wish for.

"It has everything," Blythe Fair said. "It's an edible garden, an entertaining garden, a cutting garden--I can go outside and pick a bouquet or gather lunch." It's even a healing garden, according to clients of Fair, a practitioner of Jin Shin Jyutsu, the Japanese "Art of Compassionate Man," a therapeutic balancing of body and chi energy.

After hearing Fusano talk on "Creating an Outdoor Italian Room," Fair, 43, recalls thinking that was exactly what she wanted at home. So

she asked Fusano, who has designed many gardens in southern Orange County, for help with a garden that she could cook from and eat in. And, of course, it had to fit in the skinny sideyard.

"Dealing with cramped, odd-shaped lots is probably the future of gardening, at least here in Orange County," Fair said, referring to the scarcity of space around many new or remodeled homes.

When Fusano arrived for a consultation, Fair immediately took her to a big sliding-glass door just off the dining area. The area, as well as the kitchen and living room, get their views of the garden through the door. Fusano suggested putting a fountain right outside, to act as the garden's visual, if not actual, center. It helps disguise how narrow the yard is and fills it with the sight and sound of water. When the sliding door is open, the sound bounces off the stucco wall behind the fountain and into the house.

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At the fountain, there is a respectable 22 feet between the house and garden wall, and previous owners had a concrete patio on the spot. The Fairs tore out the concrete but left the original brick border and filled it in with a handsome Arizona flagstone called Candlelight.

The old brick was not the only thing salvaged from the original garden. Fair and her mother, Marilyn Carson, carefully moved all the old plants--mostly nandina and star jasmine--to Jerry Fair's Volvo repair business in Costa Mesa.

The 6-foot-tall stucco wall runs the length of the garden and originally was a plain tan color. They re-covered it with a mined-earth stucco finish--called a Santa Barbara finish--that has the effect of "a foggy mist," said Fair. The mottled finish and the Provencal green of the house make the long sideyard appear less closed in. "It doesn't feel like you're in a tunnel anymore," Fair said.

The wall is bordered by an undulating raised bed 2 to 3 feet deep with a 2-foot-tall stucco-and-brick retaining wall. 'Blue Point' junipers, about 8 feet tall, are widely spaced along the wall, looking like little Italian cypress. The beds are stuffed with plants, such as the striking, cream-splashed Duranta repens 'Variegata' and Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Sheen,' two good, smallish landscape shrubs. Mixed in are flowering plants, like a red-flowered Cestrum newelii, "which makes a stunning contrast to the blue-gray juniper," Fair said.

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The plants aren't placed in straight rows but, rather, woven in and out in a skillful mix of heights and textures. They mask the wall in an irregular way, giving the bed a sense of depth that really isn't there.

The Fairs also used flagstone to make the long, winding path that runs from front to back and is bordered with tiny lights, which Fair says is quite magical at night. Intrigued guests talk about taking a "meander" in the garden, while Jerry Fair often suggests that they "walk the grounds" to see the garden from various vantage points and in the day's differing lights.

Flagstone was chosen for both the path and patio to limit the expanse of unrelieved paving and to allow planting in the gaps between stones. The stones are mortared in place where traffic is the heaviest so they won't shift and trip someone.

But in less-traveled spots, each piece sits on its own little concrete pad and the space between is filled with ornamental woolly and elfin thyme, erodium and Veronica repens, as well as useful herbs such as lemon thyme and creeping oregano.

It's almost impossible not to step on the herbs, but that's what Fusano and Fair were hoping for--each step releases a blast of herbal fragrance.

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