Debra Prinzing

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A horticultural weekend in Los Angeles

May 8th, 2010

Agave attenuata - the most sculptural and simply perfect form in the Southern California garden

Joanne White leads the way along the rose-laden path in Marylyn Ginsberg and Chuck Klaus’s garden

I have spent many moments this past week reliving the wonderful experience of leading the Northwest Horticultural Society’s “LA Garden Tour” last weekend.  

It was a lot of work for the group’s tour co-chairs Gillian Mathews and Renee Montgelas and me, but we agree that the four-day excursion was a huge success (well, we won’t discuss the bus fiasco on Saturday night – no fault of our own!).  

I said “yes” to planning and leading the tour after several years during which Gillian and I fantasized about putting together a weekend trip.  

Gillian and I have known each other since 2000 or 2001 when I was still reporting on retail trends for Puget Sound/Eastside Business Journals in Seattle and she had just launched her garden emporium, Ravenna Gardens. From there, we not only helped each other with our respective auction projects, but we became friends. Gillian, in fact, is responsible for me assuming the editorial duties for the horticultural society’s Garden Notes, a quarterly newsletter that I edited for a few years on two occasions.  

We first worked on a tour together in 2005 when I led an autumn weekend to Eastern Washington/Yakima area. And only three weeks after I first arrived in Southern California in late August 2006, it was serendipitous that Gillian and Renee brought an NHS group to Santa Barbara and Pasadena. I joined them for much of that tour and honestly feel that it was my happy introduction to Southern California horticulture and landscape design. When I visited some of Santa Barbara’s great public and private gardens and nurseries with the group, I thought to myself: “I am going to be okay down here.”  

Gillian may not realize how directly and indirectly she has influenced and encouraged the course of my career to leave business writing and embark on garden and design writing – but she has!  

Fast forward 3-1/2 years and it was my turn to show off LA to many old and several new NHS friends. Here’s a recap and some photos to introduce the awesome design style of LA’s gardens:

One of Peter Jensen's sustainable designs for a Santa Monica front yard

THURSDAY: We started in the afternoon, meeting at the eclectic Hotel Erwin on Venice Beach. The afternoon’s agenda: “Front Yards with a Purpose – Sustainable and Edible on a Small Scale.”

Through the gracious help of two designer friends, I was able to show our group several small city front yards that were created with food-growing and with other green practices in mind. Marilee Kuhlmann of Comfort Zones Garden Design greeted us at her home garden in Venice, where she grows vegetables, fruit and herbs in her postage-stamp-sized entry garden. We then toured her client Amy Gelfand’s garden in Santa Monica, which features California natives and low-water Mediterranean plants as lawn replacements. 

Next: we met up with landscape architect Peter Jensen of Gaudet Design Group. Peter is one of my most reliable resources for sustainable landscaping ideas. He has worked on countless front yard renovations for Santa Monica clients and he showed us four front yards that now have “lost the lawn,” and are urban habitats for pollinators, permeable surfaces for rainwater cachement, and outdoor living spaces that enlarge the way their owners use small landscapes.  

To cap off our busy garden-touring afternoon, we made a final stop at the home and garden of Joseph Marek and John Bernatz in Santa Monica. Joseph and John’s “Stucco Studio” appears in the opening pages of Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, with Bill Wright’s amazing photography. 

John Bernatz and Joseph Marek (holding Duncan), with me after our Thursday night tour and reception in their awesome Santa Monica oasis

Over the years, since shooting that chapter in early 2007, the men have become friends. Our paths keep crisscrossing, especially during garden tour season because Joseph, a landscape architect, chairs the Los Angeles Garden Conservancy Tour.

John and Joseph made us feel so welcome in their plant- and art-filled garden. When they arrived our group was just so happy to have a glass of something refreshing to sip paired with something savory to nosh on. Garden touring is work, people! But then, they willingly allowed themselves to be lured into Joseph and John’s small but abundant landscape where tillandsia, stag horn fern and rose collections abound.

We later had to drag ourselves away from the comfy chairs, the welcoming fire pit under the canopy of a massive Chinese elm tree, and the many warm-climate plants that Seattleites can only lust after. A wonderful evening.

FRIDAY: Friday started with – what else? – Plant Shopping! We scheduled a stop at California Cactus Center in Pasadena. The small but plant-packed family nursery has on offer some of the very best succulents and cactuses around. The Thongthiraj family graciously opened up early for NHS, and by the time I arrived, about 30 minutes after the tour bus did, I wasn’t at all surprised to see a long checkout line of my friends, each of whom was holding a box filled with cool sedums, echeverias, aoniums, crassulas, and more.  

After we finally departed from CCC, we drove down the freeway and around the bend to the Los Angeles Arboretum and Botanical Garden where the LA Garden Show was in full swing. I wrote about the show a few days ago, so I won’t go into too many details now, other than to say four hours may not have been enough to satisfy. But the outdoor garden show in a botanic garden setting is not something Northwest folks are used to – and I knew that the group would love the open-air festival style of the show.  

From left: Gillian Mathews (NHS tour co-chair); Robin Colman and Cheryl Bode, our Friday night dinner hosts; Renee Montgelas (NHS tour co-chair) and me

In the afternoon, a stop at Descanso Gardens gave NHS a snapshot of another one of Southern California’s wonderful public gardens, built at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountain range.

By the time they left at 4:30, people were very much ready for a low-key dinner in a gorgeous garden. And we didn’t disappoint!

At Casa dos Mujeres (House of Two Women) in Altadena, hosts Cheryl Bode and Robin Colman welcomed our group for a tour of their 3/4-acre garden. The women literally saved this property from neglect, although it has taken more than a decade to restore the 1925 Spanish Colonial Revival house and the once overgrown grounds.

I wrote about this landscape for the Los Angeles Times, which is how I first met Cheryl and Robin.  We’ve remained friends and I’m so pleased that they agreed to host the Seattle group. We enjoyed a delicious meal catered by La Cabanita, an old-timey Mexican restaurant with delicious home-style food. Robin and Cheryl’s park-like property gave us sensory overload – in a good way, as we enjoyed the scents, sights, and sounds of the garden.

Here are some photos of the garden and evening’s festivities:

SATURDAY: It was convenient for our group to stay in Venice Beach because Saturday’s agenda included taking in as many as 31 private homes and gardens on the Venice Garden & Home Tour, a walking tour that showcases the diverse design style of this iconic community.

I took the day off to spend with my family (Bruce was home for the weekend – yeah!), but I heard later from the Seattle group that they loved what they saw. Many folks said they plan on coming to LA next year just to take in the tour – that’s how popular it is!

By Saturday night, we all gathered at an amazing property in Malibu, perched on a hillside bluff above Paradise Cove and the Pacific Ocean. At Stone Manor Gardens, owners Aime and Lance Lindsay have created a storybook paradise to showcase their artful, hand-crafted landscape lighting. Aime and Lance are familiar faces to the NHS members who have seen their Stone Manor Lighting displays at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

The copper, bronze and stained glass lighting is alluring when seen after sunset – which is exactly how we enjoyed the grounds before and after dinner. Our dinner was prepared, mostly in my own kitchen, by my friend Rico Mandel, a talented private chef and photographer who leads photo-culinary tours and classes. Rico’s menu was delicious, flavorful, and healthy, finished off by pears poached in a mulled red wine sauce and topped with ice cream. We knew it was our last night together, so there was a celebratory feeling to the gathering.

Our tour host, Marylyn Ginsberg

The 'Julia Child' rose in Marylyn's garden

SUNDAY: Three stops comprised Sunday’s tour, which we knew would end at 4 p.m. when the bus dropped off the group at Los Angeles International Airport for return flights.

We began the morning in Rancho Palos Verdes, an amazing peninsula community south of Los Angeles offering steep, hilly properties and unparalleled views of the Pacific.  

The plan was to visit two landscapes that I previously wrote about for Romantic Homes magazine. 

The garden of Marylyn Ginsberg and Chuck Klaus was our first stop. Marylyn has landscaped every inch of the precipitous, 2/3-acre hillside with gorgeous roses and fanciful architectural elements, including a gazebo, koi pond, steps and paths. What a peaceful, inspiring place to begin the morning (coffee included!). Hearing classical music drifting from the speakers enhanced the experience. 

Here are a few of my favorite vignettes from Marylyn and Chuck’s garden: 

We left Marylyn and Chuck’s and continued down the coastline to the one-acre garden of architect Ed Beall and his interior-designer wife Susie Beall. Their stone house and relic-filled garden reflect their love of travel, collections, art and design. 

Set for a party of 35, the l-o-n-g white-linen-covered table and fabric-draped chairs was a sight to behold - transporting us to another place and time

It is no understatement to say we were transported to the European countryside (Italy? France? we couldn’t decide which) upon our arrival. We knew it was going to be a special day when a dashing sommelier greeted us, offering a choice of two types of wine and two varieties of champagne, as well as soft drinks, juices and water. 

Then the lavish table — probably more than 30 feet in length and spread with white linens, greenery, fruit and glimmering dishes — captured our attention. Situated beneath the branches of the pepper trees – where the soft, dappled light danced across the scene – the romantic spread was like a scene from a Merchant Ivory film. Wow!  

Large-scale lanterns are suspended from the tree branches

While anticipating lunch under the trees, our morning was filled with relaxing strolls through Susie and Ed’s amazing stone house and elegant hillside garden. 

By “elegant” I don’t mean formal. Instead, it was elegant in the sense that each small detail and large gesture was planned with care and attention. Two artists live here, and their passion is revealed in their architectural, interior and landscape choices. That they so generously share it with others is a gift.

Lunching beneath the tree canopy, we enjoyed laughter and conversation between friends old and new. The meal was unforgettable; the hospitality unparalleled. A more than fitting finish to our four-day tour. Thank you, Susie and Ed!!!!  

Here are some of my favorite scenes at the Beall garden: 

The tour bus made one final stop before it raced to LAX. We swung through Hollywood to visit Rolling Greens Nursery on the corner of Beverly and Gardner. This is one of my very favorite LA gardening emporiums, filled with creative design ideas, uncommon objects, and a select lineup of plants. My NHS friends agreed, and several of them succumbed to a little “horticultural retail therapy” themselves.  

The beginning, middle and end of this trip was a treat for all. I am so grateful for everyone who said “yes,” when I called to ask whether the Seattle group could visit! The best part? I think there are now many Seattle gardeners who view the idea of gardening in Los Angeles with a new admiration. Myself included.

3 Responses to “A horticultural weekend in Los Angeles”

  1. Mary Palmer Says:

    Fun to read about our trip from your perspective and learn a bit of your background with Gillian. Your photos are fabulous. What a memorable tour and amazing hospitality. I am now on the search for a Chicken Mole recipe to equal what we experienced from La Cabanita at Robin and Cheryl delightful home and garden.

  2. Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp Says:

    What a lovely post, Debra. I almost feel like I was with you.

  3. Roger McDonald Says:

    Great times in LA. The two gardens on Sunday were way over-the-top and hard to describe. I’ve talked to Karen and Jennifer at Terra; the sculpture has been ordered.

    Thanks for all your help and hard work in arranging the tour.

    Roger and Linda

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