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Garden to Go

Budget Living Publication

April/May 2004

By Susan Heeger

Photographs: Deborah Jaffe

Garden to Go

Fresh faced, yes. Green, no. Los Angeles architect Cletta, 39, has overseen dozens of big-budget Hollywood projects and one low-priced production-his own backyard. Opposite: This garden wall may look like concrete, but it’s really just cheap painted plywood. The upper tier cost nothing-it’s the back side of his neighbor’s fence. Cletta set the stage for dining alfresco with a Douglas fir deck, aluminum lawn chars ($25 each at Liz’s Antique Hardware), and an old cafeteria table cut down to size and adorned with a set of wheels, Let the good times roll!

(pre-article) No permanent address? No problem. Just follow the lead of landscape architect Russ Cletta, who created a fresh, frugal, and fully mobile garden behind his Venice, California, rental. The finished yard is proof that you don’t have to put down roots to, well, put down roots. Can you dig it?

Sure, it seems crazy dropping cash to spruce up a place you rent, especially when you plan to move, well, one of these years, after you’ve saved enough dough for a down payment. But where is it written that just because you live lease to lease, you have to put up with peeling paint, closet doors that don’t close, refrigerators that reek-or even a dusty, desolate, debris-strewn excuse for a yard?

For Russ Cletta, co-owner of the Los Angeles landscape architecture firm Griffith & Cletta, that kind of concession was never an option. The barren, under-developed lot that came with his Venice Beach rental hardly suited the plan-mad designer, who has shaped the ground beneath the feet of some of Tinseltown’s most wanted actors, agents, and cover girls. Besides, the 800-square-foot, two-bedroom 1920s cottage, which he shares with partner Harry Gunderson, was in dire need of entertaining space. But without his A-list clientele’s bankroll, Cletta had to punch up his plot with an eye on his wallet.

First, he stuck a deal with his landlord: In exchange for home improvements-especially the garden overhaul-his rent wouldn’t be raised a nickel as long as he remained a tenant. Then Cletta rolled up his sleeves, rescued orphaned plants, and used recycled( and recyclable) materials to keep costs low and create a backyard that’s lush, lovely, and truly transplantable. The total of about $4,000 for this good-to-garden is a bushel of green. But that sum seems dirt cheap with you consider it includes a fountain, an outdoor sofa, a deck, and two fences that(with the help of a few friends and few Coronas) can be easily dismantled and reassembled at Cletta’s next address.

To pull off this movable feat, the landscape architect first studied his lot, noting where the sun and shad fell, which views needed blocking, and what plants where worth keeping. “A garden needs focal points to draw you out, open spots to gather in, and visual screens for privacy,” he says. So an existing Norfolk Island pine, which shelters the house and blots out phone lines, earned a place in his new scheme. But the sprawling Eugenia hedges, which cramped the 30-foot-by-15-foot space, got the ax. Cletta replaced them with two kinds of walls, both streamlined and narrow. On the garden’s east side, he put up a scrim of plywood-scavenged from job sites, then finessed with an oil-based, light gray stain-that borrows its top four feet from the back side of a neighbor’s costly Plexiglas fence.

On the west side, Cletta tried an experiment, erecting a partition from Hardibacker, a pressed-concrete product designed to underlie ceramic tile. He sealed sheets of the material with a wood finish and attached them to a Douglas fir frame. This 9-foot-by-40-foot industrial-chic fence carries a $967 price tag(not exactly minimalist but still $400 cheaper than a comparable wooden version). And since the posts are just screwed to anchors-sunk in concrete with sacks of rapid-set cement-the structure can easily be undone in about an hour with a power screwdriver. Is it durable? Like the rest of the garden, this inventive barrier has endured: three years and counting.

Once the area was enclosed, Cletta laid the groundwork. He evened out the terrain but skipped the typical sod-and-sprinkler routine in favor of a $30 maintenance-free carpet made from two cubic yard of crushed three-quarter-inch gravel. When Cletta couldn’t find the ideal stepping stones at any building yard, he made his own from poured concrete (see “Tread on Me,” right). Next on deck: the deck. In a single afternoon Cletta built one from pressure-treated Douglas fir planks and beams, simply screwing them together and setting them to rest on concrete pavers (see “Top Deck,” page 97). The low-slung structure sounds like a house of cards, but its weight hold it firmly in place. The six-inch-high platform defines the outdoor dining room, furnished with a steel table plucked from an office cafeteria and secondhand chairs spray-painted silver. Nearby, Cletta fashioned a sofa from a stack of cinder blocks, plus plywood and foam wrapped in remnant fabric (see “Concrete Comfort,” above). With minimal assembly required, he was sitting pretty in no time.

To complete the picture, Cletta coughed up $1,200 for a gas fireplace, made of three-foot-wide concrete basin that hold black sand and crushed, tumbled glass (available at building-supply stores). “It’s the one splurge I’ll mostly have to leave behind,” he concedes, “since the gas line alone cost $800.” But he’s hardly been burned by dropping cash on his ring of fire-not only is it gorgeous, it ensures the garden remains a hot spot well into the night. A perfect (and portable)

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 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.”

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.”