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Garden Visit

Cultivating the Wild Side of La Canada

February 22, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Three narrow creeks cut though this sloping garden, gnawing deeply into the bedrock each time it rains. Since Kevin Klesert first started caring for the garden in La Canada Flintridge 15 years ago, he's seen the rock channels deepen by 3 feet. "You should see the water rush though here when it's raining," says this energetic landscaper, who runs up and down the garden's steep canyon sides like a bighorn sheep.

This is as an unusual a setting for a garden as you're likely to find--rushing creeks just 15 miles north from the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles.

Some gardens have bridges, but they don't cross real chasms. A few have streams, but they don't run year-round, fed by natural springs. Many gardens have waterfalls, but they don't tumble and splash for 20 feet over glistening, moss-covered sheets of granite.

I would bet that there are very few gardens like this anywhere in Southern California. This is the kind of stuff you hike to, not garden in.

But Klesert, 44, has been gardening here since the garden was installed in 1985. "I've watched it grow up."

The West Hills resident doesn't own it, mind you. This is a multimillion-dollar property with a garden that costs $100,000 a year to maintain. The property has just changed hands, and the new owners would prefer to remain anonymous. They haven't even moved in yet.

Klesert and his company designed and built the garden for the previous owners and continue to maintain the property. He and a couple of assistants work here several days each week. There are also specialists who look after the gorgeous native oaks and sycamores, an electrician to care for all the outdoor lighting and even an on-call trapper, who keeps vermin and varmints under control.

The garden is full of wildlife. Deer have recently been excluded by a double fence, which they can't jump over, but Klesert has seen birds of prey so big he thought they were aircraft. There are lots of raccoons, opossums and skunks. He's counted more than a hundred nesting pairs of hummingbirds in one season and seen snowy owls. There is an open-air beehive high in one sycamore with layers of honeycombs that look like stalactites. A billion bees must live there.

"But I've never been stung," says Klesert. "I think they must know I'm taking good care of their forest." This garden is a true forest too, a watershed watched over by the U.S. Forest Service.

He may not own the 2.8-acre garden of more than 3,000 plants, but it clearly is his baby. He, for instance, does all of the pruning. "I don't trust anyone else," he says, sounding like a suspicious parent.

Klesert put in the original path that follows the contours of a hillside. It crosses the largest creek and leads to the far side of the property, where there is quite a bit of flat land, enough for an orchard and a rose garden. This used to be part of another property but was purchased early on by the first owner, a coup that must rank up there with the Louisiana Purchase.

From this first path you look down into a small canyon which was left untouched because it's "perfect just the way it is" with huge old canyon sycamores grasping with ghostly white branches at the narrow slit of sky overhead. Around them grow native toyons still covered at this time of year with glistening red berries.

The path crosses a creek but like a Texas wash, you simply step across when it's not raining. Of course, you can't cross when in a downpour (unless you want to make the 6 o'clock news), so to get to the far side of the property, you must go the long way around and use one of several dramatic bridges.

Tons of rock work and deep concrete footings support the bridges and paths and constructing these underpinnings for the garden took 35 men one full year.

At the very bottom of this canyon property, near where the creeks converge, is a small but deep koi pond with some real lunkers in it. "I've watched these guys grow up," says Klesert, sounding now like a proud uncle. He said that other ponds on the property get fished by raccoons but that this one is too deep for them.

Not far away is the level site of an ill-fated kitchen garden. "All we fed was the wildlife," said Klesert. Now it's a busy grinding and composting area.

Despite this property's size, he said that "nothing smaller than 4 inches in diameter ever leaves the property." All the smaller prunings and leaves are ground up and made into the most marvelous, woodsy mulch, which is used nearly everywhere in the garden.

Klesert swears this mulch is what makes the garden's camellias and azaleas so healthy, though he admits that this north-facing canyon side, shaded by tall open trees, is the nearly ideal site for both shrubs. Camellias are his favorite plants "and have been since I was a kid." What else, the still boyish Klesert questioned, looks handsome all year long and "then has blooms like this?" And in the middle of winter, he might add.

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