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Landscape designer Sean Knibb likes nature's ideas

The world is his mentor. He mixes grasses, succulents, flowers, herbs and more. He combines color, texture and volume.

September 26, 2009|David A. Keeps

Lawns, flower beds, vegetable patches and herb gardens. The segregation of these regions in our yards baffles landscape designer Sean Knibb.

"Why can't all these things live together, more naturally, like you see in a meadow?" he asks.

In three of his recent small-scale Los Angeles gardens, they do. Grasses, succulents, flowers, herbs and vegetables are woven together in beds and borders along with shrubs and trees.

The results are lush and sophisticated explosions of color, texture and volume that reference English country gardens yet are sensitive to drought-prone California.

"Part of the aesthetic is to capture the look of where prairie meets forest," Knibb says. "The layering that happens in nature is the coolest thing."

The frontyard of Knibb's Venice home is defined by fluffy stands of tall ornamental grasses such as paspalum and mounds of shaggy bromus and delicate sisyrinchium, commonly known as blue-eyed grass.

"It's a manicured meadow, my substitute for a lawn," Knibb says, one that requires about 30% of the water needed to maintain traditional turf.

In the backyard of his client Ling-Su Chinn, owner of the Planet Blue clothing boutiques, Knibb created the effect of a miniature forest with shrubs such as boxwood and silver anniversary buddleja. For trees, he relied on varieties of myrtle. The prairie portion took a tropical twist: stands of tall miscanthus grass mixed with white ginger, fortnight lilies and plumeria.

The 1,200-square-foot garden behind Knibb's office on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice is a showcase for his country-in-the-city vision. There, he laid down a path of pavers and gravel that imitates the silhouette of a city skyline. It meanders through cultivated meadows: beech trees and boxwoods anchoring beds with fountains of prairie grasses and clusters of hardy flowers including gaura and yellow milkweed, which attracts butterflies. These plants surround and help retain moisture for what he calls "British grandma" bushes: boxwood, Hot Cocoa roses and oak leaf hydrangea. Orange- and yellow-flowering gazania, velvety-leafed scented geraniums and fragrant herbs such as oregano, thyme and parsley serve as ground cover surrounding cressula and other sculptural succulents. Strawberry runners trace a path through the gravel, part of a rotating crop of seasonal fruits and vegetables woven into the beds.

The designer invokes similes to describe why edibles work so well when integrated with the grasses and flowers.

"They are like molding on a building," Knibb says, "or embroidery on a shirt."




The paint box

Landscape designer Sean Knibb works from a simple palette of four dozen plants that offer long blooming periods and year-round interest. Drought tolerant and disease resistant, the selections are "bulletproof," Knibb says. Here's a breakdown of the elements of his modern urban meadow mix, which Knibb offers as part of a design service available at

Trees and shrubs

Among his favorites are acacia, beech and varieties of myrtle. Strategically placed, they create focal points and soften the corners of yards and exterior walls, Knibb says. They also provide dappled light. The dwarf Melaleuca incana (gray honey myrtle) "grows really fast, is drought resistant, has bottle-brush flowers and the finest textured tree leaf you can get," Knibb says. "The leaves are so tiny that it looks like little clouds of green."

For shrubs, he uses a dense pittosporum called Silver Sheen, smoky Westringia fruticosa (coast rosemary), flowery white buddleja (butterfly bush) and velvety chartreuse Helichrysum petiolare Limelight (licorice plant).


Knibb sees them as part of the backbone of the garden. "Once they get to where they want to be, they are structural, sculptural details that you discover as you look around," he says, "and they are particularly useful and beautiful in containers." He commonly uses variegated and red-edged aloe vera, the colorful Cressula capitella called Campfire, echeveria, blue senecio and trailing burro tail sedum.


Eschewing lawns, Knibb works with prairie and ornamental grasses that offer varying degrees of volume. For height, he prefers the Miscanthus genus of towering African perennial grass, the fountain spray of paspalum and muhlenbergia as well as the soft teal color of Andropogon gerardii, better known as big bluestem or turkey foot.

Closer to the ground, he chooses medium-height moor grass, mounding bromus for shagginess and blue grama for its delicate flowers. He often adds plants with the appearance of grass, including miniature sisyrinchium, members of the iris family known as blue-eyed grasses, whose blades are topped with tiny blue blossoms. He deploys easy-care perennial carex, a type of sedge, for grass-like leaves.


For eye-level blooms, Knibb likes yellow milkweed that hosts monarch butterflies and has a fluffy seed head. Verbena bonariensis sends up flowers 3 to 4 feet in the air, providing an interesting optical illusion, Knibb says: "When you look at it from afar, it looks like little blue buttons floating in the air."

At knee-level, he uses long-blooming, butterfly-shaped gaura, fortnight lily and banksia, which resembles an ear of corn. Near the ground, heliotrope provides a vanilla fragrance, silver brocade artemisia adds pale gray foliage and the broad, rounded leaves of geum (also known as avens) and scented geranium help form a ground cover with gazania.


Along borders, Knibb weaves in parsley, oregano, basil, chives, thyme and other herbs. He also intermingles seasonal fruits and vegetables in beds. Among his favorites: strawberries, tomatoes, artichokes, long beans and collard greens.

-- David A. Keeps

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