The Robb Report Collection - 'The Secret Garden'
July 2007



The Secret Garden - A Zen respite in the heart of L.A.


By Lynn Morgan



Russ Cletta landscape design

The house lingered in memory. Sleek and modern, it stood out among the more traditional homes in the suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. Seeing it only as a post-Northridge earthquake fixer-upper, Realtor Susan Gordon showed the house to a client, but couldn't forget it. When it came back on the market six years later, she and her husband, Howard, a marketing executive, bought it, and set about restoring it with the help of designer Guy Cnop.


The home sat on a small but well-proportioned lot. The previous owners had partially renovated its interior, but neglected the grounds completely. The yard, both front and back, was all dirt, dead grass and weeds, with a single, 30-foot-tall Brazilian pepper tree shading the house. It was dying. Cnop recommended landscape architect Russ Cletta, of Estate Gardens by ValleyCrest, to design a setting worthy of the home his clients wanted to create. Once they settled on him, no other designer would do: The Gordons waited almost two years until they were able to bring Cletta on to begin the project.


"Russ' style is unique, "Susan says. "He has a modern perspective and an architectural sensibility. Our house is very contemporary, unlike most the houses in this area, and we wanted our garden to be contemporary also. Russ was the perfect man for the job and we were willing to wait for him."


When Cletta came to the project, he found a virtually blank slate. Even the huge Brazilian pepper tree, which the Gordons loved, was doomed. "We gave it its last rites," he quips, "and then got to work."


Cletta began by asking the Gordons what they wanted, what they expected, and how they intended to use their new garden. It had to harmonize with their home and the lives they lead.


"The house is very detailed in terms of finishes and materials," notes Cletta. "Lots of time and care went into planning the space. I wanted to use the same vocabulary outdoors.


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"It's the longest project I have ever been on," he continues. "It took a long time to get started due to rain delays, and then there were problems with the materials. The building stone had to be finished to exact specifications and all imperfections removed before it could be installed."


Susan Gordon remained appreciative of Cletta's attention to detail and dedication, even under adverse circumstances. "The weather was awful-record rains," she recalls. "Russ and his team were often knee-deep in mud, but they kept working."


Exotic hardwood, steel and stone became Cletta's materials of choice. He used honed bluestone for pavers and the countertops of the alfresco kitchen area. The cabinets, banquettes and deck are made of the sustainably harvested South American hardwood ipe. "It's beautiful," Cletta says. "It offers many of the benefits of other hardwoods, like teak or mahogany, without the guilt."


Cletta enclosed the yard with a privacy hedge, using fern pines to both define its boundaries and shield the garden from street noise, adding a fruitless olive tree for an accent. He filled the yard with various shades of green: mock orange, spring bouquet Laurustinus, Himalayan blue bamboo, sago palm and star-jasmine. It's reserved and disciplined landscape design, without frills or excess.


"I picked a color scheme that was simple and ever-green, "Cletta explains. "not a lot of attention was given to flowering plants; I was looking for differing shapes and textures to create the visual interest. There's a lot of dark green, contrasted with dustier shades, chartreuse and silver. The greens are cooling and calming, and they harmonize with the bluestone."


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The plants he selected are also low-maintenance (the Gordons are not avid gardeners), pest-resistant and perennial. "I selected a palette that is timeless-it doesn't look that different from winter to spring," he explains. "I wanted them to be able to enjoy their garden all year round."


To that end, Cletta made the outdoor living room the garden's focal point, draping its steel trellis with climbing grapevines. "The vines will continue to grow and climb, getting thicker, creating more shade and shelter," he says. Cletta added space heaters, outdoor lighting and a fire pit: a simple concrete bowl, filled with lava rocks, equipped with natural gas jets. It provides the space with both an aesthetic and a social centerpiece. "It draws people outside, "he says, "away from the television."


The overall impression is of disciplined serenity. The garden is lush, without being excessive, complementing the fresh, contemporary look of the house and reflecting the owner's urbane sensibilities. "The house is minimalist in the use of decoration," says Cletta. "The artistry is in the woodworking and the materials, rather than in ornamentation. The garden masks the house, so it does not seem so austere."


A Studio/office was added to the property to allow Susan Gordon to work at home, and the garden provides a soothing view from her desk. An elevated deck off the master bedroom opens out to a private corner of the garden-shady and obscured by overhanging plants, providing another corner of respite for the busy couple.


Visitors describe the couple's garden as "Japanese" or "Zen." Indeed, there is an Asian flavor to the garden, with its clean straight lines, reserve and meditative atmosphere. It was designed to instill calm as well as conviviality, as a refuge for its owners to show with one another and with friends. Once inside the cool, green enclosure, chaos recedes, and is replaced by peace.


"People who come to visit don't want to leave," says Susan.


For Cletta, it remains a work in progress. "A garden is never really done," he says. "It's living, changing thing. And over the years, the clients and their needs change, too. It's a lifelong commitment, watching over it."


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