YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Make magic happen

The most enchanting landscapes, the ones that cast a spell on any visitor, all begin with a few simple elements. Such is the alchemy of simplicity and inspiration.

September 11, 2003|Douglas Kent | Special to The Times

A great garden is a journey. There are moments of nuance and surprise, with the potential for something magical around every corner, behind every shrub. Sometimes, that element is just a reading nook that lures you with a shady bench and a place for your coffee. Other times, it's something more lavish: a miniature train or a grand old oak. The right garden "should invite you in, change your mood and reveal its secrets through a progression of outdoor rooms," said Budd Sutton, who teaches landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona.

In Corona del Mar, Missy Ann Schweiger's garden wonderland is so stunning that it stops passers-by. "Sometimes it's difficult to get work done around here," Schweiger said. "The garden makes people speak up." While Schweiger's landscape is a traffic-stopper, its beauty is not a rare commodity in garden-rich Southern California.

There are countless gardens that make walkers pause, drivers slow and cause even the most cantankerous people to say something gracious. At first glance, these landscapes may look different. To be sure, they are a journey, with a solid dose of whimsy and inspiration. But more likely than not they all share some fundamental characteristics of design that make it all work.

Experts may disagree on the exact formula for a successful landscape, but they usually agree on basic principles to a good garden. Here are brief descriptions of these elements and how Schweiger and others use them to create sensational spaces:


The foundation

Creating a foundation is simply a process of defining what a landscape should do and how people will move through it. This involves identifying the garden's living spaces and linking these spaces with paths.

"She's got good bones" is how Schweiger describes her landscape. An easy-to-follow system of paths radiates from a large patio that sits just outside her front door. Her corner lot is a rectangle and her fences mimic the strong lines of the street. The planting beds, grass areas and paths are wavy and organic and frequently go against these hard lines. Finally, three large eucalyptus trees add scale and shade to her landscape.

Like Schweiger, Claire Goode, a landscape designer from Walnut, likes to use large trees. "Trees tie the soil to the sky, and they not only anchor a landscape to the land, but the people to it too."



According to Sutton, there are a variety of ways to create interest in a landscape, but none as important as transition areas, where one area meets another. "Anticipation is heightened and the next phase of the journey is revealed in the transitions," he said.

Schweiger uses arbors covered in roses to greet guests who walk in from the street. "I wanted the transition from the street to the garden to be like stepping into another dimension," she said. Her efforts are successful too; once inside, the temperature drops and the air begins to fill with fragrance, all of which is in stark contrast to the hot, asphalt street only a few feet away.

Besides the areas of transitions, there are other ways to create interest. Compressing and widening paths (and views), changing the elevation of the pathways and planter beds, briefly changing the material of the path, such as replacing stone with wood to give the illusion of a bridge, and using colors are all techniques that create interest. "Interest is enhanced when the rhythm and tempo of a landscape are altered," Goode said.

Schweiger created interest in her garden by varying the width of her paths, raising two-thirds of her planter beds, and by planting a lime-colored sedum to call attention to certain parts of her planter beds. "Putting color in the background creates a sense of mystery because people can see the light but can't identify the particulars," said Schweiger. "The light tugs at them and pulls them from the patio."


Language and rhythm

What's the goal? Is there a concept or theme? The language of a landscape helps determine this. Many professionals will write a concept statement, and according to Goode, this does not have to be complicated. "A quick example of concept statements: 'We want a Mediterranean retreat that is low maintenance with lots of reds and oranges,' or 'We want a safe environment for our children that has the feel of a wooded lot while taking advantage of the views in our backyard,' " she explained.

Materials that best represent the language are selected and used throughout a landscape. "Picking four or five plants that best represent your theme and then pulling them throughout the garden unifies your composition and creates rhythm," Goode said.

While Schweiger's garden lacks an easy-to-identify theme, its language is easy to read. The entire pathway is flagstone sunk in soil, and along the paths and house she has planted Pittosporum tenuifolium, New Zealand tree fern (the smallest), white hydrangea, calla lily and lots of white impatiens.


Focal points

Focal points are places where you ask your guests to pause. A landscape without these interludes has a tendency to feel aimless, the experts say. In successful landscapes, focal points can represent a climax to a story or composition. Benches, fountains, statues, shade structures, barbecues, unusual plants and pots are examples of focal points.

Schweiger has three focal points scattered throughout her garden. A miniature railroad track and train are a focal point at the base of a large eucalyptus next to her patio. A large vase is the focal point on her side yard, and several unusual roses are the focal point for the front. To make these focal points even stronger, she binds the roses together with boxwoods and maintains colorful annuals around the train and vase.

Working together, all these elements create positive energy from those passing by and pausing to admire Schweiger's front yard. Their reactions almost seem to invigorate the space, and it flourishes with the constant input.

Los Angeles Times Articles