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The Patient English

When a British Garden Designer Moved to L.A., He Changed His Pace and Bent Some Rules

June 15, 2003|Susan Heeger

In the heart of England near Bath, where Paul Robbins grew up, everyone gardened. From the age of 8, Robbins was so passionate about plants that his mother gave him his own plot. In a 20-square-foot garden bed, he raised herbs from seed and tended roses the neighbors envied--in fact, they soon hired him to tend theirs. "I've never stopped," he says more than 20 years later. "Working outside, watching plants grow is all I've ever wanted."

One of the new crop of young L.A. garden designers, Robbins studied horticulture and garden design in England, where he planned to build his career. But in the mid-'90s, on a trip to Brentwood to landscape an aunt and uncle's house, he met his wife-to-be, Susan Woods, a public relations executive. Under the influence of romance, he faced facts about his native climate, its fleeting summers and the five to seven years British gardeners often wait to see their flower beds fill in. "There's a very different sense of urgency in California," Robbins says. "Things grow so fast."

The same was true for his relationship with Woods. By 1997, he had moved to L.A. to marry her, and a year ago they bought a 1920s cottage in Larchmont Village. "It was hard for me to leave a country with such community spirit--and a pub on every corner--for a city where people hardly walk or know their neighbors," he says. "In Larchmont, we do."

Though the house needed little beyond paint to make it shine, the garden was more challenging. In front, a plain sloped lawn and concrete stairs faced the street. In the back, more concrete had been broken up and placed around an unappealing pond, and more lawn struggled for light beneath a pepper tree.

"Before we even moved in, I had a garden plan," Robbins says. "Lawn, pond and concrete had to go. And the minute we got the keys I planted trees--calamondins, an olive, a chinaberry--to add atmosphere and a sense of permanence."

With a background in formal garden design, he reveled in opportunities to ease the rules. In the front garden he followed them, replacing grass with patterned beds and slate walls to complement the small but stately house. Behind the house, he curved his lines in meandering paths and irregular borders that hide seating spots and other surprises. "I didn't want everything revealed at once," he says. "Letting your views unfold can make a small space seem larger."

So can modulating the color palette, using soft blues and silvers near the house and reserving hot oranges and reds for distant beds, which draw you out to admire them. Paving further sets off various rooms: His outdoor dining terrace has a floor of square-cut limestone pavers, while a more casual reading place beneath the pepper tree features randomly patterned Mexican sandstone.

Robbins' choices in plants show how fast he has embraced species suited to his dry, hot adopted home. In place of the foxgloves and delphiniums he once tucked into borders, he grows Spanish lavender, salvias, rosemary and daylilies. While such plants thrive in arid heat, they also demand less maintenance, a key consideration, says Robbins, since many Angelenos are too busy to garden. They do, however, want to lounge outside in landscapes designed for living rather than viewing or displaying plants.

Even Robbins admits that his own garden reflects a similar impulse. "When I'm home, I want to enjoy my environment, not be a slave to it.'' And in a secret nook behind the garage, he has hung a reminder of happy bygone hours in English pubs--a dartboard.

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GARDENS, Pages 24-27: Paul Robbins Garden Design, Los Angeles, (323) 461-3970.

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