Joan Grabel came up with an interesting solution for a difficult rear hillside… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
Amy and David Messinger's home in the Hollywood Hills posed vexing problems common to many properties in Los Angeles. The steep front and rear slopes were difficult to navigate, much less landscape. One side yard opened to the top of yet another embankment. The other side yard was flat lawn reduced to a muddy mess by sprinklers and poor drainage.
For help, the Messingers hired landscape designer Joan Grabel of Park Slope Design in Studio City. Grabel, an artist-turned-gardenmaker, is known for creating functional, sustainable outdoor rooms with painterly flair.
"Amy and David were starting a family and needed child-friendly space outside," Grabel said. "The site had many issues with the slope, erosion control, drought from hot afternoon sun, and aesthetics, but the goal was to make every space attractive and usable."
Her design strategy was based in color harmony and the repetition of plants for a sophisticated and consistent look throughout the garden. One of her first moves was to change the exterior paint scheme of the house. Garish yellow walls with green trim became quieter cream walls with brown trim, the better to complement the stone paving of the entry courtyard and the stamped concrete of the back patio.
Conditions in the side yards turned out to be easily addressed. A sturdy new fence allowed the Messingers to pass through one side without worrying about the 9-foot drop down an embankment. On the other side, wet grass was ripped out in favor of artificial turf for the kids.
On the front slope, where the garden was so overgrown that it shrouded the house, she carefully layered plants with strong colors and architectural shapes. The Messingers' choice of an orange, purple and gray palette includes coral aloe, lavender and senecio, punctuated by chartreuse euphorbia, yellow-green agave and bronze phormium.
"I treated the slope like bleachers in a class picture, where you get to see everybody," Grabel said. "I used some plants that were the same height but not on the same plane."
Because access to plants on the steeper rear slope promised to be much more limited, Grabel stuck to plants that are drought tolerant, fire resistant, low maintenance and conducive to preventing erosion. For extra soil stability, she also planted through a layer of jute netting.
At the top of the slope, African sumac and hedges of Italian buckthorn and native ceanothus provide privacy from neighbors above. For quick coverage across the middle, she planted Myoporum parvifolium, an evergreen groundcover that serves as a refreshing backdrop to the dining patio. And to foster a more intimate atmosphere down low, she grouped small, orange-blooming aloes and echeverias amid purple ice plant. Like little jewels, they cry out for up-close viewing.
More than a year since the garden was completed, the Messinger family enjoys spending time together indoors and out, proving that what seemed like insurmountable drawbacks were design opportunities instead.
"Before, it was really ugly outside. Now it's a desirable space where the parents can entertain and the kids can play," Grabel says. "It's a contemporary place they'll be able to grow with."