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SPECIAL ISSUE / SUMMER SPLASH: GARDEN

Goodbye, hole in the ground

A Silver Lake couple reclaim their backyard by filling in the pool and adding subtropical landscaping.

August 16, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

GAYLE and Steven Lund knew from the start that they would rather have a garden than a pool eating up 90% of their backyard.

When the couple bought their two-story Silver Lake house 19 years ago, they loved everything about it -- except the swimming hole. But Steven, an earth sciences professor at USC, and Gayle, a Caltech administrator, thought their two children might think otherwise. So they kept the pool until the kids were grown and then pursued their goal: Lose the water and replace it with an outdoor area where they could read, relax and entertain.

After interviewing a number of garden designers, they chose Stephanie Bartron of SB Garden Design in L.A. "She understood we wanted something simple, interesting and very natural-looking," Gayle Lund says. "Something comfortable. We had very few specifics. I did ask for some of those trees with green bark and big thorns on the trunk that I'd seen around the neighborhood. And I told her I wanted nothing pink in the way of flowers."

The Lunds also asked for "big, exuberant plants" and a low-maintenance, drought-resistant garden.

Contractor Larry Stone of California Pools in Glendale was hired to fill the pool -- a request he rarely gets. It's a three-day process and requires city permits and inspection. He breaks out the bottom of the emptied pool or drills large holes in it to let water seep through to the soil beneath. "Then we fill the pool with sand or decomposed granite to a few inches below ground level," he says. "Then the garden designer takes over."

Costs for filling start about $6,000 and increase depending on pool size and setting, he says. The Lund job cost $9,000 and entailed breaking down a garage wall to allow access for heavy equipment.

Bartron describes the finished garden as California eclectic, with plants that can grow outdoors only in subtropical climates. "It has a lot of color, texture and interesting plant forms -- unlike the camellias, azaleas and similarly boring shrubs that populate many gardens."

In fact, it's an exotic blend of the delicate and colossal. Large cactus, philodendrons with 3- to 4-foot-long leaves, giant birds of paradise and varieties of bamboo are juxtaposed with graceful ferns and grasses, and with the minuscule leaves and tiny yellow flowers of Mexican birds of paradise (Caesalpinia mexicana). Shiny black rosettes of Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop' beam up from near ground level, stealing attention from the leggier competition. And those floss silk trees (Chorisia speciosa), the ones with green bark and thorny protuberances on their trunks, add a kind of prehistoric aura.

Grasses and grass-like plants -- Pennisetum orientale, phormium 'Maori Queen' , phormium 'Dark Delight,' day lily and Liriope 'Silver Dragon' -- dot the perimeter and the paths Bartron has created.

At first glance, the complexity of the design isn't obvious. The yard is about 900 square feet. Entering through the driveway gate, you first see a concrete-paved patio with a table and chairs. Nothing spectacular. But a closer look reveals the space has three rooms. The first is paved and runs along the back of the house, creating an area for dining and for friends to gather.

The two other rooms, surfaced in decomposed granite, form the softer, more rustic far end of the garden. The whole is bisected with a winding little path that leads from one space to another. A hammock occupies a far corner beneath a redwood arbor designed by Bartron. And then there's the space she's dubbed the grotto. It's a little sun-dappled bower created by lacy overhead branches bursting with the tiny leaves and flowers of Mexican birds of paradise planted on either side of the path. It would be a perfect place to view the moon from a bench that hasn't yet been placed there.

Lund says the backyard landscaping cost about $15,000. She and her husband enjoy it much more than they ever enjoyed the pool. They eat, read and swing in the hammock and visit with friends out there. Even when they're indoors, she says, they enjoy nature's blooming glory through the large window of their living room. "It's more pleasing and interesting to us than looking at water."

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