Paradise Created 

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


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Around the corner from me, a woman machinist and prop designer has tiled her walls, her garden paths, her driveway with bits of color. Her wooden fence has panes of colored plastic in it, a wry riff on stained glass. Curiously, everyone up at her end of the street has taken a marked, if more conventional, interest in their gardens since she began enlivening the hood.

A sculptor I know has planted her plump half-sized human figures around her yard; her hand-painted tiles are slowly covering the exterior stucco of her studio, and broken tiles cover urns and flowerpots. There are the eccentrics’ old standbys, the homemade grottoes. Bottle walls. Yards packed with whirligigs made from children’s buckets and shovels.

And then there’s just the crazy impulse: For years, I eyed a house on Alvarado just south of Sunset whose yard consisted of a patchwork of sodden carpet remnants — visually bold, if not something you’d want to live next door to. Also, when I lived in Atwater, one neighbor was a madwoman whose small chainlink-enclosed front yard was sand with excessively pruned cacti, concrete animals, and faded plastic flowers trellised on the curlicues from old screen doors; at first I was mildly charmed but soon realized this pinched and thirsty garden signaled her hatred for life and its uncontrollability.

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Finally, there are talented, driven individuals — often visual artists — who are neither landscape architects nor garden designers nor mad, who take on a yard and create something entirely their own. The Watts Towers, for example, started out as somebody’s yard.

I have no such ambitions for my own big yard. I’d be happy enough if I could look out the window one day and, for a change, pronounce it a “garden.” Though I am thinking about an agnostic’s grotto.

Sue Dadd and James Griffith, artists, Altadena

SUE: Turning the ravine into an amphitheater was inspired by the land itself.

JAMES: There was never any master plan. We never could have decided in advance that this was what was going to happen. It just had to occur.

SUE: When we started we didn’t know what we were doing, and then after we got some of it done, we realized that it could be a perfect circular bowl. We called our neighbor to come down and take a look because the far edge is on her property. She looked and said, “Oh, go ahead and build it round there too.” We had 30 or 40 tons of dirt and concrete at the bottom of the hill.

JAMES: The beauty of free materials. We got the dirt and concrete when the sewer system on our street was being excavated.

SUE: We were like ants, moving about three-quarters of a ton of dirt and concrete every weekend up the hill. Friends would take a couple of buckets now and then. It was meditational.

JAMES: We call it the Folly Bowl. We cancelled the cable when we built the stage. We’re not performers — it’s not about self-promotion or money or property values. It’s just about having fun, about letting people we know who have talent and don’t have the venue to get together and create a culture of our own.

SUE: Our society is so much about money, and I think it’s unhealthy. We really like having a place where people can come and have fun for free, have a picnic outside, and the moon and stars are out.

JAMES: This place looks best in the dark, when it’s lit. It’s astonishing.

SUE: All the rocks look white. The yard has a sort of mystical quality. It’s a constant process and it’s a mystery. We’re not architectural gardeners in that modern sense — we have more of a plant zoo. I like to collect plants, native and drought tolerant. I don’t like to garden with a bunch of rules. You can have some control, but you don’t have total control. It’s a way of life . . .

JAMES: . . . To relate to the land. Gardening as a verb.

SUE: You can never be done with a garden.

Recommend: Worldwide Exotics Nursery, 11157 Orcas Ave., Lake View Terrace, (818) 890-1915; and Persson’s Nursery, 3115 E. Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 792-6073.

Allee Willis, songwriter-artist, Valley Village

My backyard is a place to house my collection, which started as a ’50s collection in the ’60s and progressed through the ’60s and ’70s, which I still collect today. It’s a collection of ‘50s to ‘70s modern artifacts — everything from cars to pencils, clothes to furniture. If a piece had a little chip, it would go into the backyard. I realized it was like having a giant room. The backyard is a place where I can have fun with my collection, and the house becomes a kind of backdrop. The house has a sense of humor which carries out here.

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