Landscape designers weave together a variety of elements

| May 2, 2019 | 0 Comments
ZABEL HOME, designed by Nick Dean, is included on May 5 Open Day tour.

Clear sunny skies and balmy breezes have returned, bringing burgeoning gardens and the move to outdoor living that is quintessentially Los Angeles. Read on to learn about local landscape designers who know the neighborhood and the ins and outs of Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) guidelines … and who can help you whip your outdoor living and gardening spaces into shape.

LANDSCAPE AT a residence on 4th and Windsor, designed by Patricia Benner, incorporates scale and architecture of the home.

Patricia Benner has been a landscape designer since “1995-ish,” but came to it by way of her master’s degree in business administration from Boston University. After eventually landing in Los Angeles, she wanted to renovate her garden space, and her mother, who is a landscape designer on the East Coast, sent her a plan. In implementing it, Benner “caught the bug,” she says. Soon after, she had a master’s degree in landscape architecture from USC.

Three factors she takes into consideration when assessing a garden are the architectural style of the home, the character of the site, and the client’s requests. Elements she takes into account include creating outdoor rooms, shade, and water features.

In addition, having previously been on an HPOZ board, Benner says she is very familiar with the requirements that need to be met for historic homes.

Visit or call 323-933-1091.

Nick Dean, who designed the Zabel garden (which is on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day tour this month), and who has also had gardens on the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden tour, started out as a hobbyist gardener. As a teen growing up in a Victorian home in England, he loved creating hidden surprises and secret gardens for people to discover — an element that is still part of his design style to this day.

After planning gardens for himself and for friends for a few years, he decided to go into business as a landscape designer. That was at least 20 years ago, he says.

When he approaches a space, Dean says that, after speaking with clients, he also looks for inspiration from the architecture of the home, whether it has colonial, modern, or Spanish aspects.

Other elements he considers include the scale of the space, such as width and heft of the existing plants, as well as texture and fluidity, and also what plants would be appropriate in Southern California’s climate.

Visit or call 323-828-3858.

For Sonny Estrada, garden and landscape design is a family affair. Both his father and grandfather were gardeners, albeit more practical in nature. Estrada says he has always been more creative, even when he was helping his dad back in high school. He took an interest in art and architecture early on, and he began putting that creativity into his gardening projects. Eventually, he found his way through several UCLA extension courses and an associate degree in horticulture and landscape design from Pierce College. He has been designing gardens for more than 30 years, he says. The “Brilliant Garden,” which is on the Open Day tour this month, is his design.

Some of the elements in his design include using stonework and pots to create texture. Walkways help create a flow through the garden. He focuses on how to create separate “garden rooms” and a look that’s not too formal, and takes upkeep into consideration. Two of his favorite plants are wisteria and the tababua tree (the latter is related to the jacaranda).

Visit or call 323-216-6027.

DECOMPOSED GRANITE and flagstone provide texture in a landscape with California-friendly plants in design by Jonathan Harnish.

Jonathan Harnish, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Cal Poly Pomona, designed the garden for a 1909 Craftsman home that was on the Theodore Payne tour this year.

Harnish often works with historic homes and takes HPOZ guidelines into consideration in his designs. After discovering his clients’ ideas and budget, Harnish also looks at the scale of the space with its constraints and opportunities. Texture, shade and sustainability are some of the elements Harnish considers when designing a landscape. He says he likes to use California-friendly and drought tolerant plants to create a naturalistic style, and likes to plan so that there is a variety of interest and color throughout the year, as well as plants that will attract pollinators and provide wildlife habitat. In the garden on the tour, Harnish used decomposed granite and repurposed concrete, which added visual appeal and helped minimize waste.

Visit or call 310-962-2789.

RHEINSTEIN GARDEN designed by Judy Horton is part of Open Day tour.

Judy Horton, who designed the Rheinstein garden that is on the Open Day tour this month, says she has “been a gardener all her life, but a designer since 1993 or so.” Her career began organically from a love of gardening. She moved from gardening to planning landscapes for herself and her friends. Then she and another local resident landscape designer, Cheryl Lerner, partnered for a few years together, before moving on to separate design careers.

Horton believes that every garden design is a collaboration between the client, the architecture and the neighborhood. And she says she helps the client articulate what he or she is looking for in a landscape design. Horton also looks at the scale of the garden, how it fits with the architecture, and the strong and weak elements and how to use those to their best advantage.

Visit or call 323-462-1413.

Marilee Kuhlmann’s name is familiar if you have ever taken a class on sustainability or drought tolerant gardening at places such as The Theodore Payne Foundation or with groups such as the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.

She specializes in using California native and other drought tolerant plants together with sustainable practices, such as drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting, to create a rich Southern California landscape that includes shade and shelter and a pleasant space to be in, as well as provide habitat and food for wildlife.

Visit or call 424-367-1203.

Although Cheryl Lerner has been “gardening since she was a toddler in Oregon,” she became a landscape designer only after first studying in Italy and working on political campaigns and in advertising. When she moved to Los Angeles, she opened a custom floral shop on La Brea Avenue, and her design business grew from there.

Lerner says she approaches designing a space by first learning what her clients are looking for, how they will use the space, and how the garden will be cared for after it has been installed.

She likes to use climate-appropriate plants, which are not always native to the area. Southern California has a specific Mediterranean climate that can also be found in Central Chile, Southwestern Australia and South Africa, she says. Lerner also considers the architecture of the home, any existing trees and structures, the soil she has to work with, the play of light and shadow in the space, and how it looks at different times of the day.

Email or call 213-458-1529.

To do more research on how you might like to change the look of your own landscape, check out the demonstration garden at the John Ferraro Building (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power headquarters downtown). Type “demonstration garden” into the search box at Locally, you can get inspiration designing a garden space for a historic home from the Hancock Park Garden Club’s leaflet, “Your Next Front Yard” (

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