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Paradise Created

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.

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.

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.

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.

I love roadside stuff and motel stuff, but I didn’t want it to look like a motel. I wasn’t trying to re-create anything, but to combine my kitsch sensibility with my modern sensibility with motel life. The Riverside Market sign, I’m told, is the oldest surviving piece of neon in the Valley. I got it for $50 — and it works beautifully. I feel like I’m preserving not only the architecture of this house, which was built in 1937 as a party house for MGM, but this piece of Valley history.

I bought the house in 1980. The backyard had no aesthetic to it. It wasn’t really about the backyard, which made no sense with a house like this. In 1991, I was at a career turning point, and I looked at the backyard one day — Spanish tile all broken up and depressing. Then it hit me that I needed to just go with a pickaxe and start hammering and see what would happen if I cleared the space and viewed the whole thing as a canvas.

The second transformation of the backyard started last year with my having to enlarge my recording studio inside the house — I’m the co-author of The Color Purple music and lyrics, which opens on Broadway next spring, and I wanted to keep working at the house. It’s a massive project and at times has needed massive numbers of people here. Once I finished that room, I felt the whole house — and yard — needed to rise to the spirit. In terms of working — I networked the yard, which is now wireless, in ’91 — it’s unbelievable to go from house to yard, which puts you in a frame of mind, and then you go back inside and you’re full of sunshine and ready to go.

Alberto Hernandez, Hollywood Forever gardening superintendent, & Jaudiel “Jazz” Inda, painter, Silver Lake

ALBERTO (above left): The inspiration for the backyard came when I found that there’s a lot of furniture and broken stuff that people leave in the streets in Los Angeles. I started picking up these things and fixing them and putting them in the house. One day the house got full inside so I started putting stuff outside in the garden. That’s how I started the recycled garden.

JAZZ: From time to time we change the decorations. We don’t like to see the yard the same. There’s a lot of meaning for me here. One time Alberto called me to come out and he’d spelled out my nickname, Jazz, with glass beads in a heart. He said, “You are my heart, my moon and my stars.”

ALBERTO: The backyard is all about love. That is the point of the garden. We do everything with love. It’s like therapy — you do it and you relax. When we have dinner, we sit out here and enjoy all these little details. In two or three months the whole thing will be completely different. Every single area has a different meaning, but everything is in relation to love — but it’s love expressed in different ways. My favorite area is the bottle corner — I have a fireplace one of my neighbors gave me, and I put candles out there and I go out and have a little spiritual thing. The area with the eggs I call The Reproduction — how life reproduces, a man and a woman, they get older and then they die. It’s all about recycling.

JAZZ: And it’s about friendship.

ALBERTO: I have a lot of friends who’ve passed away, and I decided to make something for every friend I have — a kind of Walk of Fame in the sidewalks back here. Friends put their footprints and handprints in the concrete, and they’ll come back to see their spaces, and they’re so happy. They leave something here. I feel like the keeper of the spirits for the people who die. Everything comes back — you recycle things, you give something to the air, and the air gives something to you. When you have love, you want to give love to everybody.

Richard Draut, woodworker, & Kathleen Blakistone, Shorewood Packaging new business-development director, & son Aidan Blakistone, student, Venice

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.

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, www.matilijanursery.com; Seeds of Change, www.seedsofchange.com; University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, 4800 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., L.A., (323) 260-3407, http://celosangeles.ucdavis.edu (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.

Recommend: Sunburst Decorative Rock, 282 Live Oak Ave., Irwindale, (626) 446-4994; Mimosa Nursery, 6270 Allston St., L.A., (323) 722-4543; San Gabriel Nursery and Florist, 632 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 286-3782; Australian Native Plants Nursery, http://www.australianplants.com/; Hidden Garden, Inc., e-mail hidgarinc@yahoo.com.

Pat Loud and Bill Loud, retired, Larchmont Village

PAT: This really isn’t so much a house as it is a cottage, a tiny little place with a tiny little space in the back and on the sides. The backyard makes the house workable. We’ve turned it into a room. We have breakfast out there every morning, and we have people over for dinner on the weekends. We entertain a lot — there’s a fireplace in the yard, so we can use the space most of the year. It’s pleasant.

BILL: The fireplace we got from our neighbor Jason — hello, Jason! — when he sold his house. Apparently he shouldn’t have given it to us, but then it was too late — it had been red, but I painted it white. Everything comes with a little story.

PAT: We had to go vertical in the back — there’s not enough horizontal space there. On a whim we decided to try a potato plant out there, and it worked like a charm across the back of that fence — all the vines growing up it gave it a lot of character. I really like color, and the backyard is one place where you can put it to use. It’s part Mediterranean and part English garden. I lived in England for a number of years, and I’m a great Anglophile, but we don’t have enough room to do a proper English garden, so we compromised with a little one in the corner, but it works for us. It always reminds me of England.

BILL: Pat is a great gardener — she does the direction, she’s the director.

PAT: Thank you. I thought you were.

BILL: A lot of things are from where we lived at one time or another. I brought the Ming dynasty horses back from Taiwan in the 1950s or ’60s — a gift from someone I was doing business with. The Roman busts Pat brought back from Bath, England.

PAT: I visited friends in Montana and brought back the horse and skull, and my son Lance and I got the bust of Alexander in Palm Springs one time when we were visiting. Everything has a connection to someplace we’ve been or someplace we’ve lived. It’s all part of our past.

Recommend: Anawalt Lumber Company, 1001 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (323) 464-1600; and Home Depot, citywide.

Dustin Nguyen, actor, & Angela Rockwood Nguyen, model-actor, Mid-Wilshire

DUSTIN: When I sit back here, it really reflects my spirit. When the yard gets a little bit overgrown, I tend to get a bit agitated, my spirit gets a little unwrapped. And then you go and do some editing and cutting here and there, and everything is calm again.

ANGELA: We had just moved into this house — there was just dirt and a lemon tree in the back — and five weeks later I got into a car accident. Dustin put a ramp in for me to get my wheelchair through the back.

DUSTIN: Even before the accident we had wanted this kind of garden back here, and we got estimates from a few landscapers, but it was way too much money. We had just moved in.

ANGELA: I wanted a pond and I wanted him to build me a bridge — and we never had a chance to do it. Then the day before Christmas, Dustin went to the nursery. I thought he was going to get some houseplants. He was gone the entire day. He came home at 6 and a huge truck pulled in, and it was like Hawaii was dumped right in the front yard. There were birds of paradise, palm trees, banana trees — they were only 2 feet tall. The next day Dustin and a few of his friends planted everything. That was the best gift. It’s very therapeutic to come back here and just relax and unwind.

DUSTIN: It’s nice to have the feeling that you’ve done it yourself. Sometimes it blows my mind sitting here and realizing that I did all of this. You make some mistakes — but nothing major. I’m sure even the pros make mistakes. This is the first backyard I’ve ever done. What I’ve realized is that the backyard is a reflection spiritually of how we feel.

Ben McGinty, Underground Arts Society Gallery owner, tilemaker and mountain man, Altadena Shannon LaBaw-O’Sullivan, tattoo artist-owner of Shangri-la, with daughter Rose & son Mars, Altadena

BEN: Part of the idea for the backyard comes from watching the Little Rascals — my favorite show growing up — and having things in little areas, rooms almost. You can’t go in a straight line. You see more as you’re walking around everything. And there’s the centerpiece, a red trumpet vine — native of Mexico — which was probably planted when this space was built in 1950.

SHANNON: This beautiful plant totally encircles the property — it’s almost as if it hugs us, protects us. My shop name developed partially because of the garden out back. Shangri-La is a mythical city that is invisible unless you are led to it. The shop is basic looking, and then when you lead someone back here, they have a Shangri-La freakout reaction — seeing this shiny place of magic and wonder.

BEN: I have a sign over the back door of the gallery that says “Surprise Room.” Shannon, who’s the plant fiend, works her magic on the north side and I work mine on the south — but parts of each of us are on both sides. Actually, it’s time to spin things around. I’m anxious to do some pushing and shoving and rearranging. It’s good to make change, open things up and then put them together again.

SHANNON: Ben loves to move things around. He has changed the positioning of every single thing here a dozen times. And he’s constructed these makeshift walls out of old doors — it’s like a clubhouse. So little of our money has been laid out furnishing the yard — we pull tons of stuff out of the trash, thrift stores. Except for the few annual flowers I get from the local nursery, most of my plants are rescued from the trash.

BEN: We both prefer being outside more than inside. I don’t want to be cooped up between four walls, and you don’t open your windows because you’re afraid someone is going to look in. This gives us seclusion, and we can experiment with things — when you build with baling wire and drywall screws you can change things around really fast and easy — it’s not permanent.

SHANNON: I walk all around this town, and I don’t hear people in their backyards and I don’t see people in their front yards. We’re getting to be a culture of inside people — inside our cars, inside the house, inside the mall, in in in. Breathe fresh air, use backyards!

Recommend: Estate sales (not garage sales) and flea markets.