Falling for the Folly Bowl, a garden amphitheater

Twelve years ago, Los Angeles garden designer Susanna Dadd and her husband, artist James Griffith, built a back-yard amphitheater in a ravine alongside their Altadena home. Dubbing it The Folly Bowl, they’ve been hosting free, or nearly free, public concerts each summer, choosing unique performers that will draw a crowd — but not too big of a crowd. I visited with a small group of friends prior to the Garden Writers conference a couple of weeks ago, just before an evening performance.

Using fill dirt, rock, and urbanite (broken pieces of concrete), Susanna and James constructed tiered seating all the way up the steep hillside. Susanna filled the gaps among the stones with dry-loving succulents and other tough plants.

Twinkle lights weave through some of the plants, and hanging lanterns add glowing ambience on summer evenings.

Colorful pillows soften the benches, and low tables are positioned in front of some of them. Concertgoers are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner to enjoy during the show.

The stage is beautifully framed by carved wooden posts and a curved, painted backdrop, and string lights provide soft illumination.

Here’s Susanna, the owner, along with Dustin Gimbel, another L.A. designer whose garden we toured earlier that day. It’s amazing to consider how generous Susanna and James are with their garden, inviting the public in on a regular basis for pure enjoyment.

Bill Thomas of Chanticleer taking in the view

I love the eclectic assortment of lamps and lanterns placed throughout the space.

In the background you can see a wing of Susanna and James’s L-shaped house, which sits atop the hill and enjoys a nice view of the neighborhood.

Small details abound for those who look, like this Buddha head placed amid river stones and succulents.

And another

A verdigris lantern, burro’s tail sedum, and nearly black aeonium make a pleasing combo.

Susanna boldly planted carrion plant (Stapelia) near the benches, and its odorous blooms were open and attracting flies.

The Bowl is very steep, so you must be pretty spry to get to the top. Susanna climbed up and down her steps with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat! I followed at a slower pace, careful of each step.

Looking down from about halfway up. That’s my friend and fellow blogger Diana Kirby talking with Susanna.

And now we’re at the top, at the level of the house, overlooking the Bowl.

A baby head is part of a whimsical handrail along the steps.

To the right of the amphitheater, a long stair of red brick leads up to the house. This garden offers lots of exercise.

After showing us the Bowl, Susanna led us down to the street, where I stopped to admire an agave in bloom on the hillside. Susanna had pruned off the dying leaves, leaving the tree-sized bloom stalk up until it was finished.

A few yards along the street, Susanna turned onto a shady, mulched path that led around the other side of her home. Enormous agaves, yuccas, and prickly pear greeted us with their fantastical forms.

These plants are full of personality.

With their yellow-edged leaves, variegated agaves glow in the late-afternoon light.

A sword-leaved, variegated yucca has been pruned up for safety.

A small sitting area is dwarfed by another large agave.

A fountain-turned-birdbath makes a classic focal point within a circular bed.

In a sunny clearing, columnar cacti add vertical accents amid agaves and aloes.

It’s quite a plant collection.

And the size of those agaves!

Railroad ties make a rustic, winding stair back up to the house.

As Susanna stood there telling us about her garden, I found myself staring at an assortment of faces gazing up around her feet.

Although their expression is placid in repose, the effect is a little eerie. And doesn’t the face look remarkably like…

…Hillary Clinton? No?

They’d found the mold, Susanna said, on their travels and cast multiple faces from it.

Another stapelia was in bloom here.

As was a lithops

Climbing all the way up, I reached the top behind Susanna and ventured a look back down. Steep!

A handsome gate and arbor at the top of the stairs marks the path.

This wing of the house has an upper porch and lower patio…

…both overlooking an oval swimming pool, which was covered to reduce water loss during California’s epic drought.

A fish pot on a pedestal seems to spray a fountain of branches instead of water.

I love this gigantic variegated American agave against a purple wall.

Nearby, a plum-colored pomegranate — ‘Eight Ball’ maybe? — echoes the purple hue.

As the sun set over the palm-studded hills, the Folly Bowl concert was just getting started. Diana and I had hoped to stay for it, but after a full day of garden touring in triple-digit heat, we decided to call it an early night. Even so, seeing the Folly Bowl twinkling with lights and filled with happy people sipping wine and munching on picnic spreads was delightful. My thanks to Susanna for welcoming us into her lovely and imaginative garden and sharing the magic with us!

Up next: A visit to garden shop Big Red Sun in Venice, CA. For a look back at the terraced hillside garden of Joy and Roland Feuer, click here.

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

Hillside oasis: the magical garden of Joy and Roland Feuer

While in Los Angeles recently for Garden Writers Association, I spent a day off-conference touring private gardens that Annette Gutierrez of Potted arranged for a small group of us. One of these was the garden of Joy and Roland Feuer, a welcoming and artistic couple who constructed their magical garden themselves by terracing a steep, eroded hillside and turning it into a series of livable garden rooms. Their A-frame ranch sits on a mesa-like hilltop amid a rugged landscape of ridges and canyons, anchored by a massive fir planted by the original owners, a long-ago Christmas tree that lives on.

Joy and Roland wisely didn’t over-fuss the level terrace area surrounding their home. Keeping it simple, in sync with their home, whose front wall of glass doors opens up to the outdoors, they spread wood mulch for a cushioning, water-absorbing floor and furnished it with overscaled wooden tables and benches.

An ivy-covered wall runs along one side of the terrace, providing shelter and privacy. The space is casually welcoming, and Joy and Roland set out platters of fruit, crackers, and cheese for us, along with bottles of wine — welcome refreshment on an unusually hot September afternoon.

Joy is the founder of ART from the Ashes and is an artist herself. Art fills her home, like this striking, painted-book sculpture by Mike Stilkey in the living room.

Wowed by this piece, I asked Joy if I could share it with you, and she readily agreed. Mike customized it for their home, running it over the doorway and under a ceiling beam. A surrealist trio plays for a woman in whose head seem to float cave-art horses. How unique — I love it!

Some of the couple’s art has a carnivalesque theme, like this print in their wine cellar.

A playful sense of magic and mystery pervades much of their garden, which I ascribe to Roland’s influence. Roland, you see, builds amusement park rides. When I asked him what that meant — does he make roller coasters? — he explained that his company, R&S Production Services Inc, creates the whole ride experience, from the mechanical to the surrounding sets to the shows that take place. Cool, right? How did he get into such a career, I asked? “I grew up at Disney,” he replied. His father worked there, and so Roland spent much of his childhood at the “most magical place on earth.”

Roland and Joy’s garden felt like the most magical place on earth on the afternoon we visited. Views are savored from numerous seating areas tucked into the hillside garden.

The garden appears to get a lot of use after dark, judging from the number of lanterns and chandeliers along paths and hanging over tables. This one is suspended from an arching steel arm.

This Asian-style wooden lantern lights the path near the house.

The path drops beyond the house down a steep hillside, past terraces filled with drought-tolerant plants, like this Agave gypsophila

…and this pretty potted succulent.

Roland and Joy did all the terracing themselves, and I think they said they built this wine cellar themselves too. It sits under one of the higher terraces, tucked into the hillside. I was unprepared for the elegance within.

A carved wooden door — distressed to look old, Roland told me — sits within an arched recess.

To the right of the door, a niche holds a few meaningful objects.

And then you open the door and see this: a smooth, domed ceiling bathed in the light of a glass lantern, which hangs over a rustic wooden table with seats for sitting and tasting wine. Roland told us that two air conditioners keep the cellar chilled to the right temperature for wine storage. I’m sure being underground helps too.

The bar sink

And a dartboard for fun. Notice the wine-cork surround.

Opposite the entrance, old wooden doors from Mexico open to reveal a hallway, beautifully lit and lined with racks of wine.

At the end of the hall hangs more carnival-theme art.

Back outside, I stopped to admire an Esther pot. That’s Roland sipping from his glass of wine in the background.

Below the wine cellar, the terraced garden continues down the hill, with succulents favored for good looks, drought tolerance, and low maintenance.

To the left, an arched doorway beckons. And are those Circle Pots from Potted?

Why, yes, they are! And there’s designer Susan Morrison (and my first mentor as an author) as well.

I really love the inventive way Joy and Roland have hung their Circle Pots, with connecting wires keeping them in a grid formation. The colorful circles echo…

…the colored glass circles on the steel-and-glass door.

A stucco wall with filigree iron windows…

…curves around a hot tub constructed to look like a natural pool, complete with pillowy boulders.

A hot tub with a view

Here are Roland and Joy, the architects of this wonderful garden, along with designer Dustin Gimbel, whose garden we visited earlier in the day.

Continuing down the hillside, more terraced patios amid the trees…

…and looking up, more hanging lanterns…

…which glowed with jewel-like color in the afternoon light.

In the lowest part of the garden, mischievous creatures…

…and spooky inhabitants appear.

Gargoyles overlook the lower garden…

…and so does Domino, Joy and Roland’s adorable dog.

Heading back up the other side of the garden, I admired this green-clad terrace.

Fig ivy covers the retaining wall, and lime-green, flower-like aeoniums lean over the top. Above, Agave attenuata adds its starry form.

A garden spirit

Almost back up to the top, with Domino leading the way

A pretty pot, and nice stonework too

These colored glass lanterns, suffused with afternoon light, need no electricity to illuminate the garden.

At the top, a small greenhouse is tucked under the lantern tree.

Back at the house, Domino gets comfy on her blanket.

My thanks to Joy and Roland for their hospitality and for sharing their delightful garden. What a marvelous place they’ve created in one of the most challenging sites I’ve seen. Hillside gardeners, here’s your inspiration!

Up next: The Folly Bowl, the personal garden of Susanna Dadd and James Griffith, which contains a back-yard amphitheater where public concerts are held. For a look back at Dustin Gimbel’s creative Long Beach garden, click here.

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

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.