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L.A. Designer: Judy Kameon Designs Drought-Conscious Gardens

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An Elysian Park-based designer talks about how to design gardens during a drought.

Her new book, Gardens Are For Living, is part photo-diary, part how-to guide, part memoir that delves into her passion for designing outdoor spaces. 

DnA wanted to know more about how to maintain a garden during a drought, how apartment-dwellers can apply a green thumb to small outdoor spaces and why ditching the lawn is one of the more responsible steps homeowners can take to save water.

DnA: How did you become interested in landscape design?

Judy Kameon: The whole thing started for me when I moved in to a tiny house on a very scrubby lot in a hillside property of Elysian Park, and I decided I wanted to make a garden. I just became obsessed with that whole process.

It was quite daunting because I really wasn’t starting with much knowledge at all. So I iGardensAreForLivingCovermmersed myself in reading books and going to nurseries and plant shows and talking to growers and seeking out like-minded, plant-obsessed friends. A lot of the motivation I had for doing the book was from my own experience of trying to figure out how to get started when I was making my own garden. And I thought maybe I could share that with other people and inspire them to pick up a shovel and buy a plant and start thinking about their outdoor space in a different kind of a way.

DnA: In your book you say you started your work as a landscape designer during a drought. Has that instilled a sense that lack of water is something you constantly have to grapple with?

JK: Absolutely. When I started making my own garden, which is how really my whole business began, it was during a period of extended drought. And it definitely influenced how I designed my garden.

For example, I used and still use for the most part plants that have low water needs. I wanted some fruit trees which need a certain deep watering, but I planted these very selectively. And I put plants that needed more water against the structures on the property, so they would get a little bit of shade. So they actually could be watered the same amount as the low water need plants that were in the full sun.

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DnA: What plants types worked with drought?

The plant types that I steer towards are Mediterranean plants and I stay away from tropicals, but I work a lot with what are classified as sub-tropical plants, which are often plants that we know of as succulents and cactus.

I love plants like Aloe bainesii, which are tree aloes, and Dracaena draco, known as Dragon Tree.  Some of the mid-size plants I use are from the Agave family, such as Agave weberi, a big silvery statuesque variety, as well as smaller ones, like Agave attenuata, including a selection called ‘Nova’.

DnA: Are there any other examples of drought resistant plants that you’d recommend?

JK: There’s just countless wonderful examples of drought resistant plants. There’s some great California natives that I love to incorporate into many of our gardens. There’s a beautiful blue grass called Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’. There’s wonderful succulents, all kinds of echeverias, sedums, and agaves. And then there’s a lot of great Australian plants that we use like Anigozanthos, which is called Kangaroo Paw, and Cordyline, which make great sculptural forms. I mean the list goes on and on, I have hundreds and hundreds of plants that I work from in my palate.

DnA: Now that we are in a period of extreme drought, have you found yourself using drought-resistant plants a lot more?

JK: I find that more and more of my clients are requesting that, and I’m glad that people are thinking about their water use in a mindful way. We are finding people who wanted lawns are either making them quite small or are installing synthetic lawns to minimize the amount of water use, because the lawn really is the thirstiest element in a garden. And now there are some very high quality synthetic lawns. They do get hot in the full sun, but there’s some really great products out there. I’m also a big fan of using decomposed granite or using gravel in big open spaces.

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DnA: In your book you say ripping out a front lawn is one of the most responsible things you can do as a homeowner. But what do you think should replace it? A lawn is a very iconic. People see it as an obvious feature to have at the front of their house.

JK: I think that people are really starting to think differently about their front gardens. And rather than it just be a passive visual experience from the sidewalk, I think people are choosing to really use their front garden as a dynamic and active space — whether that means removing your lawn and putting in a patio; or perhaps you get the morning sun and you can have breakfast outside; or putting in edibles or cutting flowers; or just making a more beautiful and interesting environment that not only is enjoyed by the neighborhood but from inside the house looking out.

DnA: You also write about how you treat your front garden as the first room in your house. How do you create that?

JK: Here in Los Angeles we have a lot of houses with a flat, front yard, and the house is set back from that. If you have something like that, you can help create a more outdoor room-like experience by defining that space and creating separation from the street. Whether that’s with a low hedge or a wall or even just a mixed border of planting that creates delineation, or something as simple as putting a bench by the front door as sort of a welcoming element or a pair of pots right near the front door. In general I like  to think about that as sort of setting the tone for the rest of your house.

At my own house I have a very tall fence because I have a very active dog who can jump great heights. But I have bougainvillea growing along the top, and cascading down so it’s quite lovely and romantic, at the same time it affords me privacy and it does create a delineation between the public street and my private garden.

DnA: You included lots of images of midcentury landscape design. Are you particularly inspired by that period?

JK: I am, I’m very inspired the midcentury period of architecture in Los Angeles and the landscape design that went with it. I think there was just a real fresh approach to living and I think what really appeals to me is the creative use of humble materials, and also the open-plan living and the great love of the connection between indoors and outdoors.

GardensAreForLiving_p083DnA: Do you think there’s something distinctly Californian in about the way you design gardens?

JK: I think that California does have its own style and its own aesthetic; I think there’s always been a great love of outdoor living due to the climate. So I think there has always been a special mindset in California about how to make the most out of your outdoor spaces and enjoy them. That said, I’ve traveled to other parts of the world that have similar climates like in France and Morocco and Spain and you see a lot of similarities in the use of the outdoor spaces. But they’re more for public gardens, whereas in so much of Los Angeles we really live in our private gardens.

DnA: So nowadays, being a homeowner with a yard is becoming a bit of privilege, as multifamily living becomes more prevalent. Is there room for landscape design in the lives of apartment dwellers?

J: I think there is. You can start in small ways that can be very meaningful. And whether it is having a couple pots of herbs growing on your window sill in your kitchen or making a little succulent table scape for your living room. So even if you don’t have the luxury of having an outdoor space, I think there are ways to fold in the outdoors into your interiors that can really be meaningful.

DnA: What would you recommend specifically?

JK: Well, I love to cook. So I think if there’s any kind of way you can grow something that you can use for cooking that brings alot of pleasure. There are wonderful herbs that are also Mediterranean and they’re perennial which means they don’t go away, that you can grow pretty much year round like thyme and rosemary; chives are great, and if you have more space you can also do some of the annuals which are only for the warmer month seasons, but you know that’s a long time here, like basil and dill and parsley. I think it’s lovely to have a little pot of succulents to put on top of your dining table or a side table and there are lots of little acheveries or sedums. And you can even use air plants, which don’t even have to be planted in the soil, but could just get misted. And they’re very sculptural and whimsical and they last for months and months as opposed to some cut flowers which come and go so quickly.

DnA: So how do you envision the future of LA? LA used to be all about private houses with the big yard, but that’s increasingly not the case. So how do you envision your work fitting in with a changing LA? Do you see yourself working in public gardens or other spaces like that?

JK: One of my dreams is to work in the realm of public gardens. I think there’s enormous opportunity right now in Los Angeles. It’s extraordinary what’s going on with them here. The LA river project now is getting federal funding and I think there is a really rare opportunity in this city to develop public spaces that can be used by everybody. I live right near our park which is just a few blocks from my house at the north end of Chinatown. And I’ve reached out to the park commissioner and the officials there about how we can help with programming there and be involved with that. It could be a huge asset not just only to the local community but to the city at large.

DnA: And do you think there’s room for creating more of these public spaces? For example, there’s a car dealership near where I live that is now being boxed up.  Do you think spaces like that could be retrofitted as public space?

J: Well I think there is, I mean there’s the Great Streets program that the mayor has adopted. And I know that’s starting on Figueroa in Highland Park. And I know that they’ve been developing Broadway in downtown as a streetscape. I think there’s a lot going on and I think it’s really, really exciting, and you also see these pocket parks popping up.

I was recently at the Frog Spot, at the LA river; I was just so delighted by that and its just a wonderful space and it’s the first of many things that are going to happen.

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DnA: In your book you talk about engaging people with gardens, how do you achieve that?

JK: I think gardens are most successful when they engage us on all every level of our senses. First and foremost, I think they should be beautiful to look at. I think they should also inspire us to engage in a more dynamic way. I don’t see gardens as just being sort of passive, pretty spaces to look at, I think there should be some kind of activity or function that the garden provides that gives you something to do, whether it’s dining outside or cooking a meal or playing a game, or even something like reading a book or taking a nap.

I think sound is a wonderful element that’s often overlooked and so if there’s some kind of a water element, I think that is creates a whole other level of experience. And then scent is also wonderful to incorporate into the garden. So I like planting different kind of fragrances like California sage, for example, which has a beautiful sort of spicy smell. And then of course there are more  floral notes like jasmine and lavender. I think there’s a lot of layers that you can build into a garden to make it a really compelling environment.

DnA: As the drought gets worse in California, “drought-shaming” has popped up, where neighbors call out other neighbors for GardensAreForLiving_p038wasting water. Do you think that this is a useful approach?

JK: This is the first that I’ve heard of it! I think it’s important to be mindful of our water use; water is a precious resource, and it’s becoming more and more precious. I don’t think anyone likes being shamed, so I can’t say endorse that way of dealing with this situation. I do think it certainly merits a conversation; if you see a neighbor who has a broken sprinkler head and is watering the sidewalk instead of their garden, I think that’s worth a knock on the door. But I don’t think that you create effective change by shaming people. I think it’s better to have a sort of a positive dialogue about these kinds of things. You want to encourage and inspire people to have mindful practices and not bully them into it.

DnA: Did having children change the way you think about a garden?

JK: That’s an interesting question, because a friend of mine who has known me for many years, teases me about how I didn’t change my garden one bit to accomodate my child. My garden is full of spiky succulents and cactus and sharp stone walls. I did make one small change – I took out an area of gravel and I put in some synthetic lawn so our son would have a place  that was comfortable to toddle around and play ball.

But I think now I have a greater emphasis on incorporating recreation into the projects I work on and finding ways of creating areas for play. That being said, I’m very big on the idea that play can be incorporated into a garden without sacrificing the beauty of the garden. There’s all kinds of different things that kids like to engage with besides a swing and a slide. So one of the things that I love to do is incorporate plants that children can play with. I love to use scented geraniums, which have these wonderful fuzzy leaves, particularly Pelargonium tomentosum. It feels like velvet and kids can pick it and if you rub the leaf, it smells like peppermint. I like to think about things that kids can do in the garden that they’ll enjoy and also will get them out there, rather than sitting in front of a screen, which is a challenge we all face as parents in this modern age.

DnA: What do you think is the best way for Los Angeles to pursue a policy of maintaining a beautiful landscape while being mindful of water conservation?

JK: I think as much as possible people need to really rethink whether having a lawn is worth it or not, because that is really the one of the thirstiest elements that anyone could have in a landscape in Los Angeles.

I think using low water need plants is an absolute must, and  I also encourage people to accept imperfection.

Photo credits, from top to bottom. Photo by Melanie Acavedo, Book Cover, Photo by Melanie Acavedo, Photo by Tom Mannion, Photo by Erik Otsea, Illustration by Judy Kameon, Photo by Tom Mannion

 © Gardens Are For Living: Design Inspiration for Outdoor Spaces by Judy Kameon, Rizzoli New York, 2014.  Images are to be credited on a case-by-case basis and no images may be used in print or electronically without written consent from the publisher.