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Bringing Work Home

July 28, 2002|SUSAN HEEGER

AFTER 10 YEARS IN AN APARTMENT, MYVA NEWMAN CONSIDERS A backyard bath near a lemon tree one of the perks of home ownership. Another is claiming space for her chair and plant collections. "A garden makes your house bigger," Newman says. "It gives you privacy outside, places to bring your friends and more room for all the plants you crave. Gradually I'm erasing the line between indoors and out."

A planting designer for Tichenor & Thorp Architects, Newman found her Rancho Park house in 1999 and immediately set to stripping it. Out went heavy awnings, plantation shutters and even windows, which she replaced with French doors. She painted walls green to connect the inside rooms with garden spaces, though the garden still needed work. Behind her Spanish-style bungalow, a dying ash tree slumped on patchy grass, and the focal point was a concrete pad for trash containers. Phone lines and neighbors' roofs pressed in from both sides. The front garden was equally disappointing, with one skinny birch. Newman found herself being stared at by passersby.

"This lot is typical," she says. "About 50 by 100 feet is the size many people deal with, and it's full of all the same problems." To solve hers, Newman, who works on larger properties as a professional, applied the same tools (hedges, trees, perennials and stone) and the same rules she uses daily. "No matter how small or large your lot, your eye should find something interesting wherever you look. Wherever you feel like sitting, put a chair."

Taking her own advice, she began by ripping out her front lawn, replacing the birch with an olive tree and installing a hedge of Pittosporum crassifolium-a rugged shrub with rounded, gray-green leaves. Within its crisp embrace, she set a tiny square lawn as a foil for highly textured plants such as honey bush, Jerusalem sage, lavender, rosemary, euphorbia. She arranged these in 6-foot-deep borders that make the tight space seem paradoxically bigger. Pots of succulents carry the plantings up the steps to the front door and an old-fashioned porch glider nearby. Similar pots surround the rear French doors, tying her garden rooms together.

Lawns are another linking tool. Newman uses just enough grass to set off the foliage tumble at its edges. "As in the front, I began the back with a rough sketch-a narrow grass carpet framed by broken concrete from the trash patio I'd demolished and I planted borders on all sides," she says. "I started arranging plants I liked-more euphorbias, lavender, sisyrinchium, loquat, bronze flax-but then I'd see something at a nursery or in a friend's garden, and I'd have to somehow make room for it."

Roses are another garden motif, and her rose list reads like a Who's Who of noble French and English life: 'Lady Hillingdon,' 'Norwich Castle,' 'Abbaye de Cluny.' Most bloom in her favorite shades of peach and apricot, a showy complement to the bronze and purple leaves she likes, and all are sweetly scented, another must among her plant picks.

Some of these, such as peppermint geranium and culinary sage, hold their fragrance in their leaves. Others, such as the angels' trumpet near the tub, emit their perfumes at night, when Newman is home to enjoy them. "Certain landscape needs you understand right away," she says, "some only after you live in a place."

The outdoor tub was an early choice, arising from her love of baths and water and the fact that a contractor friend had two vintage tubs to spare. (The second now holds Newman's aquatic plants.) As to outdoor furnishings, she says, "Drag home anything you can carry from a flea market and then have good cushions made." Comfort and convenience are key, as is the invitation to linger. "I've bought so many chairs," she says. "I've had to give some away." The designer continues to remake the space and has plans to break up the driveway to allow for more planting space. In the meantime, she says, her future plans are "to keep collecting plants and eventually move to a bigger place!"

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