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Byline: Elizabeth Smilor Correspondent

Every homeowner dreams of the perfect garden, but not every home is blessed with the ideal space for creating that lush paradise.

There are some areas that are simply more difficult to landscape. Steep, sloping yards can be hazardous if they're not planned and maintained correctly. Narrow side yards are often ignored or used as a place to store garbage cans and junk. Dark, shady corners can detract from an otherwise colorful and attractive garden.

It doesn't have to be that way.

``Outside every window there should be something lovely to look at,'' says landscape designer Joan Grabel of Park Slope Design in Studio City. Grabel, other local landscape designers and experienced homeowners shared their ideas for transforming any space into a pleasant area to admire and enjoy.

Scott Cohen of The Green Scene in Canoga Park had this advice for getting started: ``Plan for how you're going to use the area. Be realistic about space layout. When entertaining, people break into groups, so create different outdoor patio areas, rather than one large patio.''

On a slope

Hillside gardening presents a unique challenge: Creating an attractive space that's accessible and won't make the hill come tumbling down. When planning, building and planting on a hillside, you must consider how to prevent erosion.

``When designing with a hillside, try to take away the tow of the slope,'' Cohen suggests. This can be done with a series of retaining walls. The walls terrace the slope and control runoff. The backs of the walls should be waterproofed to prevent a buildup of mineral deposits, and behind each wall there should be drains to collect runoff, he says.

Walls can be unattractive, so Cohen often disguises them as a seating area, a backsplash to a barbecue or a fountain running into a hot tub. Cohen cautions that if you plan to move or adjust a hillside, it's best to consult a soil geologist first. He also advises homeowners to watch for gophers that can undermine a hillside quickly. Local pest control companies can help eliminate gophers, he says.

Nick Williams of Nick Williams and Associates in Tarzana suggests creating small narrow pathways to access hillside gardens that could include vegetables and fruit trees. He cautions that paths should not cut into the hillside and that homeowners should check with the city about permits before erecting any retaining walls.

Williams prefers drought-tolerant plants on hillsides that will look great all year. ``If you can make it more water-wise, you're better off,'' he says. For irrigation, he prefers sprinklers and bubblers running to trees over drip systems that require a lot of maintenance.

``The challenge of hillsides is planting things that will stabilize the slope and look really pretty,'' says Grabel, who has been featured along with Cohen on HGTV and on the network's online program, ``Designers' Portfolio.''

Ivy is commonly used but is not very attractive, she says. For a sunny slope, she suggests trailing rosemary, myoporum, agave and star jasmine. There are fewer options for a shady slope, but she likes vinca.

``The fun part is being able to take a hillside and terrace it,'' Grabel says.

That's what the designer did at the Kaytis household in Glendale.

``When we bought the house, the yard was hideous, with retaining walls that were falling down and a lot of dead plants,'' says Monica Lago Kaytis, who lived in the house for six years with her husband, Clay, before redoing the space. What the couple and Grabel created together is a terraced space with a large pergola-covered patio for dining, a smaller seating area above it, flagstone pathways, fruit trees and an eclectic mix of plants.

``We got everything we wanted in our space,'' Kaytis says.

They were able to reinforce and put stucco on the existing retaining walls. They used drought-resistant plants to prevent erosion and re-leveled some areas to correct the drainage.

``I couldn't be happier, especially now that everything has grown in,'' says Kaytis of their yard that was completed last September. ``It makes such a difference with our lifestyle. It's our baby now.''

Trish Meyer and her husband, Chris, turned the ivy-covered hillside above their home in Sherman Oaks into a habitat for birds and butterflies. Their first concern was making the garden accessible.

``On longer slopes, we broke it up with railroad ties,'' Trish Meyer says. ``Otherwise, we were scrambling up and down like goats.

They put 60 steps up the center of the garden so they could see the plants up close. As the plants grow, they disguise the stairway, she says. Another concern was erosion and runoff. They used jute netting where the soil was really loose and planted wildflower seeds. They covered one slope in wild strawberries, which are hardy enough to walk on and hold the hillside well, she says. Finally they made some adjustments to the existing retaining walls to create some flat areas for a greenhouse and trees.

To prevent too much runoff, the Meyers switched to an irrigation system that sprays a fine mist for several hours at a time. The soil doesn't get saturated and doesn't move down the hill, Meyer says.

Meyer now prefers gardening on a slope. She says it's allowed her to plant some native shrubs that need good drainage, such as manzanita and fremontodendron.

``Make sure the plants at the bottom like more water than the ones on top,'' she advises. ``The advantage is you never have plants sitting in pools of water.''

Forgotten side yards

``People usually give up side yards for storing junk,'' says Williams. He argues that most people only need a little space by the garage for storage, while the rest can be converted into attractive areas. Williams suggests adding French doors from a room inside, if possible, and then creating a small patio with a fountain. Even if you only have windows looking out on a side yard, you can make the view more attractive, he says. He suggests disguising unattractive walls or fences with vines, lighted wall fountains or raised planters.

Cohen once disguised a wall off a dining room by embedding lighted wine bottles into it. He is also fond of water features for side yards. At his own home, he created a fountain that, from the windows, looks like a 10- foot-wide sheet of rainfall.

``A lot of times I will create a little getaway with an arbor, fruit trees and seating,'' he says.

Cohen said side yards could also be a great space for kids. Just put in a hopscotch court, some animal topiaries and place to store all their bikes and outdoor toys, he suggests.

Grabel suggests using plants in side yards to create privacy. She likes bamboo or honeysuckle, because both grow tall fairly quickly. She also likes to create small seating areas and says even the smallest space can be a garden if you use pots with a drip irrigation system. Grabel also says homeowners shouldn't give up on shady side yards.

``Sometimes the shadiest side yard can be the most charming,'' she says, adding that plants such as ferns, camellias and azaleas will thrive in the shade.

Grabel recently completed two side yards for the Clossons in Studio City. Claire Closson says they took out a lot of broken concrete to create calm, Zen-like spaces. ``It's a place where we walk out and it's a little bit calmer,'' she says.

The couple chose to take out part of their driveway because it was too narrow for cars. They put down sod and a stepping-stone path to the garage that they are converting to a pool/guest house, Closson says. On the opposite side of the house, Grabel transformed an unused long and narrow space into a patio and dog run. French doors lead to a small slate patio lined with bamboo that will eventually block out the view of the neighbors.

``It's a very calm and pleasant place to sit,'' says Closson.

Perpetually dead corners

No space on your property has to be an eyesore. If you have a spot where you can't get anything to grow, Williams suggests creating a secret garden with a bench, a fountain and decomposed granite. ``It doesn't have to be costly concrete or stone, just a simple meditative garden.''

Grabel argues that you can find the right plant for any space. If you have a large tree that's creating a really shady spot on an otherwise sunny yard, she suggests getting an arborist to lace out the tree to let some light through. ``It will still be shady, but it won't be a dark hole in the corner,'' she says.

Then, she advises planting a ground cover that thrives in the shade or putting in ferns or azaleas, even though they might not grow to their full height because of the tree roots. She said lush, low ground covers such as baby tears or mondo grass will transition well to a lawn. If planting in the ground doesn't work, install potted plants around the base of the tree and put a semicircle bench around the base.

``There's a way to plant on practically any space on a property,'' says Grabel.


9 photos


(1 -- cover -- color) The Kaytis' newly landscaped back yard in Glendale.

Photo courtesy of Clay and Monica Lago Kaytis

(2 -- 5 -- color) BEFORE AND AFTER: Joan Grabel of Park Slope Design transformed the side and back yards of the Kaytis home in Glendale.

Michael Owen Baker/Daily News

(6 -- color) Above, Scott Cohen of The Green Scene made the most of this hillside back yard, where a pool, spa, fireplace, pergola and retaining wall are situated to create a multilevel feel.

(7 -- color) At left, the Meyers' Sherman Oaks hillside, planted to attract birds and butterflies, is irrigated by a misting system to minimize runoff.

Photo courtesy of The Green Scene

(8 -- 9 -- color) BEFORE AND AFTER: Garden designer Grabel brought a Zen-like calm to the Clossons' Studio City side yard.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 30, 2004

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