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Living Rooms

Martha Stewart Living, September 2008

Around Southern California, Joseph Marek, a landscape architect, is known for designing big gardens for his clients. Yet his own garden in Santa Monica is small.

Like an old-fashioned jewelry box, it unfolds in linked but discrete compartments. Clipped hedges and stone paths connect them, as do repeating themes such as splashing fountains and rare plants.

Roses and orchids bloom throughout his 7,500-square-foot lot, and otherworldly Tillandsia, known as "air plants," hang from the forks of trees.

Still, the garden's feeling shifts as you move from the Mediterranean-style front and entry courts to the lush patios in the back. Here, in contrast to the silver lavender shrubs and olive trees in the front, big-leafed cannas and brugmansias flower amid chartreuse and burgundy coleus and bromeliads.

The house's colors change, too, from a warm butterscotch in front to a rosy orange behind, while Marek's freestanding design studio, formerly a garage, is painted a rich terra-cotta.

"Even small gardens involve competing programs," Marek says. "For example, the formal, serene face you want to show the public versus the wilder aspects of your private space."

Conveniently, our houses themselves often divide our lots, he says, screening backyards from the street. But partitioning landscapes even further, into smaller units with their own character and function, can make petite gardens feel more welcoming and spacious.

"It's not comfortable to walk in a garden where you don't know where to sit or stop," Marek says. "You need destinations that call to you."

For Marek and his partner, John Bernatz, who bought their house in 1997, step one was to understand their lot. For the first few months, they spent hours outside watching the sun move. They noticed which areas they were drawn to and debated which plants to keep. (Eventually, Marek designed one garden around the property's treasure, an old Chinese elm.)

During this phase, they chose their color palette. On the side facing the street, their tile-roofed house sent a Mediterranean message, suggesting drought-tolerant lavenders and sages that pair beautifully with aloes and agaves.

Since Marek planned on a garden in front filled largely with foliage, he and Bernatz painted the house a soft yellow to harmonize with the many shades of green.

In back, their choices were brighter and more personal. What Marek calls a "Mexico meets England" spirit honors both his ethnic heritage (his mother is Mexican American) and the couple's fondness for the red borders at Britain's Hidcote Manor Garden. Colorful walls gave them a backdrop for favorite tropicals -- bromeliads, begonias, alocasias.

Step two was to grade the narrow lot, which gently sloped, into levels that helped delineate the garden rooms. In front, to create "a sequence of arrival zones," Marek carved three spaces from what had been a single lawn with a driveway along the side. The first level, hedged with juniper, features a grass carpet framed with gravel and textural planting beds.

The second, a few steps up, is a walled court with a checkered floor and a small fountain you have to walk around to reach the front door. Even the driveway, tucked behind rosemary hedges, is mostly garden, decked with pots and a bench.

Behind the house, Marek used an existing block wall to define the terraces and then added steps and secondary walls to emphasize the divisions. The highest terrace was turned into a pair of gardens -- an outdoor dining area walled in hopbush and a fountain-splashed summer garden.

Below them, under the elm, is an outdoor living area with armchairs, sofas, and a view of two more gardens -- one for roses, the other for vegetables.

Nearly all of the bungalow's indoor spaces find an echo outside. From the airy front "vestibule" through the juniper to the secluded lounge under the elm, each outdoor room has walls, a paved or planted carpet, comfortable seats, and potted plants as accents.

Leaf and flower hues reappear in furniture and accessories: the chartreuse upholstered chairs outside the studio; orange cushions and containers in the dining room. "Repeated colors hold your picture together," Marek says.

Other organizing tricks include massing plants, such as succulents, for bold effect and creating seasonal displays with collectors' specimens.

Recently, Marek admits, "Tillandsias have hit me hard. Such interesting shapes. And some are fragrant." Best of all, he adds, "We've been running out of horizontal space. To display them, we can go up."

Text by Susan Heeger