Walled patios and courtyards are an indelible part of California’s history, introduced as a style by the Spanish missionaries in the late eighteenth century. The padres’ idea of the enclosed courtyard harked back to southern Spain, with its Moorish—and fundamentally Persian—aesthetic. The wells and fountains in the California missions were not only practical; they were a symbolic honoring of water . . . suggesting an oasis in an arid landscape. The old abandoned missions continue to instruct California garden design today. The plants that have survived without irrigation— the aloes, agaves and olives—are noted and revered for their ruggedness, and the enclosed colonnaded courtyards and fountains themselves inspire our notions of outdoor living in a hot climate. Nancy Goslee Power [is] certainly influenced by this old vernacular style. [She takes] the idea of enclosure, the courtyard, the walls, the pools of water, and reinterprets them in a contemporary way.
Page Dickey, Gardens in the Spirit of Place (from which this article has been adapted)
“Everything here is behind walls,” garden designer Nancy Power says of gardens along the coast of Southern California. “When it’s in the flats (rather than on hilltops), you tend to enclose. It’s a Mediterranean way.” Nancy’s own cottage on a residential side street in downtown Santa Monica is a case in point. From the street, little is revealed; the white facade of the small stucco bungalow, perched above a slope of agaves and aloes, looks much like its neighbors. But, at the top of the steep, rosemary-edged steps and beyond the door into the walled interior lies a tiny, playful, Mediterranean-inspired paradise of color and pattern.
The property is minuscule, barely fifty-feet wide and one-hundred-fifty feet long; most of it is taken up by two small houses. Nancy made two intimate courtyards paved with local California stone—the smaller one by the front entrance, and a more spacious one in back between the two structures. The front courtyard is shaded by palms and a red-flowered bottlebrush (Callistemon). Water splashes from a corner fountain in a painted yellow wall. A gnarled New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa ‘Aurea’) leans picturesquely over a café table and chairs; terra-cotta pots of lilies and dahlias stand among iris, lavender, sage, and calendulas in a narrow border. Pots of succulents and geraniums are staged by the walls of the house, here painted golden yellow and white; the orange-tinged, yellow-flowering giant Burmese honeysuckle (Lonicera hildebrandiana) spills from the roof.
A Celebration of Outdoor Living
A narrow, pebbled path leads between the house and the boundary wall, also painted yellow and laced with jasmine, to the back courtyard. Here, between the two houses, on a terrace shaded by more palms, enclosed by walls painted vivid colors, and surrounded by a bower of exotic foliage and flowers, Nancy celebrates outdoor living.
The place was completely derelict when Nancy bought it “at the bottom of the market” in the early 1990s. “It was considered ‘a tear down,’ two little cottages filled with junk and the most horrible cat smells,” Nancy recalls. But the two separate houses on a narrow city lot appealed to her; recently divorced, she needed a place not only for herself but for her teenage son, Oliver. “We called the back house the ‘garçonniere’ because he was eighteen and needed some privacy.” She fixed up his nest first, then tackled the bigger cottage, only to find “that the stucco was holding up the house. Termites almost leveled it.” Nancy gutted the place and, with the help of Bill Nicholas, an architect on her design staff, built herself a simple masonry structure consisting of three high-ceilinged, light-flooded rooms—a living room, bedroom, and a kitchen/library. “I had just been in Brazil,” Nancy says, “and I loved the colonial Portuguese architecture with its tall, tray-like ceilings made with boards and painted with stripes. I could have gone in the direction of Irving Gill, the early California modernist, and made it a little Bauhaus, but I thought I might sell it after a few years and that it would sell faster if I made it charming.”
Color—Indoors and Out
Charming it is, drenched with color and sunlight, French doors and windows flung open in every room to views of the garden. The walls and woodwork inside and out are washed with luscious hues inspired by the centers of tropical fruits. “The key,” Nancy says, “was to relate every room to the outside, even if the outside was only five-feet deep.” Because the house sits on a long, narrow lot, the boundary walls on its two long sides are almost within touching distance. So, Nancy created vignettes on those walls to see from inside. The side view from the kitchen, for instance, is through a window, painted a glossy brick red, to a pot of coral succulents sitting in a niche cut into the high, golden-yellow wall just a few feet away. The kitchen, which Nancy sponged a comforting melony orange, opens onto the intimate back courtyard, where color dazzles at every angle. Each wall surface is a different hue. Directly ahead, the greeny taupe facade of Oliver’s house sets off a long, shallow pool, divided in two, the back half a spa for bathing, the front full of water lilies. A faded sapphire-blue backsplash is centered on the spouts of water spilling into the pool. The high boundary wall on the left is colored a Moroccan purple blue (inspired by the Marjorelle Garden in Morocco); on the right, golden yellow. The house wall itself, which extends from the kitchen to surround an outdoor fireplace and create a roofed porch sheltering a comfortable sitting area, is face-powder pink.
Door frames and outdoor café chairs are glazed a rich pink red (Nancy calls it “turkey red”); the shutters on the cottages are celery green. The cushions on the courtyard’s banquettes and the porch’s rattan chairs pick up the chartreuse, Moroccan blue, and yellow of the architecture. “Somehow,” Nancy says, “when you have a little cottage, you treat it very differently than you do a grand house with distinguished architecture. It allows you to be more playful. It’s more primitive when you use lots of color.”
In all the gardens she designs, Nancy excels at staging foliage and flowers against colored walls. In her back courtyard, she planted four King palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) “to ground the garden and take your eye up, like pillars.” She introduced the five-foot Dianella tasmanica, with sword-like leaves and brilliant blue berries, and tall, russet green bananas, for a Rousseau-like tableau against the deep blue wall. A fragrant angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia), dripping white trumpet flowers, arches over the pool. Against Oliver’s house, Agapanthus ‘Dark Cloud’ grows to five feet. A tall clump of feathery bamboo (Otatea acuminata subsp. aztecorum) fills the corner. Black green cannas are clustered against the golden yellow wall under one of the palms (“they come back every year and bloom orange”). “Cannas and bananas are a bit vulgar, but they look right here,” she says. Nancy enjoys having outsized plants in her garden. “It’s really fun to mess up the scale in a small space.” (When the bananas get too tall, she just cuts them down to three feet.) “The palms and bold foliage plants provide the set—I think of it as the theater—then I fill in with the smaller plants.” She uses flowers to echo her color palette and then plays with different patterns and textures of leaves. Native and Mediterranean ferns, which thrive in the shade of the palms, are planted with the bananas and add a voluptuous jungle air. Chartreuse- and maroon-flowered hellebores (Helleborus) and blue cranesbills (Geranium) carpet the ground underneath. Salvia guaranitica, blooming eight months of the year, picks up the vivid blue. Lime-green-flowered Nicotiana langsdorffii seeds itself around the courtyard. With silver leaves and tiny, dark burgundy flowers, Pelargonium sidoides spills out onto the patio from beneath the palms. Although plants from the similar climates of the Mediterranean, New Zealand, the Canary Islands, and South Africa thrive in Nancy’s USDA zone 10 (Sunset zone 24) garden, other plants take too much fussing in the ocean air. “We’re a mile from the sea in what was an old sand dune. We have a lot of damp and fog, and it comes in the spring just as the little darlings have new leaves, so this rules out a whole lot of plants like roses.” Because Nancy has a full-time job designing gardens for others, hers needs to be low on maintenance.
For seasonal interest and added color, Nancy simply adds pots of plants to the garden. In May, magenta-flowered pelargoniums are staged around the pool; pink- and purple-tinged succulents in terra-cotta pots line the steps to the front door; foxgloves just coming into bloom, lilies, and delphiniums in blue and purple are tucked in among the foliage of ferns and bananas. “In the wintertime, I have narcissus, South African bulbs, and amaryllis in pots; in summer, dahlias.” By frequently changing the pots, she keeps the tiny garden fresh and vibrant. The brilliantly colored walls, dressed with the richly hued foliage of palms, bananas and ferns, serve as a garden in themselves, with the pool and fountain as the centerpiece.
The sound of water is important to Nancy. “It masks the city sounds, so that when you enter the front gate you are immediately taken somewhere else.” She loves hearing the water splashing at night in the small front fountain by her bedroom window. “Whenever water is scarce, it becomes precious,” she says. “It makes you feel cool. In California, we’ve always had a water problem. It’s why I chose not to have any grass, but to have courtyards instead.”
All Nancy’s work is appropriately influenced by this Spanish-Persian tradition of enclosed patios and fountains, but updated, made more dramatic and more colorful. Trips to Morocco and Brazil, where she was thrilled to see Roberto Burle Marx’s own home (“the most sensual of all his work that I’ve seen”), made a lasting impression on her and intensified her love of brilliant, bold strokes of color. She is also much influenced by Luis Barragan’s mentor, Ferdinand Bac, the early twentieth-century architect and garden artist from the south of France who took traditional Moorish design and made it more contemporary by using stronger colors. “He was a quasi-modernist and also a romantic,” Nancy says of Bac, though she could be talking of herself.
The warm, vibrant, romantic home, which reflects Nancy’s spirit, is her haven. Eight years later, she’s not ready to sell. “It’s nice, and it’s a functional, flexible house.” It is also a perfect tiny example of the California aesthetic, where outdoor living is an integral part of every day. Nancy knows how to meld the inside and out with color, views of plants, comfortable seating everywhere you turn, dappled shade, and the sound of water splashing. “An exceptional garden,” she once said, “is appropriate to its place.” Nancy’s garden, based on Mediterranean traditions, is wonderfully suited to its setting. Her artistic eye, her flair with color and pattern, her sense of drama in a small enclosed space, make it exceptional.
Excerpted and adapted, with permission, from Gardens in the Spirit of Place, the latest brilliant product of Page Dickey’s inquiring mind and perceptive eye. It is due out from Stewart Tabori & Chang in October, 2005.