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Such resilience, such beauty

Fire-safe landscaping needn't be austere or predictable.

November 13, 2003|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

First came the wildfires, then the questions.

Providence aside, why had certain neighborhoods and houses been spared in the firestorms that ravaged Southern California? What had the builders or landscapers done that encouraged flames to stop in their tracks or travel other paths?

Experts have praised architectural modifications, such as the elimination of eaves, and the use of noncombustible materials in structures and for roofing. They also say, however, that the most valuable insurance just might be smart garden design and maintenance.

Lest one succumb to stereotypes, it must be said that being smart need not mean sacrificing beauty.

Way up high on a scrub-dotted hill in Pasadena, a Modernist aerie with sweeping views rises softly from the land. The home and its gardens, both designed with fire safety in mind, merge gently into the surrounding slope.

There is little conflict between the stucco- and glass-walled building, the designed landscape and the natural space they occupy. The 1.6-acre site has been tamed, not dominated. Sounds of water and wind predominate. Small lizards scurry over stones. Browsing deer find clear passage here. On this knoll, seasonal changes are unmistakable.

This harmony is intentional. The 4,200-square-foot home -- designed by the late Don Hensman, a key figure in the evolution of Modernist architecture -- maximizes the isolated yet intimate location and its ravishing vistas. Four years ago, as the structure neared completion, landscape architect Rick Fisher of Glendora-based Toyon Design unified the living spaces and woodworking studio with the landscape.

The homeowners, Alex and Jaylene Moseley, have an enduring relationship with Fisher, who has landscaped numerous commercial buildings overseen by Jaylene's real estate development firm. He also designed the gardens at their former residence on a very different site, closer to sea level in a shaded oak woodland in San Marino.

In crafting the Moseleys' new lofty landscape above the Rose Bowl, Fisher retained most of the native plants and created a series of four fire-wise zones radiating away from the structure. He added only fire-resistive plants -- permanent, well rooted and low growing, with tough water-storing foliage -- in earthy tones that reflect the natural environment.

Color is intrinsic to the calming aura here. The warm gray and rust shades of the building were inspired by markings in the large Tres Rios pavers embroidered into the paths. Leaf and flower colors were borrowed from the native landscape.

Brisbane box and strawberry trees echo the tones of laurel sumac, toyon, oak and manzanita. Gray-green catnip and rosemary complement the sages. Little bulbines, with finger-like foliage and pale persimmon blossoms, mimic golden-orange monkey flowers that swaddle the hillside each spring.

Fisher placed low but moist plantings in Zone 1, closest to the house, ringed by swaths of noncombustible hardscape (unplanted sections of the garden covered by pavers and so forth) and progressively larger and less thirsty flora.

Near the home, penstemon, rockrose, buckwheat, sedge and other petite perennials and grasses offer little fuel but plenty of color, texture and fragrance.

Areas of hardscape function as firebreaks on all sides of the building within the "defensible zone." A sizable motor court assures ample space for firefighter access, equipment and easy turnaround, should it be needed.

The inner courtyard encloses a pool fed by a rushing curtain of water. Compact clusters of Phormium 'Dazzler' and a glass-green native sedge, Carex tumulicola, explode from pocketed beds. Where foot traffic flows across the floor of irregular paving stones, tiny-leafed Dymondia margaretae and blue-star creeper fill the spaces.

A path to the east beckons strollers though a darkened alcove, then into the light to a flat overlook with a simple, semicircular fountain, and beyond to the wilder landscape. There, Alex Moseley explains, a lopsided strawberry tree is pruned out of shape regularly by deer.

On the north side facing the forested mountains, a small patio overlooks the Rose Bowl. It is edged with typical Zone 2 plants, including prostrate perennials and densely rooted ground covers. These earth-huggers, including a Grevillea 'Wakiti Sunrise,' with spidery orange-red blossoms, and magenta species geraniums, prevent erosion and can slow the movement of a surging fire. They also provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies.

In Zone 3, on the first rung of flats and slopes, Fisher added drifts of short, drought-tolerant, aromatic plants with spreading roots and purple flowers. Among them: Salvia 'Bee's Bliss,' Lavandula 'Goodwin Creek,' Origanum 'Hopley's Purple' and two kinds of trailing rosemary, 'Huntington Carpet' and 'Ken Taylor.'

Bank plantings on all surrounding slopes and up the long, long driveway are blanketed with sages, manzanita and other squat, mounding shrubs.

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