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.

Sedgey evergreen garden of Pat Mozersky for Foliage Follow-Up

Austin designer Mark Word (see my profile about him) designed this serene, green San Antonio garden that you can see on the upcoming Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24. I got a preview last Friday thanks to Shirley of Rock-Oak-Deer.

The garden belongs to Pat Mozersky, the longtime, recently retired food writer for the San Antonio Express-News. Pat generously allowed us to photograph her garden one day before the Mark Word maintenance crew came for a late-summer clean-up and refresh. Thanks to the garden’s good bones and evergreen plant palette, it looked photo-ready anyway.

Simple, restrained hardscape and swaths of evergreen foliage are the key to year-round good looks. Pat and her husband built this home, downsizing from a larger property and reducing their home and garden maintenance in the process. The new house sits on a small lot, and in place of a traditional lawn, a meadowy swath of Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa) needs little care and stays green all year. Greening up the garden walls and providing additional privacy from nearby houses are understory viburnums, clethra, redbuds, and Texas persimmons. Live oaks shade nearly the entire garden.

The front yard is protected from deer by a handsome stacked-stone wall and gated entry.

This is the view from the front porch looking toward the gate and the street beyond. As you can see, it’s green and unfussy but has a naturalistic look.

Lueders limestone pavers spaced by ribbons of river rock make up a contemporary front walk and allow runoff to soak into the soil.

At the front porch, on each side of the steps, steel planters are filled with round-leaved ligularia, feathery foxtail fern, and abutilon for seasonal flowering.

Pat took us through her house and out the back door onto a covered back porch. A zinc-topped table and an old factory light from Germany blend well with the custom steel gate.

A few pots filled with low-maintenance succulents offer interesting foliage texture and colors.

Lueders pavers in random widths keep the eye from running straight to a separate patio. An oversized teak bench is the simple focal point. A built-in corner bench offers additional seating that doesn’t take up much space.

The view looking back toward the porch

In the back corner of the garden resides a nearly life-size metal bison, a gift from Pat to her husband and a smile-inducing sculpture in the otherwise serene garden.

Tufty sedges are planted around back of the house too, as pavers thread a narrow pathway through them.

Pat has two friendly cavalier King Charles spaniels, Layla and…I forget the other one’s name.

They appear to enjoy the garden, especially the bamboo muhly! My dog, Cosmo, also loves to nosh on bamboo muhly, so this didn’t surprise me. Luckily, it’s pretty tough and able to recover from dog browsing.

Near the driveway, outside the walled garden in a hot, sunny side yard, evergreen, glossy-leaved star jasmine climbs a wire-panel trellis to hide the A/C unit from view.

And here’s a last look from outside of the front garden wall, of native Texas persimmons standing ghostly amid Berkeley sedge — a tough and drought-tolerant combo.

My thanks to Pat for sharing her lovely garden with us! If you long for an easy-care, evergreen garden because of a busy schedule or physical difficulty in keeping up with maintenance, Pat’s foliage-based garden is an inspiring example.

This is my September post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness is going on in your garden this month, or in one you’ve visited? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I really appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it. I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

Up next, also from my San Antonio visit last week: A modern garden that’s a cactus and succulent lover’s dream. For a look back at the gorgeous courtyard xeriscape garden of Linda Peterson, click here.

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

Dreamy green courtyard and water-saving garden in San Antonio

My friend Shirley of Rock-Oak-Deer in San Antonio recently uttered the magic words: Come see a few gardens! So last Friday I hopped in my car, drove south to the Alamo City, and met Shirley to tour three gardens. Two of the gardens will be on this year’s Watersaver Landscape Tour on October 24. I’ll give you a sneak peek at those soon, but first I’ll show you the one featured on last year’s tour.

This is the garden of Linda Peterson, who, with her husband, built this home in the northwest San Antonio neighborhood in which Linda grew up. As a teenager, she told me, she and her friends would bike to this then-vacant property to lounge under a 100-year-old live oak whose lowest limbs sprawl along the ground. It was all part of an old estate that was being developed into her suburban neighborhood. Years later, when she and her husband had an opportunity to buy the lot, they did, and built their dream home here. They preserved the beautiful live oaks as they constructed their home and garden around them.

A grayed-out mint-green stucco wall encloses a courtyard garden at the front of the house, sheltering it from the street and creating an outdoor room that gracefully transitions between the interior of the home and the public-facing garden outside the walls.

Stepping through the arbor-shaded opening you enter a generously proportioned patio garden designed for all-seasons relaxing. A hammock sways invitingly in the shade of the long-armed oaks, and a pot fountain splashes quietly behind matching agaves.

Chairs cluster near a focal-point outdoor fireplace. Curving seat-height walls provide plenty of extra seating for parties.

It’s a marvelous use of space, bringing the outdoors inside through a window-wall in the house and making this corner-lot, front garden feel as private as a fenced back yard.

I could move right in.

There are already several other residents, however, including this large metal iguana…

…and this rhino mama and calf, seemingly deciding whether to cross a river-rock stream.

Small metal lizards scurry down one of the live oaks — hoping to snag one of the almonds Linda puts out for the birds?

Linda collects not only metal animals but lanterns, which she hangs en masse from tree branches (as well as indoors in her entry hall), to striking effect. They add a distinct San Antonio-via-Mexico flair to her garden.

Paving is green-hued Pennsylvania bluestone, which matches the gray-green walls. It swirls around a central live oak and leads from the entry arbor to the front door, around the courtyard, and out past the fireplace to the back garden.

Wide planting beds curve around the perimeter of the space, softening the walls with drought-tolerant plants like vitex, prickly pear, variegated American agave, and soap aloe. Caramel-hued round gravel mulches the beds, aiding drainage and giving the widely spaced xeric plants a finished look.

Linda plants up striking pot displays too.

She boldly mixes metal cactus with real cactus, like this wonderful combo of steel golden barrels and spineless opuntia. Green and purple sweet potato vine meanders among the golden barrels, enhancing the color scheme and giving almost a pumpkin-patch appearance.

Linda created these abstract flowers of copper tubing herself, using leftovers from another project and pinching long copper tubes around them to make “stems.” I believe the wiry branches rambling below are gray leaf cotoneaster.

Next, Linda led us around the side of the house, where a metal porcupine snuffled past potted succulents.

A side deck is lightly screened with a wire trellis, which is strategically hung with pots of asparagus fern. Fig ivy cloaks the trellis that extends below the deck, making an evergreen foundation.

A metal star attracts the eye skyward.

Along the gravel and flagstone path, intimate seating areas catch your eye, inviting you to sit and enjoy the garden.

This one, made for two, anchors the bend of the path. The umbrella offers not only sun protection but screening from neighboring houses.

More metal lanterns hang from a nearby tree. Even unlit, Linda’s lanterns foster a wonderful mood, promising festivity and late evenings in the garden. They also lift the eye off the ground plane and bridge the middle space in a heavily treed garden.

In the narrow back garden (the house is sited at the rear of the lot, leaving plenty of room up front for the courtyard garden), a small patio is sheltered from neighboring view by a unique, contemporary-style metal screen. Linda and her husband creatively constructed it themselves out of leftover metal roofing strips that they riveted together.

The patio shelters a tropical assortment of potted plants, including a tall palm and a coppery-leaved banana. Floor-to-ceiling back windows bring this space right into the home as well. A spiral stair leads up to the roof…

…where Linda enjoys a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard garden. From here you can see how the outer streetside garden buffers the courtyard walls.

I admired a soap aloe “river” at left. I know how much maintenance this requires; those aloes pup (produce offsets of baby plants) like crazy. You have to pull or snip off the pups frequently to have single rosettes like these.

Zooming in on the hammock corner, I noticed what a nice combo variegated American agave and bamboo muhly make. This would work just as well in full sun.

The fireplace view. A narrow balcony overlooks this space — but not as high as we are now!

Climbing down from the roof, let’s head out into the front garden — the only part of the garden that most passersby ever see. It’s a treat too. A metal agave, forever in early bloom, echoes the form of an Agave weberi behind it. Along the path, society garlic and foxtail fern are massed for effect.

The octopus-like arms of the sprawling live oak, whose trunk anchors one end of the hammock inside the courtyard, seem to writhe out of a hole in the wall, reaching out to encircle a stump-constructed table and stools. Its limbs dip into a cushiony groundcover of trailing purple lantana.

Glancing back along the path, you see masses of variegated flax lily and a gray leaf cotoneaster on the left and a large silver-blue agave (americana?) on the right. I admire Linda’s confidence in allowing open spaces between some of her plants, like the architectural agaves (as they’d have in a desert setting), contrasted with masses of softening groundcovers. The result is quite lush, even though the plants are all drought tolerant. Linda has no irrigation system and waters everything, as needed, by hand.

A stone Aztec-style crocodile looks fierce but tamely carries succulents in his plantable back.

Linda recently planted a swath of ‘Blonde Ambition’ grama grass, and it looks more erect and happy in full sun and gravel mulch than in my part-sun and wood-mulched garden. I love its color echo with the yellow stripes on the agaves in the background.

Let’s take a closer look at those stripey agaves. Also notice how beautifully a painted stucco wall sets off xeric plants.

A blue-green Agave weberi guards the path toward the driveway.

A handsomely pruned prickly pear stands sentry alongside the wall.

A wider view of the front-side garden. To orient yourself, you’re looking at the back of the outdoor fireplace (the taller wall section at the far right).

Linda likes to prune. I like to prune too. The key with pruning, if you’re into it, is knowing when to stop but also being willing to take chances, to seek out a beautiful form without poodling a plant. I admire Linda’s pruning skills with various shrubs, like cenizo, which she prunes up like a small tree, enhancing the natural airiness of the plant, but still allowing it a wide, graceful form — so unlike the tightly pruned and stunted cenizos commonly seen in our area.

Now we’re at streetside, looking at the front garden (you can see the octopus-like live oak in the background). I was intrigued by the bushy, silver-green shrub at right, which Linda told me is silvery cassia (Senna phyllodinea).

Silvery cassia seedpods

Two palms make a bold statement and offer additional screening.

Unusual Gregg dalea (Dalea greggii) spreads like a ghostly head of hair across the ground. Common-as-dirt rosemary, however, captured my complete attention because of Linda’s unique pruning. She’s gotten under the plant and pruned out the lower branches, lifting it up like a full skirt hanging just above the ground — for air circulation, Linda said, but also just because she likes the look.

I love it.

A curling and stretching agave looks like it just woke up and is trying to get itself moving.

More gracefully pruned-up cenizos, which create a silver scrim rather than a view-blocking hedge

A prolific pupper, variegated American agave produces lots of new plants for Linda to mass for effect.

The flagstone path widens near the end of the garden, making room for a simple wooden bench backed by a cloud of bamboo muhly.

A tighter view. Focal points like these give the eye a place to stop, even if your bottom will never grace the seat.

Linda knows to provide an equally pleasing view from the vantage of the focal point itself, so no matter where you stop or which way you look, you have a framed view or vignette to appreciate.

Linda designed the garden herself and does her own maintenance, and her attention to detail is evident at every turn. It’s a beautiful space, and the fact that it’s a low-water garden makes it even more inspiring. Thank you, Linda, for sharing your garden with me!

Up next: An evergreen garden that’s low-maintenance for easy living, for the Foliage Follow-Up meme on 9/16.

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