Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Sunken Garden, Los Angeles

Five years ago I was introduced to a wonderful couple in the Hancock Park/Windsor Square neighborhood in Los Angeles.  I was hired to build a mosaic carpet and a fountain as part of a complete garden overhaul by a Portland landscape architect and his wife.  The motif that we chose for the designs was inspired by Moroccan styles as my new client Brooke had spent some meaningful time in that beautiful country and has a lovely collection of Moroccan carpets.

Moroccan Carpet Mosaic

Because of the heavy clay soil that was not amended, many of the plants in the original design failed to flourish or died.  The extensive lawns became patchy, and a large pine tree keeled over leaving a gaping hole.  So I was asked to return and redo several areas in the garden.  We purchased and retrofitted a lovely Indonesian Tea House Pavilion to cover the pile of chips that was the stump of the pine tree.  I built a Moroccan styled gas fire pit, and removed areas of sad lawn, replacing them with gravel, mosaic stepping stones, and lots of matching brown glazed Vietnamese and Thai ceramic pots filled with succulents and bromeliads.
Tea House and Brugmansia in bloom

Trampoline and lawn
I have been making trips down to L.A. in the Spring and Fall ever since to add to the garden.  Two years ago we removed a sunken trampoline that was built in to a lawn area in a secluded side garden.  An expensive round retaining wall of concrete block had been built about 24 inches deep in to which the trampoline was set.  It was fun for a while, but the lawn was always a mire of mud and an eyesore to behold.  I added beds around the perimeter as grass had originally filled the space right up to the privet hedges, but it was still a big black dot on the landscape.

Removing the Trampoline
Eventually I asked how much time was actually spent jumping on the trampoline to justify its existence, and in the end they conceded that it was next to nil.  So I suggested that we lift it out and look at the void underneath.  We talked about the possibility of making it a pond, or filling it in.  The pond would have required an enormous quantity of water, a filtration system, and lots of maintenance.  Filling it in would have meant hauling dump truck loads of soil by hand, which would have been no fun at all, and very messy and expensive.  So I suggested that we create a sunken garden, which would utilize what was there and make for an interesting destination in what was at the time a forlorn spot.  I got the OK and went at it at a frantic pace to create something presentable in a few weeks time.

Key Hole Doorway
Ben Youssef Medersa
Marrakesh, Morocco
With a helper we removed all the lawn from the area, including an adjacent space under a large Liquidambar tree.  It is my hope that eventually all of the lawn in this large garden will be gone.  No more noisy mowing and blowing and endless watering to keep it alive.  We gave the trampoline away to a happy family.  The heavy soils were amended with lots of compost and manure, and I set to work capping the round wall with a ring of striped pebble mosaic.  I envisioned the space as a Moroccan keyhole door set in the ground, a kind of magical kiva like space entered by a path of large mosaic stepping stones.

The largest part of the project was building a set of pebble mosaic steps down in to the sunken garden.  It was like making a tiered cake, vertically stacking the pebbles in rows, letting them set up overnight, and adding another layer.  While I was working on this project a writer from the New York Times came to interview me for an article.  She sat and watched me sort pebbles for hours on end, which I bought in bags from a local supplier, in black and gold colors.  She eventually titled the article 'Every Stone a Perfect Fit'.
Sitting on the competed steps

We stuccoed the block walls and added wiring for lighting and a fountain.  The base of the hole had a thick layer of crushed gravel for drainage that we top coated with a round gravel called Del Rio Mix that has a nice warm color.

Around the perimeter I planted Tasmanian Tree ferns on the shady side, and Cycads on the sunny side, with repeated clumps of Variegated Dianella and Foxtail Asparagus Fern, which had proven to tolerate the soil conditions and dry to soggy irregularities of irrigation, along with times of shade or broiling sun.
New Plantings and Pots around the Sunken Garden

The following Spring I returned and primed and painted the wall to match the house, and added to the plantings.  Several pots went in to the garden to feature a variety of Aloes and succulents.  I use them to add height to the beds and use drought tolerant specimens that wont tolerate the heavy clay soils.

This Spring I returned again to do the finishing touches.  I added a small wall fountain with a simple arc of water spilling in to a stone bowl that overflows in to a buried 20 gallon garbage can with a barbeque grille placed on top, covered in pebbles, very low tech.  The sound of the water is very enticing and masks the ambient roar of L.A. traffic.  A decorative painter friend did a stencil border derived from a Moroccan tile pattern around the top of the wall, in colors to match the pebble mosaics, with metallic gold highlights.  We bought a Moroccan tile table and iron chairs and added some low carved wooden chairs with cushions to make the space comfortable to inhabit.  The results are quite sumptuous.
Table and Chairs in the finished Sunken Garden
Fountain and stone bowl

The pebble mosaic steps

Because the garden is sunken, it stays cooler than other parts of the garden and makes a good retreat on hot days.  And what was really an eyesore is now perhaps the loveliest part of the garden, the perfect place to have a cup of tea or meditate, or hide away from the World.   Lovely.
The Sunken Garden, April 2011
A view from an upstairs window