Gardens

5 design tips we're copying from this Mediterranean-style garden

Restrained materials and a muted color palette are the secrets to this calm garden retreat in the Hollywood Hills

Calm garden retreat with olive tree
(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

Whether it’s Sunset Strip, Venice Beach or the film studios of Hollywood, Los Angeles is not a city generally associated with calm backyard ideas and garden retreats – which is what makes this space, set high in the Hollywood Hills, all the more remarkable. 

‘There’s so much hustle and bustle in LA,’ says Mintee Kalra of garden design firm Peruse. ‘You have to drive to get up here, through all the traffic and the chaos, so when you arrive, I wanted there to be the feeling of an exhale.’

Box balls planted at random beneath crepe myrtles

Box balls are planted at random beneath crepe myrtles on the upper level of the garden, adding a touch of whimsy to the space

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

The finished space is a lesson on how to create a Mediterranean garden. It belongs to a house designed in the 1970s by LA architect Fred Smathers, an early proponent of outdoor living, is extraordinarily restful. In part this is achieved through its restrained palette of both materials and plants but there are other tricks at work, too. 

Mintee – a former fashion designer – was keen that the garden should channel the languid, voluptuous feeling of gardens she’d visited in Provence while travelling for her job. ‘I love that culture of lingering over meals and enjoying an intimacy in the company you’re with,’ she says. 

Here Mintee shares her tips on how to make a calm garden retreat...

1. Design your garden as a social space 

Reclaimed brick steps

Bricks reclaimed from the original garden were used to create the steps

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

With low-water and low-maintenance in mind, Mintee considered how to plan a dry garden as a social space with three key gathering areas – the kitchen garden, dining area and lounge – acting as anchors, connected by a swathe of gravel that crunches satisfyingly underfoot. 

The kitchen and dining areas are set on a lower level to enhance the sense of seclusion and ease, while the raised lounge space, with its outdoor sofas and board-formed concrete fire pit, feels even more cozy and cocooned thanks to its jasmine-draped perimeter walls, which Mintee extended to heighten the effect.

Ipe wood deck with trees

The ipe wood decking has been cleverly constructed to incorporate the existing trees 

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

2. Keep your color palette subdued  

Multi-stemmed olive tree

A multi-stemmed olive tree is an eye-catching centrepiece and a lovely way of shading the dining area

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

The garden color scheme is deliberately minimal, an elegant mix of silvers and blue-toned greens, with pops of lavender and white (from the jasmine and westringia flowers) and bright magenta from existing bougainvilleas, which Mintee had lace pruned to make them more delicate. 

And yet, despite all the restraint, the overall effect is one of calm abundance, with plants repeated throughout the garden and grouped together in some areas to form lush patchworks of planting. 

‘This repetition of plant materials is very important to me,’ says Mintee. ‘It adds cadence and rhythm and, even though it’s very simple, it always feels luxurious.’ 

3. Choose your plants for sensory appeal

Agave ‘Blue Glow’

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

The climate in LA (warm and often very dry) is comparable to that of Provence, so Mintee was able to use a similar plant palette too, choosing plants with multisensory appeal. There are jasmine and lavender for scent – Lavender stoechas so-called ‘French lavender’ has aromatic flowers above blue-green foliage and Trachelospermum jasminoides Star jasmine is happy in full sun or dappled shade; evergreen cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana); Australian rosemary (Westringia fruticosa); and spiky, drought-tolerant Agave ‘Blue Glow’ for their contrasting foliage. 

Other low-maintenance favourites include Philodendron selloum, a lush, tropical plant that has a pleasing architectural silhouette. Best for graphic appeal are Buxus sempervirens that can be clipped into myriad shapes and forms. 

‘I love the scattered box globes on the higher level. As you walk through this sensory garden there’s a sense of playfulness, a hide-and-seek vibe,’ says Mintee. 

Good for pollinators is Westringia fruticosa ‘Smokey’, a good clump-forming plant whose white flowers are loved by bees.

When it comes to creating a backdrop, Mintee favours Prunus caroliniana ‘Bright and Tight’. It makes a closely packed evergreen hedge, adding instant color and privacy.

Slender cypresses underplanted with olive shrubs

Slender cypresses underplanted with olive shrubs frame the house entrance in a simple but effective combination

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

4. Add impact with trees

Gravel garden with olive tree

The garden is zoned around key gathering areas for cooking, eating and relaxing

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

Most dramatic of all, two wonderfully gnarled 40-year-old olive trees (Olea europaea ‘Sevillano’) frame the space and provide some much-needed shade. Fifteen feet tall, weighing 6,000lbs and each with a 6ft x 2ft root ball, getting these into the garden was no easy matter. 

‘It was one of those hold-your-breath moments,’ says Mintee. ‘We brought them as far as we could on a flatbed truck and then used a skyjack to bring them the last quarter of a mile up the hairpin bends to the house. A long-reach crane then made the final lift to hoist them into place.’

The effort was well worth it. Their twisting, characterful trunks add a feeling of age and permanence to the garden, which was only completed last summer, and their feathered canopies filter the light, adding far more interest and biodiversity than a pergola or sunshade might. 

Combined with the other small trees (crepe myrtles, chosen for their year-round interest, and some tall existing eucalyptus with fabulous peeling bark) they also cast beautiful shadows on the concrete walls in the garden, adding a further dimension to the space.

5. Use gravel for surfaces

Sand-finished concrete walls

(Image credit: Christopher Lee)

Gravel gardens tend to work best in sunnier spots away from deciduous trees. Since they retain water and stop it evaporating, true gravel gardens will not need much water. 

Mintee advises that the first two inches of the base layer should be a 50:50 mix of decomposed granite or crushed stone and pea gravel in the same color tone. Lay this over a base cloth and compress, and then top with half an inch of loose gravel. This gives a stable base and a nice crunching sound when you walk. Medium grade gravel (10-20mm diameter) is the easiest to walk on.

If planting into gravel, a permeable membrane can be a good idea to suppress weeds. Simply cut a hole wherever you wish to plant. Mediterranean or drought tolerant plants such as agaves, rosemary and lavender are well-suited to growing in gravel. 

Remember to rake your gravel occasionally – it instantly freshens it up and looks smarter.

Feature / Natasha Goodfellow