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Blue Heaven

A Silver Lake Garden Takes Its Inspiration From Church Designs

March 02, 2003|Susan Heeger

Annamarie Shaw likes to walk her garden path as the daylilies start to pop but before the sun has burned the blue mist off the hills. ''My blue heaven,'' she calls her view, after the song, and the words are etched on her stepping stones. Not that she would otherwise forget them. Her Silver Lake garden is like a shrine to the sky and the smoky San Gabriels beyond her ceanothus hedge. ''This has always been a magic place for me,'' says Shaw, who has lived in her house more than 30 years. ''But I didn't know how lovely it could be.''

That was before she met garden designer Tony Exter, a neighbor on her street, who helped her start the garden she had never had. At first, they just talked, and the talks led to a friendship, which gave Exter his direction. ''Annamarie's such a character,'' he says, ''so adventurous and passionate--about religion, music, theater, travel. Her interests guided me.''

Church design was an inspiration for her landscape, and you can see its influence in 'Provence' lavender rising to join the orange-lily choir around a pond with a spilling fountain. Intrigued by the challenge of infusing a garden with the resonance of faith and drama, Exter, now a partner in the South Pasadena BEM Design Group, studied plans for theaters and churches. He imagined a progression of outdoor spaces that would evoke the approach to a sanctuary for meditation. Plants and stone would stand in for the architecture. Mountains and sky would link heaven and nature.

Other significant elements included peach trees to symbolize the peaches Shaw's late husband brought her when they were courting. And the native ceanothus hedge (which blots out power wires and a busy freeway) evokes the local foothills, where it grows wild. The rising and setting sun are represented in the color palette--in the fire of the daylilies and the coolness of lavender, sage, iris and rosemary.

To help Shaw envision his ideas, Exter drew garden sketches and brought her photos and plant samples. A member of the L.A. Garden Club, she was more familiar with cymbidiums, which she collects, than with the Salvia 'Allen Chickering' and Buddleia davidii 'Black Knight' he wanted to work into his plan. ''But I liked his suggestions and I trusted him,'' Shaw recalls.

Exter brought in grading equipment and loads of High Desert stone to create a patio outside the kitchen, and low walls to elevate the main garden. He preserved two existing trees, an olive and a sycamore, and kept his new planting ''relatively low-slung'' to exaggerate the relationship between the scale of the mountains and the trees and thus enhance the depth of field.

''A big view is both an asset and a challenge,'' he says. ''You don't want to compete with it, but you do need some foreground interest.''

Goldfish flash in a stone-edged lily pond, with its vintage urn for a fountain piece. The water's steady spill helps mask traffic noise while drawing birds and other wildlife--"my little friends," Shaw calls them.

A retired dietitian, she spends a lot of time clipping, deadheading flowers and just puttering in the garden. ''I do talk a bit to my plants,'' she says. ''It's only fair. They give me so much, I have to tell them about it.''

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Resource Guide

Tony Exter, BEM Design Group, South Pasadena, (626) 403-0056

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