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Go to Your Rooms!

A divvied-up area can provide a nice timeout from the world--and it's practical, too.

September 21, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

When a garden is divided into "rooms"--a classic landscaping ploy--each takes on its own identity and purpose, making the whole more interesting and useful. Chopping a garden into pieces doesn't necessarily make it feel smaller. It often has the opposite effect, since there are now places to go and things to see around the next hedge, or through the next portal.

There are at least seven distinct garden rooms in Judy Horton's 60-foot-wide by 80-foot-deep back yard in Windsor Square, adjacent to Hancock Park. Hedges and fences are the walls between the rooms; arching roses, trees or sky are the ceilings overhead.

Even smaller gardens can be divided into rooms, though the hedges and other "walls" are best kept on the short side, and there would be fewer garden rooms. The sense of enclosure and discovery, however, can be just as dramatic.

It is not hard to think of the enclosed spaces in the Horton garden as actual rooms in a house. You can spend time in the "living room," relaxing with the dogs on that big rug called a lawn, or get busy in the "kitchen," where the 'Golden Dorsett' apples and the bronze fennel grow. Maybe you need to get some things done out in the "garage," where all the pots and potting supplies are stored, or sit back with a good book in the warm formality of the "study," also called the Mediterranean garden.

It's a little harder to attach a name to the centerpiece of the garden, a grand 12-by-36-foot pergola that is smothered in roses like the giant 'Mermaid,' 'Jaune Desprez' and 'Glorie de Dijon.' The pergola predates the 1910 house and was one of the first design challenges for Horton and landscape architect Frances Knight of Pacific Palisades. They had to come up with ways to make the pergola, with its 12-by-12-inch posts, work with the house.

The pergola was once part of the garden of a neighboring house. The lot was split, and the present Craftsman-era house was moved there in 1945. "They simply dumped the house in front of the pergola," said Horton, and if you look closely, you will see that no part of the pergola aligns exactly with the house. "They don't go together."

Horton had been drawing plans for the backyard since 1983, when she bought the property, but she just couldn't make up her mind and kept drawing new versions. "I needed someone with a strong hand to reign me in and come up with a workable plan," she said. "I knew I wanted garden rooms, and I wanted seasonal change," said Horton, who credits Knight with the elegant and organized design--"the good bones" of her garden. Horton has continued to refine the plan, most recently redoing the lawn area to make it more formal.

Horton, 56, is now a garden designer herself, with an office in the Larchmont area. At the same time she was finishing up her garden, she went back to school to study design and horticulture--after years as a librarian for the Los Angeles Central Library. She notes that, as a librarian, she was head of the art and music department, which oversees the collections on landscaping and design. "Undoubtedly, they influenced me."

She is also an avid plants woman, constantly trying new things. She seldom settles for the usual but, rather, tracks down uncommon plants that she has read or heard about. She will stuff seeds into her purse while vacationing in England or France. She will bring back plants on the plane from avant-garde Northern California nurseries. She once missed three flights in a row, while searching frantically for a company that would pack and ship back all the plants she had picked up.

She has been gardening since "I planted my first radish" in her dad's vegetable garden on two acres in Northern California. "But I've been gardening in the Hancock Park area since we moved here in 1959, except, of course, when I was a teenager," said Horton, whose father, Jack Horton, was head of Southern California Edison. "Does anyone garden when they are a teenager?"

Her current garden is now 10 years old, finally getting planted in 1990--seven years after moving into the house. It is an ongoing project. "People tell me it looks different every time they come," said Horton. It is constantly undergoing change, being a laboratory for her work. Here is where she tries things out, or even raises hard-to-find plants that eventually end up in clients' gardens.

For instance, the patio under the pergola is filled with containers of a handsome "morning glory-blue" agapanthus named 'Elaine' and big pots of blue hydrangeas. When the hydrangeas get too big for the 18-inch pots (it takes about five years), she plants them out in the ground in clients' gardens. New little plants she has raised from cuttings take their place in the pots. She has also increased her small supply of the lovely, tall 'Elaine' by frequently dividing those on the terrace.

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