When TV and film composer Nate Barr hired landscape designer Zabra Yee to transform his Topanga Canyon property, his instructions were simple. “I was familiar with her work and told her basically ‘do your thing.’ I just wanted an area where I could sit and relax with a fountain. I love the sound of running water,” Nate says.
With loads of room for creativity, Zabra dove in. “I knew right away I wanted to make a peace garden with the elements of water, fragrance and sound. The property has magnificent views that stretch to the ocean and we wanted to design around that.”
First on the agenda: the focal points. Zabra and her crew, Maria Perez and Fermin Ruelas, purchased three structural I-beams from Industrial Metal Supply Company in Sun Valley. Two were placed in succession, essentially framing a view of some blossoming cherry trees in an adjacent grassy field. A flagstone walkway edged in silver-hued dymondia was installed under the archways and a hardenbergia vine that blooms with pea-shaped purple flowers in winter was planted on one of the I-beams. The third beam was used to hold a swinging daybed that Zabra crafted from an old door.
For the landscape designer, it’s not about creating symmetry or an overly manicured look. “I like planting things in groups, typically a group of one variety in three and then another variety in a group of five. It’s about creating points of interest with a lot of texture and complementary colors.”
A custom-made Lima bean-shaped fountain was placed near the edge of the property with a mix of water-wise perennials, shrubs, grasses and succulents in the foreground.
A concrete fountain purchased from Garden Temple in Studio City sets off the entrance of the garden. Behind it, on the hillside, purple lantana, multicolored African daisy and an acacia provide a colorful, textured palette.
ZABRA’S NURSERY LIST
DWARF OLIVE TREES
Very tough and stay compact
BRONZE-HUED CAREX GRASS
Doesn’t seed and spread; grows to three feet
AGAVE “BLUE GLOW” SENECIO
We used upright rather than the trailing kind
BRIGHT GREEN COLEONEMA
Sun-tolerant with tiny pink flowers in spring
Rose-shaped succulents with frilly edges that do well in full sun
We used the fragranced, dwarf Provence and the English, which gets taller and bushier
Has a tiny white flower with electric blue berries
ANIGOZANTHOS, AKA KANGAROO PAWS
We used both the shorter and taller varieties in red and orange; blooms in spring and summer
BLUE FESCUE GRASS
Mounds with eye-catching silvery blue color
“Walk-on” mulch provided the finishing touch to the garden, which must be watered two to three times a week in summer.
Nate was out of town when Zabra and her team installed the garden. When he returned after a month of travel, he was delighted. “I come out here every day and it’s like living on the edge of the wild in Topanga. It is so peaceful here; it feels like there is nothing below me. It’s a beautiful little oasis in the middle of a canyon.
When Jon Goldstein of Jonny Appleseed Landscaping was brought in to recreate the garden at a Toluca Lake home for Tina Simpson (mom to singer/fashion designer Jessica and singer Ashley) he had only one directive: “She wanted color.” That was music to Jon’s ears. “My favorite kind of garden is a romantic one which uses lots of color—like painter Claude Monet’s in Giverny. While visiting France, I got really inspired by his garden, which uses yellows, oranges and reds especially in the western beds. As the sun sets, it catches those colors with the golden light. I often try to use that technique on gardens I design, including this one.”
But there was one challenge: The house, a classic 1929 Spanish, has tumbled, reclaimed brick paving and terra-cotta tile throughout the garden, offering limited planting space. So Jon decided to design a garden using classic, vintage Italian terra-cotta pots. “The goal was to create pockets of color and to keep the eye moving toward the view of the lake. The pots are all different, and I love that they are not perfect.”
In terms of arranging the flowers, Jon prefers to do asymmetrical groupings that go from large to small. “Usually I will let one variety predominate in the pot and then plant to fill all of the holes around the largest flower. That flower is essentially the anchor of the design of the pot,” he explains.
He cautions that a potted garden is not for everyone. “It is labor-intensive because you have to switch out the pots with new plants a couple times a year and that can be expensive.” He adds fresh mulch (an organic mix with a base of leaves and grass clippings bought by the truckload) and fertilizes every six to eight weeks in the growing season and occasionally uses ironite to help the soil. At this home, the pots are not hooked up to sprinkler lines; they are hand-watered twice a week through the summer.
The intention of a romantic garden is to create and foster feelings of intimacy and connection. It seems to have worked here. In what can only be described as a poetic footnote, while Jon was creating the garden for Tina, the duo fell in love and are now engaged.
JON’S NURSERY LIST
Snapdragon, foxglove, dahlia, zinnia, ranunculus, pansy, viola, alyssum, dianthus, lobelia, freesia, various herbs
Scotch broom, ivy geranium, lavender, hydrangea, campanula, succulents, wisteria, climbing roses, salvias
Mexican lime, kumquat, azalea