Ken and Beth Karmin would walk past the property in their Pacific Palisades neighborhood and fantasize about owning it, knowing that if Vin Scully had raised a family of six there, it would be large enough for their own four children. When the Dodger broadcaster signaled he was ready to move, the Karmins jumped.
The couple grew up in Chicago and had lived in London for eight years, where Beth studied garden design and heard the name of Isabelle Greene spoken with awe. Greene, a Santa Barbara-based landscape architect and granddaughter of Craftsman icon Henry Mather Greene, is known for a modernist simplicity enhanced with artistic touches. The Karmins had hired her to shape the garden at their first L.A. home, then brought her back when they acquired the Scully house. One of Greene’s first tasks there was to remake and lengthen a backyard patio. She advocated using Santa Barbara sandstone, taking the couple to several estates so they could see how the pale stone looked and wore down over time. An outdated oval pool ringed with rocks in the center of the lawn was filled in and a rectangular replacement dug at the end of the garden. It’s far enough from the house to function as its own secluded space. “By the time you walk to the pool, you feel as if you deserve your swim,” says Beth.
As a seasonal barometer Greene created an allée of crape myrtles, moving wood models about as a way of “sketching” the design before planting the trees. Now in summer they bear sprays of white flowers, and in late fall the leaves turn fiery reds and oranges. Near the allée she planted a knot garden dotted with succulents and crowned with a fountain. A sycamore was added for sculptural contrast next to the bowed hedge of cypress that screens the large potting shed and composting operation. As a proponent of drought-tolerant plantings, Greene wasn’t thrilled at the Karmins’ request for a spacious lawn, choosing less-thirsty Saint Augustine grass. Concrete from the demolished driveway was reused to construct a wide stairway leading to terraces bursting with fruit trees and roses. The Karmins’ teenage son Edmund has dubbed the crenulated walkway “Machu Picchu.”
On the topmost terrace sits a tepee (“We wanted the kids to have fun with the garden,” says Beth) and an elegant green chicken house. Ken, a principal with the High Street Holdings investment firm, had just read a magazine article on how chickens cut waste by eating unused produce. “There is also the incredible luxury of having fresh eggs,” he says. “Lots of people we know have gotten chickens after seeing ours.”
After living through Chicago freezes and London chills, Beth was enamored of what could grow in California, although she wasn’t as positive about Los Angeles, finding the car-bound existence unnatural. But now that she has her thriving garden, she’s crazy about the place. “It’s made me fall in love with L.A.,” she says. “Because of it, I understand that we do have seasons.”
Landscape Architect: Isabelle Greene
Behind this California native’s gardens is an artful mind. Here’s some of her work:
Illusion: “The name of this piece comes from the fact that it is a little hard to tell what is skin and flesh and what is cushion and seating”
Overpass At Las Positas: “I had just taken up printmaking and was smitten by the simplicity of Japanese prints. So I tried it out.”
Foothills, Challenged: “I had not touched my oils for decades. My friend challenged me to open my dormant set and start painting.”
Garden Designer: John Lyons
His mission? Making the move from garden to kitchen a matter of minutes
The chicory in the Karmins’ vegetable patch—practically a mini estate—is a vision in blue. The bees mob it, as they do the holy basil, which pleases John Lyons, who created the stone-edged beds and cares for the teeming kale and cabbages and peppers and pumpkins within (see him at work in this video). He grows several vegetables from seed, including unusual varieties sent from Italy by his sister, such as the light green Genovese squash. There’s so much organic produce that the Karmins’ cook, Willard Sterling, never wants for ingredients. As part of the services Lyons offers through his company, the Woven Garden, he weekly trims back the ailing, hand waters the few plants that need it, and stirs the compost pile, which contains manure from the stables where he keeps his horse.
In the early 1990s, Lyons left his native Ireland for New York, where he created one of the first roof gardens in Gotham. “He’s a nutter, this one,” Lyons recalls his neighbors thinking of that early urban farm. He moved to L.A. in 1998, where he ran an actors’ agency for seven years “until I was paroled for good behavior.” He returned to his youthful passion for the land and honed his skills as a designer and overseer of edible and native gardens.
He knows how to attract beneficial insects and makes the most of the weather as he rotates crops. This year’s hot winter was a challenge, stimulating plant growth far earlier than normal.
An expert beekeeper, Lyons talked to the Karmins about adding hives and lobbied as well for domestic fowl. When the Karmins opted for chickens, he picked the Australorp and the Ameraucana for their hardiness and friendliness. He’s also planted zinnias throughout, not because they’re a gardener’s best friend but because Beth loves them.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.