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Lush Life in a California Garden

An artful mix of curved terraces, vibrant flowers, and luxuriant succulents transforms a challenging backyard

Peaceful Oasis

A garden isn’t just a place for plants, it’s a space for people, too. So why not make it as appealing and complete as any room indoors?

That was Pamela Volante’s guiding philosophy when she bought her 1920s Spanish Revival home in Westwood, California. The property was large, offering plenty of space to work with, but the yard, despite the house’s age, remained undeveloped. “It was all catawampus,” says Pamela, a landscape and interior designer, “sloping down from right to left and from back to front.” There were a few mature trees, but otherwise the backyard consisted of a concrete patch with a clothesline. The uneven, unimproved terrain nevertheless inspired her. “The slopes gave the property character,” she says. “And I had a clean slate.”

Shown: A circular fountain and pond, blue-tiled to reflect the sky, is the focal point of the garden. A ruffle of lamb’s ear wraps the circumference for emphasis, its fuzzy texture softening the rim of mortared brick.

A Gazebo for Year-Round Use

Photo by Mark Lohman

Recognizing that a traditional rectangular courtyard, which would complement the house, wouldn’t work on the sloping terrain, Pamela devised a series of terraced garden beds at different levels. She started with a circular fountain and pond at the center, with curved beds enclosed in retaining walls moving away from the center in all directions like ripples in water, and curved steps leading in and out.

On opposite sides of the fountain, she placed seating areas: a gazebo at the lower level near the house, and on the raised far side of the grass-ringed pond, a cozy cutout for two chairs. For the retaining walls, Pamela chose recycled concrete blocks with a rough-hewn appearance. On the patio floors, steps, and pond edging, she used weathered brick arranged in circular patterns, its soft-red color echoing the terra-cotta of the house’s tiled roof.

Shown: The iron gazebo frames a view of the garden from the lower patio. Since bougainvillea’s vivid hue is found not in flowers but in petal-like leaves, the plant provides color in this sitting area without drawing bees.

A Taste for Succulents

Photo by Mark Lohman

Pamela's plant selection reflected many influences. She inherited strong gardening genes, and her wish list was long and varied. From her English grandmother, who had a well-tended flower garden, she developed a passion for roses. Her Italian father loved to garden as well, but more informally. He also had a pond and a fountain, which is how she learned to create and maintain her own. Over the years, she had become fascinated by succulents, too, so they found a place in her scheme.

Shown: Burro’s tail cascades over a clay pot. Like many succulents, it tolerates occasional neglect, making it an ideal container plant.

Dramatic Combinations

Photo by Mark Lohman

Since outdoor spaces can be used year-round in Southern California, “There is no such thing as a dormant season here,” says Pamela. As a result, she decided to focus on foliage, selecting plants with varying heights and silhouettes, and using them in dramatic combinations. Pairing two or three large specimens with sweeps of small plants adds depth and fullness to the garden, as when a large agave partners with low-growing sedums, which spread swiftly, producing masses of color.

Shown: Sea lavender joins the huge, fleshy leaves of Agave attenuata for dramatic contrast. Pink roses and bougainvillea add more vibrant color.

Organized Chaos

Photo by Mark Lohman

Though the plants behind the retaining walls look free-flowing, there is organization at work. A row of stately agaves commands one side, and a row of ‘Double Delight’ roses the other; in concert, they direct the eye to the seating area between them. The separation also solves the problem of the plants’ different irrigation needs. Under the roses, Pamela planted equally thirsty edible strawberries, a tactic her father used to draw both birds and squirrels. Fronting the agaves is wispy society garlic, chosen for its sharply contrasting texture.

Beyond the agaves and rose beds, trees and shrubs offer shade and help ensure privacy. Pamela supplemented the gnarly olive trees already on the premises with a drought-tolerant South American silk floss tree that produces large pink flowers in fall; in winter, when the leaves have dropped, its striking spiny trunk becomes even more noticeable. Columnar euphorbia, a particular favorite, also shares this space. To contrast with the succulents’ strong, sculptural forms, she added soft-leaved, billowy tree mallow, which offers the bonus of attracting butterflies.

Shown: Succulents and perennials combine to striking effect; here, icy-blue senecio mixes with lavender asters, and against the wall, sculptural euphorbia pairs with a rangy tree mallow shrub.

A Private Spot

Photo by Mark Lohman

A second seating area, situated slightly uphill from the fountain, provides an alternate spot to view the garden. Though this petite patio is open to the elements, it feels sheltered due to the generous canopy provided by the silk floss tree and the dense planting in the raised beds that wrap around it. Calla lilies peek up behind the broad-leaved Bergenia crassifolia, and fern and burro’s tail in baskets hung from tree limbs hover above the chairs. An electrified chandelier and uplighting under the trees illuminate the patio at night.

Deck With a City View

Photo by Mark Lohman

Unlike the backyard, which focuses inward, this deck atop the garage overlooks the city below. The same red brick used in the backyard, also laid in circular patterns, unites the two spaces. Trumpet vine drapes the front railing, softening the view to the cityscape below. The stepped-up part of the patio links to the dining room.

Finally, next to the stucco wall at the rear of the garden, Pamela planted Boston ivy, knowing the vine would, in time, cover the entire surface. Green walls keep the focus inward, she says. “When you’re in a garden, you want to feel removed from the world.”

Although she has since moved from Westwood and enjoys a new garden, Pamela recalls that the appeal of this verdant oasis was most apparent when friends visited, strolling the paths to then perch on the low walls or wander to the front deck for its view of the city, eventually returning to the garden. “Everyone relaxed there,” Pamela says. “No one wanted to leave.” She remembers with delight the surprise visitors expressed on learning the garden was new. With its lush, full growth, it feels as if it must have evolved organically over decades, one guest observed. Says Pamela with a smile, “It’s just the effect I had hoped for.”

The Garden Plan

Illustration by Ian Worpole