Peek Inside an Awe-Inspiring Artist’s Garden

In his Southern California backyard, a classically trained horticulturist bends the rules without quite breaking them

Johanna Silver
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Living Canvas

After spending two years earning certification from England’s centuries-old Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, Dustin Gimbel realized that no opportunity could compete with his heart’s desire to work in the West Coast’s sunshine and warm weather. So Gimbel dug in stateside, applying 
his education and talents to his own landscaping business, Second Nature Garden

But there’s much from 
Gimbel’s time abroad that informs his choices today. For instance, a series of rooms in U.K. landscapes that he describes as “revelatory.” “You go into a space and you’re distracted by portals into other gardens,” he says. “It stretches out the experience.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the nearly 9,000-square-foot lot surrounding Gimbel’s Long Beach home, about an hour south of Los Angeles. He uses hand-cast paths, privacy screens, brightly colored walls, and creative fencing to define the boundaries of several outdoor rooms.

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Front-Yard Pond

Gimbel’s designs for his clients are careful and meticulous. Not so when it comes to his own. “When I decided I wanted a pond in the front,” he says, “I went outside with a shovel and started digging.” The water feature brings into the garden wildlife such as house finches, black phoebes, northern mockingbirds, bushtits, and tons of hummingbirds.
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Wood Features

When Gimbel first moved in, the backyard was a giant open space. He knew he wanted a seating area, but not one that felt lost in the landscape. He worried, though, that screening would feel claustrophobic. “That’s when I came up with these voids,” he says of the negative space and cutouts in the dividing wooden screen.
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Leading the Eye In

A front-yard boardwalk made up of mostly slats of ipe wood gives the garden a sense of journey that Gimbel loves.
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Hexagon Pavers

Surrounded by echeveria, Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’, Gazania leucolaena ‘Pink’, and Leptospermum laevigatum ‘Reevesii’, these DIY stepping-stones are an experiment
 in concrete mulch, covering ground and suppressing weeds while allowing water to permeate. “I’m obsessed with hexagons, period,” admits Gimbel. Homemade hypertufa towers add height and visual interest.
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The Driver’s Seat

In a back corner, a detached garage finds new life as a ceramics studio where Gimbel throws pots—mostly plant containers with bold colors and unusual shapes—that are sold at local boutiques. The art form is the perfect complement to gardening, a way to replenish his creativity, he says: “The pottery wheel is so demanding of my attention that it’s like meditation.” (Gimbel’s wheel sits before a portrait of Frida Kahlo, his patron saint of creativity.)

Ultimately, Gimbel takes his horticultural training and pulls from it what works, tosses what doesn’t, and reinterprets as he sees fit. “In my garden,” he says, “there are no rules.”

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An Artistic Palette

These plant varieties and combinations from Gimbel’s yard pack a punch but are also tried and true. A go-to plant is Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ for its ability to fill in spaces with a soft, fuzzy texture.
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Add Variegation

Pair the vibrant yellow margins 
of a ‘Bright Star’ yucca with a bed 
of evergreen Frankenia thymifolia.
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Keep Your Star Performers

Cheery golden feverfew has been a favorite of Gimbel’s for nearly 20 years. “I really torture it,” he says, “and it still gives and gives.”
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Hang in the Shade

For tough spots, 
use Billbergia ‘Hallelujah’, a purple bromeliad with light speckles and splotches, for its ability to withstand drought, wind, and shade.
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Add Seasonal Touches

Leucospermum ‘Veldfire’ bursts into orange pincushion flowers every spring. Be warned, though, that bloom time is relatively short.