Tropical Landscape Design Pictures
It was an unusual statement in this age of house-centric design, especially coming from a homeowner who works in real estate. For Kaplan, who specializes in commercial and multifamily properties, familiarity with the market is precisely what made him want to focus on landscape. “I didn’t want one of those properties where the house is giant and the yard is little, ” he says. “I wanted them to be in proportion to each other.”
When he bought the parcel in the hills above Sunset Boulevard a decade ago, a curving driveway cut through a lawn to reach a California ranch house set into the rear of the property. Kaplan decided to start from scratch by tearing down the ranch. The new house, a two-story modernist structure, sits close to the street and has lines that draw the eye to a central atrium and then out to a series of distinct outdoor spaces beyond. The building itself is full of familiar California touches: crisp lines, walnut floors, and mahogany trim, but any sense of the expected disappears at the garden.
The surprises begin outside the entryway, framed in bamboo and ficus, where a bridge spans a rock garden comprised of pebbles and five granite boulders, meant to evoke the five Confucian virtues. To the east, the ficus continues around the perimeter of the curved yard, hiding the street beyond. Layers of big-leaf tropical plants and gingers blur this living boundary line.
Pennsylvania bluestone walls edge the seating cluster adjacent to the dining area. Plantings of tall papyrus and clumped mondo grass soften the precision of the hardscaping’s geometric lines and perpendicular angles. Photo by: Tim Street-Porter.
The garden’s most distinctive theme is the use of rock—sometimes as an art piece, as in the jewel box garden, and sometimes as a child’s play area, the perfect topography for Tonka toys. An appreciation for the mineral world is a passion Kaplan developed as a child growing up in nicely landscaped tract housing in the San Fernando Valley. His father, UCLA philosophy professor David Kaplan, took him out to the Big Tujunga Wash in the foothills of the Valley. Using pry bars made of scavenged truck axles, they dislodged huge stones to bring home to the family garden.
For this landscape, Kaplan and members of the design team made several trips to the Mojave Desert, roaming remote quarries off Highway 395, looking for just the right rocks to truck in. “The Pacific island theme was supposed to apply to the garden, ” says Kaplan. “But we are in California, and I liked the boulders.” The selections were pulled out, tagged, cleaned up, sometimes smoothed slightly, and craned in to carefully selected spots.
Kirkpatrick, a principal and founder at KAA, went along on one of the dawn patrol trips to the desert. “Choosing the rocks was as important as choosing the plants, ” he recalls, “maybe more.”
Mineral materials show up throughout the garden and the house as limestone in patios and stairs and Pennsylvania bluestone almost everywhere else—in curving benches, interior and exterior walls, and fireplaces.
Maintaining a tropical garden in Los Angeles can be tricky, especially close to such a large lawn. Some of the tropicals are understory material, doing well in the shade but the water has to be carefully monitored. Out front the bamboo has grown almost into a living genkan, a green entryway, yet in the process has managed to escape its cement enclosures.
Even with maintenance challenges, Kaplan says he’s delighted. For KAA, Kaplan was one of those rare clients whose priorities were outside in. “So often the landscape is left until afterward, and then the homeowner wants to run to Home Depot for plants, ” says Kirkpatrick. “Jordan gets landscape architecture.”