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GREENING

A gala of splendid gardens

Charity begins in these backyards. Take a stroll, take some notes. What's good for the world can be good for you.

September 02, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Charity's an expensive business. The Rockefellers gave balls, the Kennedys auctioned their gowns, Bob Geldof made albums. Photographer Erica Lennard had never owned a mansion in Newport or made a 10 best dressed list, and her singing voice probably couldn't fill a karaoke club. But when she was approached by a Ghana-based charity, she had an idea about how to raise funds for what is becoming a generation of children orphaned by AIDS in Africa: a garden tour.

Last year, Lennard published the Rizzoli book "Secret Gardens of Hollywood." It featured 27 homes of various creative types, from A-list to Anti-list. As she became involved with organizers from Orphanage Africa and two other charities -- African Solutions to African Problems and the African Millennium Foundation -- she persuaded eight of the Hollywood homeowners to reopen their gardens, this time for a cause.

The theme would be the quirky originality behind the gardens, from a pearl-studded terrace in the Hollywood Hills to Maui in the Valley in Sherman Oaks. To sweeten the pot, organizers added an auction. Art dealer Ana Roth donated a ladder from Mali and a week at a cottage in Tipperary. Southern California's leading authority on native and ornamental grasses, John Greenlee, donated a garden consultation. Fashion designer Kevan Hall donated a dress and cashmere stole. Add to this a week in the Sierra, four days at a Tucson spa, a Hollywood Bowl circle box, a week in Oaxaca, Mexico and so on.

As the schedule developed, the tour became a two-day affair, a Saturday auction at Roth's, then a garden tour proper the next day. Given her collection of African art, Roth's house in the higgledy-piggledy hills above Sunset is the perfect site for the auction -- almost. There is no parking. "We'll have to have valet," she says.

Still, it is the ideal location to begin the tour. Give up your car keys, climb up the stairs of the 1927 hillside villa, and you emerge into the archetypal Hollywood garden: a wooded well. Geography defines these enclaves. On one side is the back of the house, on the other an ascending hillside, and the garden is carved out of the captured space in between.

Natch, there's a pool, a stand of Mexican fan palms, an avocado, ashes, the usual good green fill. What's striking is how Roth has pruned so discreetly that the space feels like a clearing in a forest, then how she has furnished that captured spot. Working with interior designer Nicky Nichols, she created a rustic pergola off the house and covered it with a thick blanket of bougainvillea. To define the patio from one big pool edge, she used a couple of well-chosen props: good Italian pots and a carved wooden bench from Mali. The upshot is a river's edge quality. You half expect a boat to pass by.

Roth's magic is the way her gardening style affects our moods. Up a set of stairs to a second garden, an Empire-style table is disappearing among vines in a secluded grotto, like a fragment from a colonial past left to the jungle. This garden isn't a show of plantsmanship, but a succession of enclaves fashioned with grace, wit and a wisp of melancholy.

The day after Roth's tea and auction, the emphasis will veer, sharply, to garden design and plantsmanship. Here the quality is surprising. Lennard laughs, remembering the skepticism Rizzoli executives first expressed when she said she wanted to do the book about Hollywood gardens. "The publisher in New York said, 'L.A. gardens are just decoration in front of the house,' " she says. "But I said, 'You don't understand. These people are obsessed with their gardens.' I only took people who were."

She does not exaggerate. Jewelry designer Laura Morton is so dedicated, she has developed a parallel career as a garden designer.

Her lot is a good case study for anyone working out a garden plan for a Southern California hillside home. Confronted with a whitewashed modern building, a pool that dominates almost all of the garden, a dry climate and light so bright it could reflect to Athens and back, Morton decided on a Mediterranean scheme.

There is a classical axis around the pool, which she plays on by putting a fire element (a gas-fire pit) at one end, and a water element (a fountain) at the other. She softens the hard rectangular lines with romantic planting.

Yes, there are lavenders and buddleias and succulents, but tour slowly, in fact, bring a notebook to make a specimen list. There is the rare Persian damask rose, prized for the rosiest of all rose scents, Rose de Rescht. There is a particularly graceful rosemary with an arching habit and pink flowers, 'Majorca pink.' There are geraniums that smell like apples, poet's jasmine and a stunning maroon Rosa glauca.

Around the side of the house is an experiment in Asian gardening, where her color scheme turns intense, to earthy shades. "It's my 'purple-black' garden," she says.

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