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Paradise Created 

Mysterious, private and sensual . . . the backyard in Los Angeles

Photo by Tom Johnson

The world may judge uson our front yards, but the back is the place where we can express our innermost passions and our poetry. It’s the space of dreams and desire, artistry and adventure. Outdoors as metaphor. We can share our vision by invitation or guard it with hedges and fences, a secret spot to shake off the cares of the day.

Ah, but how many of us (myself included) have moved into a home and struggled to invent a yard in a space that might, at best, offer up a patch of dead grass and crumbling concrete? Of course, there are many innovative landscapers in L.A. who could do it for you, but besides the issue of cost, there is something satisfying about discovering and realizing your own vision.

In this issue, we visit eight yards whose residents have effected transformations thrilling and soulful, dazzling and dramatic — and they did it themselves. Sue Dadd and James Griffith started with an unusable ravine. Dustin Nguyen and Angela Rockwood Nguyen found dirt and concrete. Ben McGinty and Shannon LaBaw-O’Sullivan had to contend with an asphalt parking lot, while Melissa Hoffs and Stuart Swezey began with a sunbaked expanse where the former owner would park up to 14 cars at a time. Kathleen Blakistone and Richard Draut had both parking spaces and thick oleander to battle. Allee Willis took on an almost dead lawn and a dying weeping willow tree that covered most of her house. Pat Loud and Bill Loud began by picking white rocks out of the only flower bed in back, and Alberto Hernandez and Jazz Inda had a yard full of nothing.

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Welcome to paradise created.

—Kateri Butler Style editor

By Michelle Huneven

Photos by Tom Johnson

While driving through residential neighborhoods, I often amuse myself by making snap decisions as to which house has a garden and which has a yard. Yard, yard, garden, yard, yard, yard . . . it’s a judgment call, my judgment, but over time and much looking, I’m clear about the distinction.

Both “garden” and “yard” come from similar linguistic roots: Yard comes from the Old English geard, for enclosure, or courtyard, and it’s akin to the Old High German gart, enclosure, and garto, garden. The Latin for garden is hortus, the Greek for courtyard khortos.

The word “yard,” however, reeks of utility. In Ireland, I saw old stable yards, the cobbled area between home and barn — enclosed, central, private, the family’s own fortified outdoor space. The vegetable garden is off to the side. In Paris, the only glimpse one has of hôtels particuliers — what they call the grand houses — are their cobbled courtyards where cars pull up, deliveries are made, guests discharged. The hotels’ gardens are private, unseen from the street.

Stable yards, courtyards, poultry yards, shipyards, train yards — these speak of use, maintenance, repair. Yard also has an institutional ring: the college yard, the prison yard.

But for our purposes, the yard is the square footage of land that comes with the home of American towns and suburbs. The yard is the dirt canvas for a garden, but more often it makes do with a lawn, shrubs, a tree or two. The utilitarian yard has moved to the back, where sheds are tucked, along with garages, stables, chicken coops, swing sets, jungle gyms, swimming pools, tether ball, badminton courts — the things that people don’t want their neighbors to see.

In Southern California, the yard is more an extension of the home than in other climates; it’s living space in the shape of patios, decks, outdoor kitchens with gas barbecues, sinks, fireplaces, furniture.

In my driving game — which involves only front yards — a yard is something that once established is mostly just maintained. Lawn. Trees. Shrubs.

A garden, however, is tended, intentional, seasonal. A garden attempts beauty. Gardens are vastly outnumbered by plain yards. Good gardens are vastly outnumbered by bad ones. All reveal a lot about their owners — economic status, a need to conform, to look good, not to mention taste, eccentricities, imagination, green thumb (or lack thereof). Here in L.A., we have the set-dressed garden — just drive the streets around Larchmont, where the landscape architect’s art has been perfected to an eerie quality; flowers color-coded to house paint, preternatural profusions of blooms, expert positioning of foliage and orchestrations of color, structure, balance, etc. They are the most perfect gardens money can buy.

Every now and then on my peregrinations, I come across something that transcends the yard-garden dichotomy, from a single flourish of self-expression to an entire idiosyncratic, unclassifiable landscape.

A designer in east Altadena hung an old four-paned glass window in a wire-and-wood gazebo. When vines covered the gazebo, the window peered out from the foliage, making the whole structure seem a charming house of leaves.

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