Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 14, 2010

Bali meets Craftsman style in Los Altos

Unusual private gardens are on display during The Garden Conservancy's Open Days

by Aimee Miles

Nestled away behind a cedar-shingle house, a Los Altos garden offers a world of complementary opposites — where Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions converge seamlessly, where tropical and deciduous flora cohabitate and bloom in turns, and where nature's feral beauty is meticulously harnessed to cultivate a paradoxically ordered micro-paradise.

The mastermind behind this striking parcel is landscape architect Lisa Moulton, whom the owners called on seven years ago with a vision of remodeling their back yard into a vibrant, perennially blossoming garden that would serve as a stunning venue for outdoor family gatherings.

The results of this vision will be on tour during The Garden Conservancy's Open Days on Saturday, May 15.

The couple had previously spent nine years in Hong Kong, and traveled extensively in Asia during their time abroad. Their frequent vacations to Bali left them enchanted with the island's lush tropical gardens, and they asked Moulton to recreate elements of Balinese style in their California plot.

Moulton faced several challenges as a designer — the first of which was to harmonize intricate Southeast Asian aesthetics with the robust Western look of the couple's Craftsman-style house.

"The inside of the house is very formal," Moulton said. "Outside there's a little less formality, but there's a lot of organization. It goes with the house, but it doesn't feel like Versailles."

Her solution was to create a stylistic gradient spanning from one end of the garden to the other, reflecting a nuanced transition between the Balinese side-garden facing the dining room and the understated Mediterranean look of the vegetable garden and rose-laden trellises framing the garden shed, which matches the Craftsman-style wood shingles and white trim of the house.

The pool itself is the unifying centerpiece — a shimmering blue facet set amidst a spectrum of verdant greens, whose flowing fountains and naturalistic curvature more closely resemble a fish pond than a swimming pool.

Moulton chose the pool's freeform outline in favor of a more structured footprint in order to maintain an organic feel in the carefully landscaped setting, adding boulders, round stone vessels, purple Spanish lavender and catmint flowers as decorative touches around its perimeter. At the end opposite the garden shed, an inset sauna tub sits flush with the pool, delineated by a curved wall of slate-gray stone.

Moulton flagged the steps of the pool and sauna with a dash of red tile and added the three-headed wall fountain at the far end of the pool for "a little Asian touch," and planted spiky Miscanthus grass behind the pool fountain, "just for drama."

A creek valley runs behind the pool and beyond the limits of the property, and its deep alluvial soil has nursed valley oaks and redwoods to majestic proportions. Using what she calls a "time-honored technique of garden designers," Moulton shrouded the back fences with greenery so they were no longer visible.

Without conspicuous manmade markers exposing the margins of the plot, the tall trees in the creek valley became borrowed landscape elements that extended the garden panorama and created an illusion of greater depth.

Moulton's second challenge was, "How do you create a garden that's comfortable for teens?" Once again, she was juggling two seemingly disparate elements — she needed a space where adults could comfortably mingle, while catering to the social interests of the family's teenage daughters.

"I love the science, precision and biology of it, but I also love the art," Moulton said. "Very few people are conscious of why they feel comfortable in an environment — it's my job to make that conscious."

This time her solution was binary — Moulton decided to build two separate patio areas at opposite ends of the pool. She designed one patio, oriented toward the pool and sauna, with the children in mind, while the other, closer to the garden shed, has a barbecue island complete with black granite countertops and stainless-steel fixtures.

A small lawn space in front of the barbecue patio, which hugs the edge of the pool, was included as an additional surface for the children to run around on.

"The lawn is one of the most usable areas," Moulton said. "It's a great surface if people play on it a lot."

She decided to retain an older raised slate patio connecting with the family room, dining nook and kitchen, to be used as a dining area set back from the scenery, staging the rest of the garden. Cherry trees on either side of it bloom pastel pink in the springtime.

But the view from the patio leaves something hidden — the Balinese side garden that faces the dining room just around the corner. It is in this small niche that Moulton recreated a vibrant slice of Southeast Asia, using a mélange of plants of variable provenance.

Her challenge here was to replicate a tropical environment in the drier temperate climate of northern California — a feat she achieved with a flourish of horticultural artifice. Choosing plants with bold foliage to mimic the look of tropical leaves and genuine tropical plants durable enough to weather the seasons, Moulton was able to bring the lush, densely green feel of the rainforest to a plot surrounded by towering oaks and redwoods.

The array of flora that resides in a single corner is dazzling — yuccas, cycads, azalias and tropical gingers are juxtaposed with Tristanias, Japanese maples and a Fuyu persimmon tree. Bright orange birds of paradise add eccentric flair, while bat-faced cuphea attract nesting hummingbirds in the spring — a feature mirrored by the bird pond at the opposite end of the garden and the stone birdbath on the front lawn, where spotted towhees and juncos frolic.

Other landscape elements suggest a meticulous hand at work — slate steps interspersed bands of creek valley stones, for instance — faithful to the fastidious, precision-oriented aesthetic of true Balinese gardens.

"One of the key things with the Balinese garden is the artfulness of detail," Moulton said. "My understanding is that there's no word for artist (in Bali) because everyone's an artist."

A small, burbling waterfall fountain rests against the wall, providing a sound buffer against nighttime street traffic. The peach stucco wall behind it borrows from the brighter orange structures that are native to Bali.

An imported antique door, its twin panels chipped with red and white paint, carved with lively mythical features and swirling floral motifs in relief, is embedded in the wall. The door is closed, and will never open, but hints at unspoken wonders just beyond view.

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What: The Garden Conservancy Open Days

When: Saturday, May 15, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Four gardens in Los Altos, Atherton and Woodside

Tickets: $5 per garden; children under 12 free; addresses included in Open Days Directory

Info: Detailed garden descriptions are included in the Open Days Directory, available at Filoli, 186 Canada Road, Woodside, and at www.opendaysprogram.org. Free flyer excerpts will be available May 15 at each garden.

Editorial Intern Aimee Miles can be e-mailed at amiles@paweekly.com.

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