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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Serenity is only a backyard away

January 31, 2008|Debra Prinzing | Special to The Times

Brenda Wehle is appearing on Broadway in "Come Back, Little Sheba," which opened last week at the Biltmore Theatre. John Carroll Lynch is in Vancouver shooting "Traveling," a film with Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston. .

When the actors complete their out-of-town commitments, they will return home to a different sort of show: their fragrant, joy-inducing garden in the San Fernando Valley.

"It's a real haven," Wehle says, from her New York apartment. "When I come home in March, I plan to 'set a while' in the garden."

Her husband, most recently seen as Capt. James Embry in Fox's "K-Ville," describes the garden as a "renewing" place. "I often find Los Angeles very isolating," he says, via cellphone while on location. "As an actor, I get in my little metal box and drive to another little metal box -- a trailer. Most of the time, I'm hanging out in a parking lot. So when I get home and walk out into the garden, it has a beautiful, calming effect."

Although it occupies barely a quarter of an acre on a Sherman Oaks hillside, the landscape feels expansive, thanks to a design that pleases the senses and captures stunning views.

In 2004, after renovating their one-story, circa-1958 home, the actors knew they wanted a garden compatible with the sun-drenched stucco architecture and their neighborhood's topography of canyons and hills. They contacted Marilee Kuhlmann of Los Angeles-based Comfort Zones Garden Design and asked: "Could you help us make something beautiful here?" Wehle recalls.

The property's best feature is a view across the canyon toward Mulholland, visible from most rooms of the house. "That view spoke to us," she says. "I wanted our garden to disappear into that geography."

Lynch adds, "Our desire was to honor the piece of land with a garden worthy of it."

Kuhlmann, who studied landscape design at UCLA Extension after a successful computer sales career, agreed. "We wanted no obvious separation between the garden and the view," the designer says. In order to seamlessly connect the 8,000-square-foot, pie-shaped lot with vistas of live oaks, native shrubs, mature Italian cypresses, palms and eucalyptus trees, Kuhlmann suggested removing three backyard distractions: a leaky 1960s swimming pool encircled by brick and concrete, a 4-foot-high block wall that spanned the property's west perimeter and the expansive lawn.

In their place, the new design features a low-profile infinity swimming pool; several informal seating areas connected by Arizona flagstone pathways; and a tapestry of California native perennials and shrubs, graceful ornamental grasses, Mediterranean olive trees and low-maintenance ground covers.

The unsightly, view-interrupting wall has been removed so that when Wehle, Lynch and their guests are in the garden, their eyes are drawn through gold and green textures of stems, leaves and blades, past the undulating edge of the pool, toward the distant hills.

On the rare occasions when they are home together, the couple enjoy a ritual of viewing the sunset from the garden.

"I love the warmth, the light, the air here," Wehle says. "The sunset is like a living painting, and when the moon comes up, it is reflected in the pool."

The garden succeeds visually, thanks to the artful grouping of plants. "I like to combine plants that have good foliage texture with ones that have bold leaves. Then I use something soft, like a grass, to unify the design," Kuhlmann says. This design "recipe" accentuates strong leaf shapes and fine textures alike, ensuring that every plant receives the notice it deserves.

Kuhlmann wanted the new garden to be aesthetically pleasing and functional. For example, she transformed the utilitarian side yard, previously used to store trash and recycling cans, into a quiet entry garden. She relocated the unsightly air-conditioning unit and gas meter to free space to add a cozy outdoor kitchen. A pair of cushioned banquettes provide comfortable seating and lure parties into the garden. "We wanted it to be more than just a barbecue area," Kuhlmann says. "It's also the cocktail lounge."

Climbing plants add a layer of privacy in a neighborhood in which homes are sandwiched close to one another. A white bower vine is trained along the garden wall to fill gaps between shrubs. Grapevines twine around two custom arbors, which span the 9-foot-wide side garden and form the canopy over a small breakfast patio.

Existing raised planters and new terra cotta containers hold slender evergreen shrubs such as lemon-scented tea tree, several types of pittosporum and purple hopseed bush. Kuhlmann's selection of mostly drought-tolerant plants is a plus for this landscape's on-the-go owners, although a gardener comes once a week to prune shrubs and train vines, among other projects.

The calming gray-green and plum-colored foliage stands out against the sun-drenched spectrum that Wehle and Lynch chose when renovating the house: light mustard yellow, gold, sage green, silvery gray and terra cotta red.

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