Four years ago, this garden in Venice, California, was a funky 1970s backyard with brick paving, flimsy lattice-style wood fencing, and a redwood deck littered with knickknacks. Then Daniela Rechtszaid, a designer, transformed the house that she shares with partner Juan José Quintana from a one-bedroom cottage to a two-story contemporary home. During the remodeling process, the yard was destroyed.
"I felt confident handling the interior spaces, but I was less sure with the exterior," Rechtszaid says.
So she hired landscape architect Russ Cletta and gave him a list of must-haves: places to eat, to relax, to string a hammock, and to grow a treasured root beer plant ( Piper auritum), whose scented leaves Quintana uses to wrap cheese or flavor cooked fish.
Cletta ― well known for creating functional and attractive outdoor spaces on the modest lots that proliferate in Venice ― had just returned from Costa Rica when he took on the project. Impressions from his trip, along with the couple's heritages (Rechtszaid is from Buenos Aires, Quintana from Mexico City), determined the garden's tropical theme.
"When there's a breeze, they sound like running water," Cletta says.
For Quintana, a busy advertising executive who unwinds in his kitchen, the garden's other draws are its fruit trees.
At a party last fall, the couple gathered 30 friends for dinner in their backyard. On the menu: an elaborate dish of stuffed chiles with walnut sauce that Quintana prepared using many ingredients plucked straight from the garden.
Design: Griffith and Cletta, Venice, CA (310/399-4727)
Tips for a small garden
Divide the garden into "rooms." Russ Cletta gave the backyard two distinctive spaces: one for living, the other for dining. Plants visually separate them. A lounging area is in front.
Play with illusion. To create a sense of depth, use low- to midheight plantings in the foreground, taller ones in back; enhance the effect with coarse-textured plants in the foreground, fine-textured ones in back. Choose accent plants to partially obscure background elements, which hint at "space beyond."
Use plants to break up paving. Cletta positioned small planting beds where they'll force visitors to traverse the garden to reach the dining terrace.
Limit the color palette and repeat plantings. Variations of green are soothing and uncomplicated in a small garden. Repeat plants throughout the garden for continuity, using color as accents. For privacy, plant a screen of trees around the property; Cletta uses podocarpus.