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A tranquil touch

Katherine Glascock creates gardens that express the true nature of the land and the people who live there. No two are alike, but all bring together strength and elegance.

May 22, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

MEET people whose garden has been designed by Katherine Glascock, and their voice softens when they mention her. "Oh, Katherine. She's so great."

"Oh, Katherine. She's so wonderful."

Nice. Special. Delightful. Brilliant. Frankly, it begins to grate. It seems merely a question of time before Katherine Glascock becomes Saint Katherine.

But the more Glascock gardens one visits, the more one understands why otherwise sensible people are reduced to gushing. Garden after garden, Glascock manages to intuit what people want, define what the setting will accommodate and then bind it together with strength and elegance.

No two Glascock gardens are alike. The one she did for psychotherapist Melissa Miller and radio broadcaster Rene Engel's Westside home is Mexican. Varda Ullman's Beverlywood garden has a muscular modernism. The fruit, flower and lawn configuration that she designed for artist Debbie Levitt and film editor Steve Rosenblum in the Palms district is a flower-filled, sunny suburban idyll. For horror film director Wes Craven, the garden is more Pacific Asian, more meditative. The one that she is just finishing for actor Laurence Fishburne and his wife, Gina Torres, is Moorish.

In the face of such eclecticism, the first telephone conversation with Glascock produces a surprise. "An Asian sensibility is implicit in everything I do," she says. There is a pause. "I'm Japanese American."

This sensibility is Zen, she says. Zen in the way that gardens that are good for people are true to Zen principles. She's not a Buddhist ecclesiastical gardener who does highly formalized gardens in which all the elements are reverently acknowledged. There are no tables of raked sand. Her style is more aptly called California Zen. Or, as she says, "universal Zen."

"It's hard to be one style today because none of us are that way," she says. "Especially so in California, because we're so eclectic. But when we create a garden, we need to find a way to give it unity."

This much was clear from her followers. Glascock listens to her clients, looks at the house and the landscape and sets out to marry the owner's dreams with the place in a way that is all of a piece. When an overriding theme emerges, it will reflect the owner's personality and the site's character, not hers.

But a word about hers. She lived in Monterey until she was 5, when World War II broke out and her family was sent to an internment camp. Three years later, they moved south to Los Angeles, where her father became a gardener.

Out of college, she married film editor Baylis Glascock, had two kids, Sarah and Aaron, taught school, was a doll-maker, a graphic designer and handbag maker before going back to the drawing board. First she studied industrial design, then landscaping. At a Pierce College landscaping course in the early 1980s, she met and befriended another student, Joan Booke, who became and has remained her contractor.

It helps here to know that Glascock is short, scarcely taller than 5 feet. Booke is about the same height. They laugh now at the bullying they endured from their first hulking garden contractor, who insisted on filling in between the paving stones with concrete.

"We would never do that today," says Booke.

Now, nothing marks their style more firmly than the way they lay a path. It is the setting of stones that brings out the Zen in Glascock. She uses rock, concrete, gravel, pebbles, boulders and pavers to give her gardens structure, tempo and mood.

At Ullman's Beverlywood tract house, the pathways give the frontyard of the formerly unremarkable corner bungalow bold sculptural flair. A gravel path sweeps from the sidewalk to an enlarged set of steps, built from Bouquet Canyon stones. More gravel pathways were built to traverse the corner of the lot, breaking up the bleak triangle defined by the suburban street grid.

When it came to the Beverly Hills home of art collectors Roz and Abner Goldstine, the demands were different. Their modern, glass-lined house called for a distinctly muted garden, where foliage did as much if not more work than the blooms. The back garden posed the greatest challenge. It was shallow and wide, like a cinemascope screen across the back of the house.

Glascock envisioned filling the space with something that would resemble a Chinese scroll painting. "Except I wanted to bring it all down to a generic level, so it didn't read as Chinese, or Japanese, but just as nature," she says.

Because every last plant was visible all year, she chose tried and true specimens. Working in front of an existing ficus hedge, she created a fluttering stand of European birches under-planted with fountain grass, gaura, Mexican heather and lilies.

Then there are the stones, a small gathering of boulders like buffalo approaching a watering hole. In Zen mythology, these might represent animals or islands. Here they give Goldstine's garden tableau mystery and presence.

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