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A family's sanctuary

With a seriously ill child, a Santa Monica couple didn't want the chaos of a remodel. Instead, they expanded their backyard -- and discovered the transformative power of gardens.

August 19, 2004|Christy Hobart | Special to The Times


really thought about remodeling the garden until we gave up on the idea of adding on to our Santa Monica house. We desperately needed more space, but we weren't sure if our family of three could handle the chaos of living in a construction site. Life was already stressful enough.

Our then-3-year-old son, Ben, our first child, had been born with a serious disease called tuberous sclerosis, and none of the many medications we'd tried could control his daily seizures. He was unsteady on his feet and bumped into things in our cluttered house, and he could drop to the floor without warning. His doctors couldn't tell us he'd be fine. He'd live, they gently assured us, but he probably would never be OK.

If my mother had sold the little Santa Monica cottage she inherited from her parents to an outsider, it probably would have been gobbled up by a monster mansion by now. Besides preserving my family heritage, redoing the backyard held another attraction: It was far more affordable than adding on to the house at a time when my husband Henry's job at a dot-com -- like that at any dot-com -- was at risk.

So two years ago, we decided to transform the backyard -- 7,000 square feet dotted with some nice citrus trees, a few scraggly roses and plenty of weeds -- into a place where Ben could move around freely, friends could join us for dinner and we could relax. Thinking -- dreaming really -- about such a project was liberating. Playing with the placement of footpaths, talking about what fruit we wanted to grow and weighing the pros and cons of lawns took us out of our tough daily routine.

As Henry and I discussed our future garden, something unexpected became clear: We were after control. It was a surprising discovery, but we understood. Ben's health problems were, to a large extent, out of our hands, but we knew we could pretty much control what went on in our garden. We'd have clipped hedges and clean lines, a defined area for vegetables and another for flowering plants. Nothing too wild looking. No curvy borders. We wanted things contained. Orderly.

We had goals, but we needed help realizing them. Because I write about homes and gardens for a living, I had scouted many lovely sites and met with dozens of Los Angeles designers. Lisa Moseley's organized yet informal work struck a chord with me. She took notes as we described a place we would use all the time, from morning till night -- an extension of our house. We talked about our favorite plants and trees and listened while she suggested some we'd never heard of.

A few weeks later, Moseley delivered the perfect plan: She gave us a playroom, a dining room, a new kitchen (well, a barbecue area) and a sitting room -- all in perfect proportion and order -- plus a couple of lawns and a potagerie. Working with landscaper David A. Diaz of Landscape Discoveries in Westchester, we started the installation right away, choosing young plants to keep costs low. Diaz's crew tore out old roses, lawns and weeds; amended soil; laid header boards and irrigation pipes; and hooked up low-voltage lighting. They planted trees and shrubs and rolled over decomposed granite. Just over a month later, we were watching our garden grow.

By swapping stucco for Pittosporum crassifolium, hardwood for decomposed granite and a new roof for the canopy of a pear tree, we'd expanded our living area for a fraction of the proposed building cost -- and ended up with more (and more fragrant) breathing room than we'd hoped for. As Henry likes to say, we built 10 times the space for one-tenth the price.

We now walk into the garden to get away. Sometimes we go in to be alone, sometimes we go as a couple and sometimes we enjoy it as a family. Somehow, daily reality doesn't follow us. There's a calm out there that doesn't exist inside -- or anywhere else.

I do the weeding. Henry trains roses. We read the Sunday paper and drink our morning coffee to the sound of the bubbling fountain, swing Ben (and now his baby sister, Maisie) in the play area, serve dinners for friends (and sometimes just pizza for ourselves) under the bougainvillea-topped pergola.

We grow fruit and plant seasonal vegetables. We listen to the mourning doves coo, watch the hummingbirds dart from penstemon to pineapple sage and clap the squirrels and crows away from our apples. We put the delicate petals of the feijoa tree onto our tongues for a whisper of sweetness and a taste of the fruit to come. Our evening snail-hunting expeditions, which often become competitions to see who can collect the most, reveal that the pests love sweet alyssum and prefer Italian basil over a Greek variety.

Flashlights in hand, we discovered where orb weavers spin their beautiful webs and the pot a black widow called home -- until Henry's comic effort to whack her scares her away. We know that our favorite place for a last glass of wine is at the little blue table tucked away in the vegetable garden.

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