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The Layering Effect

An Altadena Couple Restore a Terraced Hillside Garden

October 26, 2003|Susan Heeger

Beginning in the 1930s, an industrious man dug tons of native arroyo granite from an Altadena hill. Because of the passing of time and owners, only his last name, Rodriguez, is known. A working man and itinerant preacher, he toiled alone for more than 20 years in exchange for a room in a shed behind a house, where he built a half-acre of stone terraces, laying walls in broad steps so the landowner could plant orange trees.

Today the oranges are gone, but Rodriguez's walls still stand amid a panoply of fresh greens. Rosemary, lantana and ice plant drape his mortared rocks; snow-in-summer and lavender grow beside them. Trees weep above his stairs.

More than 60 years after his labors--he didn't stop here, building walls across two more rolling acres--Rodriguez's walls have inspired a new owner to plant a garden. Beginning in 1996, lawyer Chuck Greaves, who bought the property with his attorney wife, Lynda Larsen, has been laying out beds, installing trees and learning the ways of deer, salvias and succulents. "Aside from sticking in a few plants, I'd never gardened before," Greaves says. "But these terraces cried out to be filled."

In 1992, when he and Larsen bought their lodge-style house, built in the '40s on the site of a 1910 cabin, weeds covered the stepped hill. Their first job was to clear the slate, but given the size of the slope, hand-digging was out of the question. Smothering the ground with clear plastic killed the weeds, but when Greaves and Larsen left it on too long, the plastic disintegrated, scattering everywhere. After the cleanup, they decided to sow wildflower seeds and start a meadow. But come spring, the weeds returned with the flowers. "We couldn't tell which was which," Greaves says. Realizing it was time to get serious, the couple called an arborist friend, David Temple, in Colorado.

Temple flew out for a visit and in a few days helped Greaves design an irrigation system and choose unusual specimen trees. The two experimented with blue Atlas cedar and white-flowering dove tree--which later expired after an Altadena summer--but a Chinese fringe tree and Red Flame witch hazel survived. Temple helped Greaves realize that to create interesting views on his terraced garden, he first had to soften its hard horizontal lines.

Greaves began by planting a pair of cypresses to set off one of Rodriguez's architectural flights, an arched mission-style doorway between the third and fourth terraces. He and Larsen laid a path to that doorway and across the third terrace by hauling gravel in buckets and leaving curved cutouts at the edges for more plants. They added small cuttings of rosemary, sweet pea bush and orange sticks-on-fire, which eventually matured to fill out the beds.

"I planted for the long haul, not the immediate effect," says Greaves. He took his time, planted small and waited for borders to knit together. On one level, shrubby rosemary plants merged into a free-form undulating hedge. On another, white snow-in-summer, gold gazanias and an anonymous pink groundcover stitched their own textured tapestry.

From terrace to terrace, the plantings change, and so do the paths underfoot. The lowest level, with its desert succulents, has a soft decomposed-granite walk. The second, which suggests English-style edges with echium and lavender, features a grass path. On level three, the crunching gravel winds through rosemary, agaves and blue fescue to a half-hidden gazebo dining area. Another grass swath on the fourth level sets off fig, magnolia and avocado trees.

"I tried not to repeat too much so that the garden experience evolves and changes as you walk up," Greaves says. "But at the same time, it needed enough visual unity to hold together from below."

In the interest of cohesiveness, certain plants do repeat: rosemary, lavender and sage appear on several levels, evoking a Mediterranean look in harmony with the walls. These plants, along with succulents and grasses, are undemanding. "I don't have time for much maintenance," Greaves admits. Hence the drip irrigation, informal plantings and the bark mulch he puts on all his beds to conserve moisture, control weeds and feed the soil as it decomposes.

To discourage deer from dining, he chooses fragrant plants, which they dislike, and sheathes other plants, along with young trees, in metal mesh until they're too big and tough to chew.

Most of all, Greaves and Larsen enjoy their layered hill. "The plants have grown, more songbirds have arrived, it's just a great place to be."

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Resource Guide

Persson's Nursery, Pasadena, (626) 792-6073; La Crescenta Nursery, Glendale, (818) 249-2448; California Cactus Center, Pasadena, (626) 795-2788; Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802; Huntington Library Botanical Gardens plant sale, San Marino, (626) 405-3500.

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