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Giving rock a role

While everything else in the yard grows and moves, stone offers a sound anchor. And what a backdrop for plants and flowers.

August 26, 2004|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

Every garden must have stone, be it a solitary rock, a ribbon of gravel, a pod of boulders or a massive wall or waterfall. Stone, while rigid, is transformed by daylight and dew. Stone flatters all plants, and few things are better to climb on or sit on, except for maybe a tree.

Two gardens, one in the foothills and one by the sea, become personal and permanent (as permanent as a garden can be) by using stone to anchor their design. One landscape was endowed with native stone, the other called for imported materials. And though poles apart in style and content, each garden provides sanctuary and bliss to a growing family.

When Gail and Phong Ngo moved last year to a ranch house in the Arcadia foothills, their new backyard was dominated by insecure slopes, useless steps, a full-size shuffleboard court, an aging pool and a pile of native granite fieldstones guarded by two Mexican fan palms and some jade plants.

The half-acre property also housed six mature native oaks and a towering California bay. "The trees were our first priority," says Gail, a botanical educator and Huntington volunteer.

Toddler in tow, the Ngos spent six months on planning and reclamation. By last spring, using only stone and brick that was already there and aided by contractor and "rock man" Dan Gromer, they had a brand-new landscape with well-protected trees, sturdy retaining walls and areas for planting and play.

A tiny field of turf bordered by a red brick track, ideal for little boys and wheel toys, went in first. The Ngos are expecting their second son in September. Morning sun warms the adjacent brick-capped stone retaining wall with its built-in bench, embellished with a heart-shaped rock found in the pile.

Gail wanted flowers, and she and Phong, an emergency room physician, love to cook. They intertwined ornamentals -- roses, annuals, perennials, bulbs, climbers (mostly in electric colors) -- with edibles. "If it isn't cuttable or edible or have a good fragrance, it doesn't go in this garden," Gail says.

Sweet olive, Osmanthus fragrans, sweet alyssum, Fuji apple and a patch of pumpkins cohabit one border. Boxwood, blueberries and a string of lemon guava and citrus trees screen the new pool house from the residence. Five varieties of grape mount a poolside arbor (Phong dreams of making wine). The arbor also sports an eyebrow of purple-flowering sandpaper vine, Petrea volubilis.

A long wall holds the sunlit slope above the pool, where Babcock peach, Santa Rosa plum and more citrus collide with scallions, chilies, basil and mint. Heirloom tomatoes buckle with fruit. Wild strawberries (a toddler favorite), lavender, lemon grass and Copper Canyon daisy surround a set of flat stone steps; creeping thyme and oregano spill from between rocks.

Gromer, the contractor, selected the largest of the fieldstones for low walls (generally under two feet) set only by gravity and compacted soil, and used smaller ones to face the steel-reinforced concrete-block retaining walls. None of the rocks was heavy enough to require special equipment, such as pulleys or a crane. Which raises the question: What do you do if they are?

As Barbara Pleasant advises in "Garden Stone" (Storey Publishing, 2002), "Never lose sight of two basic facts.... First, stone is always easiest to move downhill. Second, stone is much easier to drag or roll than to lift and carry."

Indeed, it took trucks and forklifts to move the 2,800-pound pallet of thick Pennsylvania bluestone into Jessica Teich and Michael Gendler's Pacific Palisades garden. While the straight-walled chocolate-brown house and the bluestone connote the Northeast, this garden is, without a doubt, purely Californian.

Teich, co-author of "Trees Make the Best Mobiles, Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World," and Gendler, an entertainment lawyer, wanted outdoor rooms that offered serenity. That in mind, garden designer Christine Rosmini chose bluestone to complement the shaded atmosphere and the quiet rusty colors of the ancient blue gums, Eucalyptus globulus, on the property. She filled the beds with Mediterranean-climate plants in gray, pale green, bronze and burgundy -- and limited the flower colors to white, blue and purple.

From the street, pavers lead through a living wall of Pittosporum crassifolium onto a landing with a switchback and view of the see-through architecture to the back garden. A series of wide steps continues down to the entry, and a simple child-safe water feature built from a "rumpled old English stone trough" trickles from its natural crack onto rock shards, made lovelier by the music and moisture, into a hidden pool.

"Chris' design gave a sense of distance and ceremony," Teich says. "By the time you get to the door, you've had a moment to gather yourself." The pavers wrap around the house, meld with a grassy swath "for little bare feet" and mushroom into a well-used patio and sitting area with a pergola built from railroad ties.

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