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Paradise Created 

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


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KATHLEEN: I rented this property, which has two houses on it, for 10 years before we bought it. We’re sitting where the parking spaces used to be.

RICHARD: We took the place over two years ago, and the changes have been rapid. We drew up many plans — few of which are what we wound up with. It’s been an organic process to understand how we want to live.

KATHLEEN: Our house is very small, so this has become an extension of the house — typical California indoor-outdoor living. Gardening became a hobby after I started volunteering at Aidan’s school. Richard and I both did the master gardener program — it’s aimed at low-income families to do community gardens — through the University of California Cooperative Extension, which is out of UC Davis. They do great research on integrated pest management, and they have a program for people who volunteer. I work in my son’s school as well as with groups such as TreePeople, and we often consult with schools so they can get gardening programs going.

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RICHARD: She’s the plant chick and I’m the brick-and-mortar guy. We’re able to edit each other and push each other and challenge each other. I remember reading Scott Nearing and Mother Earth News 30 years ago as a teenager and being really inspired by the back-to-the-land movement. I’ve been working with Nader Khalili, who does earth architecture, in Hesperia for 10 years. We’ve been putting some of those practices — using his recipe of earth and concrete — to use in the yard.

KATHLEEN: The herb spiral that’s in the center of the yard is an earth-and-concrete mix. Our fence is plastic and wood pressed together — it’s called Trex — and is no maintenance, no painting.

RICHARD: It’s been an interest of mine to recycle water, and we’re figuring out the mechanics of how to do that. I get a lot of the materials we use from demolition jobs — reclaimed lumber built the chicken coop, and Spanish roof tiles made a good raised bed for plants. Not being one to move to the country myself, this is my way of reconciling that love of homestead and self-sufficiency and the idea of needing to recycle and consider our environment more preciously.

Recommend: Matilija Nursery, 8225 Waters Rd., Moorpark, (805) 523-8604,; Seeds of Change,; University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, 4800 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., L.A., (323) 260-3407, (click on “Common Ground Garden Program”).

Melissa Hoffs, writer, & Stuart Swezey, Sci-Fi Channel development executive, with son Victor, Hermon

STUART: Dr. Seuss was an inspiration. We have all these weird fanciful plants — whether they be dry- or wet-climate — and they create this extraterrestrial vision that we were looking for. We wanted to put our imprint on the landscape. And I’ve always liked tiki culture, tiki bars — I did a tiki nightclub called Mecca — and I love the idea of making the hyper-real feeling of a black-light tiki bar in the garden. We wanted an area that would be reminiscent of the exaggerated tropical feeling.

MELISSA: I like the meditative feeling of the desert. And we were interested in blending the two environments — desert and tropical. There’s a transitional area of drought-tolerant plants that look tropical. The coral-reef garden in between pulls the two together.

STUART: At first the coral reef was just a bunch of succulent plants that looked to us like underwater plants. Then eventually we went out to this quarry in Irwindale where we got a lot of the rocks. They had lava from Mexico that had actually been underwater, where the lava hits the ocean.

MELISSA: I grew up for a while in a really crazy garden environment. I’ve seen pictures of my mom tripping through the garden with the kids trailing behind, and I think there’s some sort of ideal to being in a place to raise your kids that has secret spots in it. At some point we realized that we had all these interesting sculptural plants, but that grotesque and fantastic plants alone did not necessarily make for a place you actually want to hang out. Neither of us knew anything about “bushes” — now we call them shrubs! Bushes just seemed boring, but Stuart discovered some Australian and South African plants on a Web site that led us to finding shrubs that we love. We knew we needed to walk through a place that had green things that rustled, and that you could smell.

STUART: It’s definitely changed my perception of backyard from when I grew up — what I associated with backyard was overgrown grass with dog shit in it, and it was my job to pick it up and mow the lawn — which I would put off until my dad would yell at me.

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