Garden Outdoor Rooms

By Giovanna Melton
June 24, 2024

Garden Outdoor Rooms
Image Courtesy Of Giovanna “Gigi” Ottobre-Melton

In the world of real estate, two outdoor rooms frame the home. Having great curb appeal for the front yard is integral to a home’s value. One element people can agree on is a well-kept presentation.

In California, with our perfect temperate climate, these areas are premium square footage of usable space. For the most part, the expected norm is a patch of green grass or artificial turf, some flowering bushes, and a tree or two. In the back, maybe a BBQ and table with some chairs and an umbrella for summer cooking. The weekly landscape gardeners come in with a quick mow and blow.

From Laguna Beach to Santa Barbara, the landscape style of the California Riviera has evolved from a groomed provincial look to an unpretentious lush style that takes full advantage of our arid climate. Trending gardens are now wild, shaggy, and nature-friendly. They are designed with decomposed granite pathways, drought-tolerant colorful flowers, shrubs, and some fruit trees accented with yuccas and succulents. These inviting outdoor rooms can range from edible landscaping to zen wellness spaces and whimsical play areas. Simple herbal gardens to flourishing culinary gardens are very much a part of these outdoor spaces. These low-water gardens can range from no-fuss low-maintenance, to an interactive botanical playground.

As a native Californian, I grew up with a deep understanding of our drought climate. The weather has perpetually had several dry years followed by the occasional relief of wet years. This has always been a constant reminder of our semi-desert climate. Through all the dry years, the city neighborhoods still maintained their lush green lawns.

My childhood home in West Hollywood stood out from all the other front yards in the area. Long before drought-tolerant landscape was a hot topic, my father designed our front yard with a water-wise aesthetic. Dad, with his European heritage, had an exceptional green thumb. We didn’t need sprinklers as the landscaping survived with an occasional spray from a hose. Our Spanish bungalow was landscaped with redwood bark ground cover, bordered with scented Carissa Desert Star bushes. Next to my bedroom window in front, were two towering pink flowering Kapok trees with enormous thorns protecting the house.

On the north side of our home, occasional spritz of water was allowed for the shady driveway. This area was graced with a large purple Princess Flower shrub, an equally statuesque Poinsettia, and lush Gardenia bushes. Our dining room windows were often left open, so the house would fill with the heavenly tropical scent wafting in from the gardenias.

Our backyard was cooled by a towering Chinese Elm which was underplanted with shade plants, including split-leaf philodendrons. Next to my swing set was Dad’s vegetable garden with tomatoes and peppers, an old fruitful but thorny lemon tree, and my favorite, a juicy, delicious peach tree that ripened in July. Every year, I waited for the peaches to be ready with great anticipation. Growing along our back fence were passion flower vines displaying their ethereal purple flowers that never ceased to amaze me. They produced a delicious passion fruit. Between the garden and fence, we had a no-mow clover lawn. Now, so many years later, clover lawns are gaining in popularity with their low-maintenance, nature-friendly quality.

My first venture into cooking from the garden was when I taught myself to make peach jam so we could enjoy the delicious flavor over the year. My favorite salad dressing then was a squeeze of lemon juice with a dash of salt. My childhood was the original garden-to-table experience. Starting in the garden, we had a very creative household and good design was central to our lifestyle. I was an adult before I fully appreciated all these memories.

While Dad’s landscaping aesthetic might not be unusual now, at that time, the surrounding neighborhood homes were landscaped with uniform green lawns front and back, maybe a few rose bushes or a hydrangea, and some carefully shaped bushes under the front windows. Most were sprayed with weed killers and insecticides. Very few of our neighbors understood or appreciated the alternative landscape of our front yard. Fortunately, garden landscaping has greatly advanced since then with usable and nature-friendly designs.

Those early family home recollections left a lasting impression on me. As an adult, my first garden was a learning curve of trial and error. Despite all the garden’s imperfections and mistakes, it was my weekend zen getaway. In return for intermingling time in the garden, a few handfuls of delicious veggies were always a reward.

My husband and I have renovated and sold four homes. With each new dwelling, a cook’s garden was always a part of the landscape. Fortunately, each had an established lemon tree, which I consider essential to any garden. Both front and back yards were always designed for usable garden and entertaining spaces. Besides the vegetable gardens, my sons always had a designated dirt and mud area beside their tree house swing set. Many hours of play-time happened there. Unbeknownst to me while they were so young, getting their hands dirty in the mud patch was potentially increasing their serotonin levels. According to research, the soil bacteria found in healthy soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers a release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a natural anti-depressant and strengthens the immune system. No wonder the gardens bring so much happiness.

When we moved into our current home, I studied permaculture before embarking on creating our water-friendly front garden to include edible landscaping. The elements of the golden ratio and food forest permaculture were part of the design. While incorporating the mature Sweet Gum tree and Japanese Black Pine already in place into the design, the front lawn was removed, and a curving flagstone pathway was installed. The front pathway, running from side to side, allows for easy access and flows through the garden with the mood of a bubbling creek. When people visit, the pathway invites them to stroll through the front garden. Our plants were all sourced from local nurseries: Boething Treeland in Calabasas, Mantilija Nursery in Moorpark, and Classic Nursery in Reseda.

Home in our food-forest garden are owls, hawks, phoebes, hummingbirds, bees, crows, butterflies, lizards, and squirrels. The water-wise landscape was designed so that water irrigation was directed solely toward food, native flowers, healing herbs, and trees that support wildlife. The edible landscaping here evolves with the seasons. Currently growing are crooked neck squash, heirloom tomatoes, Violetta Italian green beans, bay, rosemary, loofah, artichokes, oregano, sweet potatoes, and fennel. A pomegranate tree and a kumquat tree flank the garden. Most of the culinary and medicinal plants in the front are supplementally watered with kitchen sink grey water I collect over the day. Along the driveway, a blood orange, Valencia orange, and a tall lemon tree I sprouted from seed, each have a lavender and rose bush in between.

The edible garden landscape continues into the backyard. Along three sides of the perimeter surrounding the pool are a navel orange, Meyer lemon, Tangelo, Oro Blanco grapefruit, Persian lime, Pink Lemonade, and five varieties of banana herb trees. In those garden beds are rosemary, Birds of Paradise, and two fragrant twenty-foot-tall Brugmansias that scent the whole yard. Next to the banana herb trees is the other fruit and vegetable garden with boysenberries, strawberries, broccoli, arugula, French celery, heirloom tomatoes, basil, peppers, squash, and zucchini. In addition, there are nine tree boxes growing varieties of avocado, peaches, Thai mango, Morro tangerine, Royal Crimson cherry, and Mexican lime.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that gardening and horticulture are addictive to a healthy way of life. As an early riser, I’m generally up as the sun rises. Fortunately, I don’t need caffeine to wake me at this time. The garden invites me in to enjoy the quiet mornings, which are often complimented by a slight chill in the air. This helps create a calm mindset which  I can only describe as very meditative. There is no work in the garden at this early hour; instead, there is a complete connection with the surrounding beauty and all that it offers. Science has shown tree roots have their underground communication; it’s fascinating to think about what trees say to each other while I stand in the garden. After this botanical sunrise connection, I return with a basket to harvest flowers, fruits, and veggies for the omelets I make for breakfast.

In our fast-paced world of work and family life, it’s hard to carve out this kind of slow time for personal health. Witnessing so many injuries and illnesses within my work industry resonates with how important “slow living” can be. During my time off recently, I became a certified wellness coach with a focus on sustainable lifestyles. This integrates beautifully with the permaculture philosophy used in creating our home garden. In my opinion, there is no better therapy, physically and mentally, than working with your hands.

So much of what I learned and loved as a child was as simple as climbing a lemon tree with thorns, picking velvety pansies, tasting flavorful tomatoes, or making jam from our garden peaches. Gardens are rooms of wonderment that are full of design elements and the geometry of nature’s golden ratio.

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