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The Plot Thickens

A Hancock Park Family Forgoes the Lawn for a Mission Garden Ripe with Edibles and Ornamentals

January 06, 2002|SUSAN HEEGER

Something magical happened when Cindy Boyd and Louis Wilde stripped the pink paint off their Mission-style house in Hancock Park. Suddenly, instead of Hollywood's idea of a hilltop villa in Majorca, they saw the plainness of La Purisima, one of the least adorned of California's missions. While the wear and tear of 75 years showed clearly in the finely cracked and pitted plaster, such flaws enhanced the character of walls that now resembled old adobe. And once adobe was invoked, the couple's hopes for a practical garden where they could tend vegetables along with climbing roses made sense. "Mission gardens were basically utilitarian," observes Wilde, an economist. "But their mix of edibles with ornamentals appealed to us as a model."

Four years ago, when he and Boyd, an artist, bought their house--designed in 1923 by architect A.S. Nibecker Jr.--they loved the purity of its original Batchelder tiles and wood floors. But the landscape was another story. Possibly during the 1940s, someone had planted podocarpus trees, some smack in front of windows, and snipped them into topiaries. The front hill was a sea of lawn, which Boyd and Wilde found dull, not to mention environmentally irresponsible. Along one edge, a concrete drive shot from the street uphill to wrap unpleasantly around the house, where it met more paving. Even a romantic courtyard near the front door was floored with brick, which made it baking hot during daylight hours. Boyd and Wilde cleaned the slate, banishing lawn, bricks and goofy topiaries. They kept one struggling rose, a 'Cecile Brunner' on the courtyard wall, and added a climbing 'Sally Holmes.' Wilde, who spent his childhood in Iowa farm country and is the food gardener of the pair, planted grapes in a side yard. Boyd, having grown up amid Orange County citrus groves, wanted to frame the house with orange trees. Like Wilde, she works largely from home and envisioned lush views from indoors and secluded garden spots where she could wander and relax. Both wanted their children, Max, 10, and Alexandra, 12, to enjoy the bounties of nature.

But given their demanding schedules, they asked Altadena landscape designer Robert Cardenas to help them lay out their ideas. "We spent time walking, looking at views and getting a sense of each space," says Cardenas, adding that the house itself partly dictated the lay of outdoor rooms. Off the kitchen, for example, it made sense to site a dining terrace and surround it with herbs. The front courtyard, once it was sheltered with palms and cooled by a reflecting pool, created a view garden from the living room and a hidden alcove for lounging. Behind the house, where the sun is strongest--and where the windows of Wilde's office face garden--proved ideal for his food plots, now bursting with tomatoes, zucchini and peppers.

But the mission feeling is just as palpable on the front hill, where orange trees blossom alongside specimen agaves and grasses seed among boulders, adding an air of benign neglect. An allee of olives curtains off the drive, which no longer continues past the house. In place of its forbidding ribbon, Cardenas has threaded steppingstones through a newly planted tropical glade, rustling with palms, ferns and jujube trees.

"For me, exotics enhance a garden's sense of wonder," says Cardenas, who went to out-of-the-way nurseries such as Mimosa in East L.A. seeking mango, papaya and litchi nut trees.

"It became a family game choosing from Robert's list," Wilde recalls. " 'Do we want kiwis? Why not!' "

Such curiosities hark back to early California history, when the state was seen by East Coast transplants as a paradise where anything would grow. Admittedly, says Cardenas, some are still experiments. "We're waiting to see if it's hot enough for the papayas." Meanwhile, aside from spring irises, courtyard roses and nodding lavender, you won't see many flowers here. In this garden, beauty speaks softly, like the weathered walls of an old house.

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