Playful plant-lover’s garden of LA designer Dustin Gimbel

Concrete orb shish-kabobs in Dustin’s garden

The Death Star was blasting mercilessly when I visited designer Dustin Gimbel‘s garden in Long Beach, CA, last week — not at all in the mellow, sunny-L.A. way I’d been led to expect. But perhaps Diana and I are fated to bring Texas weather with us wherever we travel.

We were in Los Angeles for the Garden Writers Association conference but had set aside a day and a half to visit friends and their gardens. Annette Gutierrez, whose garden we visited first on Saturday morning, had generously arranged a day of private garden visits for us. Slathered in sunscreen, we arrived at mid-morning at Dustin’s garden, and he met us at the gate wearing a big-brimmed straw hat and an even bigger smile. With him was Bill Thomas, executive director and head gardener at the amazing Chanticleer.

I knew Dustin slightly from his blog, Non-Secateur (a punny title that perfectly exemplifies his quirky sense of humor), and from other bloggers’ posts about him.

Dustin is the mastermind behind an L.A. event that brings together creative people from multiple fields — gardeners, designers, writers, artists, etc. — for dinner in his garden. These Cross-Pollination parties, as he calls them, are a terrific idea that I fantasize about copying in Austin — or, even better, being invited to myself. (If only there were an energetic and welcoming Dustin in Austin!) Dustin is a plant geek extraordinaire who’s worked with Dan Hinkley at Heronswood, Bill at Chanticleer, and ornamental grass guru John Greenlee, as well as at Great Dixter in England. Today he operates Second Nature Garden Design in L.A.

His own garden, on an unusually large lot in an urban neighborhood in Long Beach, is a place of artistic experimentation. A tall hedge shuts out the busy street, putting the visitor’s attention on the mix of plants and Dustin’s handmade art, like these cast-concrete spheres skewered on rebar stakes, which resemble stacked beach stones. A narrow trail of hexagonal pavers winds through the sunny garden, leading the visitor on a slow, deliberate exploration. ‘Fireworks’ gomphrena adds a meadowy ribbon of pink pom-poms to the scene.

Dustin went all-in on the concrete-orb creation, as evidenced by the pile of balls next to a small pond. A cast-leaf fountain trickles water into the pool.

On the porch, potted plants share space with a twisted old vine, a natural sculpture.

This pot of buffalograss is meant to be a seat, Dustin told us. At first glance I thought it to be an ironic tribute to the Bermudagrass that blanketed the yard when he bought the house, which he eradicated in the process of making his garden.

The most dramatic feature of the front garden is a gracefully arched weeping acacia (Acacia pendula). Its silvery leaves sparkle in the sunlight and surely glow in moonlight. Dustin’s trained it on a rebar tepee frame that straddles the path, but the rebar is nearly invisible, giving the impression that the tree has simply been pruned into an arched doorway.

Wired to the tree, along with Spanish moss (I think), was a tillandsia with a beautiful lavender flower.


Looking back at the front garden from the driveway (which leads to the back garden), you see a wealth of textural leaves and shades of green and gray. Touchable ‘Cousin Itt’ acacia is in the foreground.

Entering the back garden is a wow moment. A thick-limbed dead tree, painted pale yellow, stands as a sculptural centerpiece near an L-shaped screening wall constructed of horizontal boards. Strategically placed windows offer teasing glimpses of the garden beyond. By dividing his garden into distinct rooms but allowing peek-a-boo views, Dustin has made the garden feel larger than it really is.

Golden bromeliads and a variegated ponytail palm, as well as yellow glass floats in a trough pond, amplify the yellow of the tree. The colors were intense at midday but must glow beautifully in the softer light of morning and evening, perfect for al fresco dinner parties.

The raised trough pond — mortared concrete block cloaked with fig ivy — is positioned in one of the “windows,” thus figuring into the gardens on both sides of the wall. Through the top window you get a glimpse of a dusky purple wall, with burgundy and chartreuse plants in front.

Yellow echoes yellow echoes yellow

One bromeliad was in bloom.

Walk around the screening wall, and you see a gravel garden with a meandering path of concrete pavers. A circle of Dustin’s cast-concrete gnomes catches your eye…

…what are they up to?

Plant worship?

At a small table nearby, a gnome appears to be standing guard over a bowl of diamonds, another creation of Dustin’s — from an ice-cube tray mold, I believe he said. At Dustin’s invitation, one of these came home with me as a souvenir from his garden. The gnome was kind enough not to bite my fingers as I selected one.

Around the corner, another dining table offers extra space for guests.

Sunflowers reach for the sky.

Now we’re looking through the screening wall’s window from the other side, toward the back of the house.

A most unusual vine drapes from a corner of the screening wall: giant Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia gigantea), a Brazilian native. Its inflated, burgundy flowers look a bit like lungs before they open.

And when they open, they resemble…ahem…well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. It’s a conversation starter, for sure. Check out A Growing Obsession for a wonderful photo of this vine, in the softer light of evening, strung along Dustin’s dusky purple wall.

At the back of the lot, Dustin keeps an artfully arranged assortment of plants that he’s propagating or putting into clients’ gardens.

It’s like a mini-nursery.

I noticed that Dustin has made stacks of cast-concrete teeth as well — to go with plants that can bite, like this agave?

Bill and Dustin, two gardener rock stars

Thank you, Dustin, for welcoming us into your creative, plant-lover’s garden! It was a treat to visit, even with the Death Star on high-beam.

Dustin himself is on high-beam all the time, I suspect, cooking up ideas for his gardens and for dinner mixers that bring creative people together. It was great to meet him, and Bill too (check out his new book), and I’d see them both again later that afternoon at other gardens we visited.

Up next: A magical hillside oasis created by Joy and Roland Feuer. For a look back at blogger Kris Peterson’s lovely ocean-view garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Late garden party at Kris Peterson’s ocean-view oasis

Kris Peterson, Los Angeles blogger at Late to the Garden Party, saw her blog title unexpectedly come true last week. Or rather, my friend Diana and I did. With flight complications, we arrived in L.A. four hours later than planned and were indeed late to the garden party that Kris had generously planned for us: lunch on her patio with two other L.A. garden-blogging friends, Denise of A Growing Obsession and Hoover Boo of Piece of Eden. By the time we got our rental car and fought our way through traffic, it was closer to dinnertime and Denise and HB had naturally had to go home.

Luckily, this story has a happy ending! Kris was still at home and welcomed us into her garden, which enjoys a spectacular view of the Port of Los Angeles, dotted with cruise and container ships.

The view is enjoyed from the rear garden, and Kris has managed the difficult trick of making an interesting and lovely garden that complements rather than competes with the view. A paver terrace juts into the center of the garden, capitalizing on the view and offering a pleasant place to take it in. A low clipped hedge serenely repeats the line of the horizon and protects visitors from the hillside drop just beyond. In front, low-growing perennials, grasses, and succulents enliven the curving border. An echoing bed runs alongside the house, with turf functioning as a path in-between. Hard hit by the drought, the lawn was scheduled for removal on the day after our visit, and I’ll be reading Kris’s blog to see what she does with the space instead.

Kris has a knack for combining structural yuccas and agaves with softer plants. Here, ‘Bright Star’ yucca makes a surprising contrast with frilly Eustoma grandiflorum ‘Echo Pink’.

She also has a number of pots filled with low-water succulents, like this cute frog planter.

A delicate vine climbs an animal-motif trellis on the back porch.

The back garden may have the most arresting view, but the front garden is lovely as well, especially in the glowing light of late afternoon. A curvy stepping-stone path leads through the lawnless garden…

…past flowering grevillea and gaillardia…

…and a strawberry tree (Arbutus) with its flaky, cinnamon-colored bark.

There were even a few orange fruits hanging from the strawberry tree. Do they resemble strawberries to you? Only in the bumpy skin, I think.

A wide circle of mulch around a large magnolia tree not only protects and cools the roots but makes a casual patio. A bench around the tree provides occasional seating and a place to display potted plants.

Here’s the pretty entry garden, with an arbor-shaded bench by the door and a welcoming garden on either side of the walk.

Lavender looks especially purple against golden foliage.

Aeonium (I think) glows purple too.

In the baking hot strip that slopes to the street, Kris has planted agaves, aloes, and other succulents to take advantage of the good drainage and dry conditions.

I love the crisp white margins and teeth on this agave.

Hummingbird magnet — an aloe in bloom

Kris has so many nice succulent planters in her garden beds, and this one may be my favorite. Notice how the blue-gray and rose-hued pebbles match the plant colors.

As the sun set behind the hills, it was time to say goodbye to Kris and her garden. Despite our late arrival, and though we were sad to miss Denise and Hoover Boo, it was a wonderful start to our L.A. visit. Thanks so much for the late but lovely garden party, Kris!

Up next: Designer Dustin Gimbel’s experimental and artistic Long Beach garden. For a look back at the colorful bungalow garden of Annette Gutierrez, click here.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Colorful LA garden of Potted maven Annette Gutierrez

I was in Los Angeles/Pasadena last weekend for the annual Garden Writers Association symposium, and boy oh boy, do I have some cool gardens to show you! Not all were on the GWA tours, which were limited to 3 private gardens and one public garden (the fabulous Huntington). My friend and traveling companion Diana Kirby and I spent two days prior to GWA visiting blogging friends and seeing their gardens as well.

One of these was the home garden of Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of the lust-inducing garden shop Potted and all-around fun and wildly creative person. We’d been online friends before I met her at the Garden Bloggers Fling a few years ago, and she generously arranged a day of private garden visits for us, starting with her own stylishly livable garden on a palm-lined street of 100-year-old bungalows in the Hollywood Hills.

Our mid-morning arrival during a heat wave of sunny, 100-degree days made photography a challenge, but we were eager to see it all. Here’s the streetside view of Annette’s charming home. A pair of giant pittosporums shelters and shades the front porch. The pinky-purple cordylines towering over the entry steps announce that a playful gardener lives here.

A small lawn bordered by xeric beds fronts Annette’s house, and I was swooning over this corner screen of Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum). Be still, my heart! This is how it’s supposed to look, instead of the straggly canes in my own garden, which have endured multiple winter die-backs.

And then there’s the front porch, which is essentially Potted style distilled to its colorful, playful, plant-displaying essence. How could you ever enter this door and not feel cheerful?

A rust-colored City Planter with an orange address plaque and tillandsias sets the stage. Below, on a small table, a potted bromeliad and dracaena (?) add strappy lime and pink accents.

A wider view shows a lime-green bench picking up the window trim color. Also, notice how Annette has mulched the green potted plant with Mexican beach pebbles set on edge — lovely!

To the left, orange Fermob chairs and a vintage green glider invite lounging behind the pittosporum hedge.

Chartreuse and sky blue Circle Pots hang from the porch ceiling, adding another pop of color as they display cascading succulents.

Avert your eyes if the f-bomb offends you. Annette gave us a tour of her home’s beautiful, mod-meets-midcentury interior, and I couldn’t resist snapping this laugh-inducing terrarium in the guest room. She said a friend made it for her because she’s always losing her keys.

Next we went out a side door to explore a shady patio where Annette said the idea for Potted was hatched. She and her partner, Mary, spent a summer figuring out how to make these tile-inset pavers, and by the time they perfected it, they’d decided to open a garden shop together. The pups are Marley (cautiously approaching the stranger with the camera) and Phlea (standing on the side porch).

The side porch: I love this quiet, artful vignette. Phlea is pretty cute too.

Every space has something to look at, even the steps. Annette also likes to put seating throughout her garden, as do I. Chairs make great decor, even if you rarely sit in them.

The eggplant-colored siding makes a nice backdrop for her plants and accessories.

A fig shades the small patio, which is paved with Annette’s and Mary’s pavers.

Big-leaved plants, like philodendron and tree fern, give this space a lush, rain-forest appeal.

Upstairs, a covered porch off the master bedroom invites afternoon naps on a red-cushioned daybed. It overlooks the backyard swimming pool.

Turning around and looking lengthwise across the porch, you see iconic Los Angeles palm trees and…

…yes, it’s the Hollywood sign. What a view!

Staghorn fern enjoys the bright shade of the porch.

The back garden is, I suspect, where Annette and her family spend most of their time. The back wall of the house is a series of glass doors, which fold open to allow for that much-envied indoor-outdoor California lifestyle. The curvy, brick-edged pool looked very inviting on this hot day. A tiled wall at the back of the pool is a colorful focal point and gives privacy. At the right is a guest house, plenty of seating, and lots of potted plants.

Annette’s third dog, Amos, made himself comfortable on a sofa and didn’t mind posing for pictures. Look at that gigantic euphorbia (?) behind him.

I also love the golden succulent in the yellow dish planter on the coffee table.

A tiled outdoor shower gives swimmers a beautiful place to clean off.

Looking back toward the house

On the back patio, just off the kitchen, a pretty tiled table of Potted design offers space for outdoor dining. Freestanding umbrellas provide shade.

A rustic wooden buffet holds a collection of potted succulents, with more crammed in on the back steps.

Esther pots are a favorite of mine. In fact, I bought an Esther bowl while at Potted later that day. (Click for my 2013 post about Potted.)

Annette said cheerfully that she’d taken over the outdoor sink her husband wanted for backyard cookouts. It does make a terrific display space for more plants.

Really, every place in Annette’s home and garden is a perfect space for a potted plant.

I admired this faux grass pillow, which Potted used to carry. Talk about downsizing the lawn!

A small brick patio holds a Cazo fire pit (wish I had one!) and a few chairs, for chilly evenings. Annette’s daughter, years ago, decorated the little playhouse visible at right. The fun, Annette told us, was all in the decorating, and after it was done, her daughter never used it. That’s OK. I agree that most of the fun is in the decorating too.

The garden transitions into shade along the side of the house. Beyond the fence is the side garden with the fig tree that I showed you earlier.

While the pool grabs your eye as you step outside, here’s where I’d spend all my time relaxing: a comfortably furnished seating area right off the kitchen. Three white Orbit Planters hang at eye level above the wooden coffee table, displaying pale green succulents. Acapulco chairs offer comfy seating but don’t take up much space visually.

A peek into Annette’s delightfully styled kitchen. With the glass doors folded out of the way, it’s fully open to the back yard.

Looking across the dining patio

Every nook, cranny, and shelf is used to display Annette’s potted creations.

Nail-head alliums?

Another City Planter filled with succulents

The side yard, which contains Annette’s potting supplies and a work bench, is anything but utilitarian with this eye-catching path of poured concrete and Mexican beach pebbles. A trimmed hedge of bamboo provides privacy and a green view from interior windows. The driveway lies beyond the gate.

Another pretty vignette

Huge thanks to Annette for the delightful and inspiring home and garden visit, and for arranging for us to visit several of her friends’ gardens as well. More on those coming soon!

Up next: The ocean-view garden of Kris Peterson, an L.A. blogging friend at Late to the Garden Party.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.