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The Dry Garden: Back at work, this time on her own

October 29, 2010 |  8:31 am

Helgoe-Sterling-Gregory-side-path

I met Dryden Helgoe six years ago when she was part of team behind a new landscape at Kidspace Children's Museum in Pasadena. Shortly afterward, I worked with her on a playground plan for a school garden. During both encounters, she was inscrutable: gracious, spookily competent and distractingly beautiful as a Botticelli angel. Then, by the end of 2005, she was gone -- off to start a family.

Helgoe-portrait During the intervening years, I wondered more than once if the choice of stay-at-home motherhood would retire Helgoe. When I met her, she was a rising star. The University of Oregon landscape architecture graduate had a year at the Olin Studio in Philadelphia and five with Nancy Goslee Power & Associates in Santa Monica. Helgoe's disappearance from the scene left a void.

So when an e-mail came recently saying that she was working again, this time for herself, I leaped at the chance to catch up. As we toured a selection of her recent gardens, she was still quiet, gracious, competent and like something off a Renaissance fresco. But the scale of her work had changed dramatically in a world with less water, less money and passionate clientele.

Helgoe-Richard-Bloom-chickens No longer part of a big-name studio, she now works out of the guestroom of her small home. Job sites are less likely to be a winery or a museum. Instead she might be set loose on a magnificent sweep of hillside overlooking the Pacific. Or a petite garden in Santa Monica where the owners want to fit some sage, a chicken coop and a Prius. Or the small backyard of a midcentury triplex where the homeowners have a slice of ancient Rome in mind.

"A lot of people ask what style do you design?" she said. "I don't have a style. It's what needs to be done in a particular place for particular people."

Her first job out on her own remains a favorite. Friends -- movie sound designer Hamilton Sterling and communications consultant Donna Gregory -- asked her to take on the small passageways behind their midcentury triplex; the largest part of the project was just 18-by-23 feet. Sterling and Gregory are devotees of the classics, and what they had in mind was less a patio garden and more a lost nook of the Acropolis.

Creating Mediterranean-style gardens isn't hard in California, which has a near-identical climate to that of the cradle of civilization. It was the scale that was daunting.

"It wasn't small," Helgoe said. "It was tiny." To see Helgoe's solution, keep reading ...

Helgoe-Sterling-Gregory

Working closely with the homeowners and designing around a large fountain, Helgoe created a
cypress-lined garden where the tree of the gods gives way to roses, lavender and sage, with sculpted box hedges to tie in the geometry.

Helgoe-Sterling-Gregoryside-detail "The attention to detail was intense," Helgoe said. For many gardens, maintaining such carefully layered plants would be onerous. This is a garden that would be pruned with bonsai scissors. However, Helgoe trusted that intensive care would go hand-in-glove with Sterling’s and Gregory’s equally intensive interest in classical design. Tending this garden, Helgoe said, "is such a huge part of who they are."

Tight packing of plants rarely can be done in an environmentally responsible way, but here it is. The surest way to kill cypresses, olives or sage is over-watering them after they become established. Woe betide the house-sitter who leaves the Sterling-Gregory hose running and rots the roots of the evergreen walls.

Helgoe-Malibu-steps Drive up the coast, and a Helgoe project in Malibu bears a subtlety that verges on invisibility. Granted, plants were never supposed to take center stage in a garden framing a Spanish-style ranch house. Rather, the focal point was always intended to be the house and mighty stone steps.

The stonework by mason Gil Camarillo and hillside installation and grading by Hotchkiss and Associates are indeed amazing; look closely and the vast slabs are whole pieces of rock. But the design is also remarkable,
particularly at its most low-key. Helgoe punctuated the horizontal heft of the stairs by upending railroad ties and using them as low borders. A succession of agaves were then planted to act as a reception committee.

Behind these strong and sharp architectural elements, the garden relaxes into a mix of low-growing ceanothus and rosemary, which in spring will splay the scenery with blue flowers. Yet even out of season, the colors are saturated. They don't scream for attention because adaptations of these native lilacs and Mediterranean herbs to survive on little more than winter rainfall and marine dew mean that their dusky green leaves meld seamlessly with the wild hillside. Meanwhile, Australian tea trees along the foundation pick up and echo the pinks of the roof tiles.

"One of the things I like a lot about this garden is you almost miss it when you drive by," Helgoe said.

Elsewhere on my tour with her, we see cottage gardens, including a small plan for her next-door neighbor, Santa Monica City Councilman Richard Bloom. It may have been neighborliness, or it may be because Helgoe's oldest daughter named the Bloom family chickens, but Helgoe grabs a dish of bird seed before we go over to her neighbors' frontyard, where the Blooms executed a plan that Helgoe drew. Somehow she found room for a coop. Bloom was so impressed by Helgoe's talent that he encouraged her to join Santa Monica's Recreation and Parks Commission, where she focuses on developing community gardens.

Helgoe-DrydenGarden-front-succulents

Helgoe-DrydenGarden-banksia Helgoe's ability to defer to setting and client could easily be misinterpreted. Aren't stars supposed to be prima donnas? However, her own likes could not be more assertive or muscular. On a sun-baked wall in the back garden of a cottage that she shares with her husband and two daughters -- a place where most of us might plant roses -- Helgoe uses Space Age-looking dwarf Australian Banksia spinulosa with flame-colored cones, right.

The front doorway to the cottage, above, is framed by agave and aloe. Creeping fig as a backdrop softens the ferocity. Then a delicate wall planter completes the domestication.

"I love succulents," she said. "I love them against soft, fuzzy plants or feathery plants. It's like magic."

So is the mix of deference and assertiveness needed to be an effective designer. It stands to reason that a woman who knows what she likes would be eager to give her clients what they like instead of foisting her own vision on them. As Helgoe (dryden.helgoe@gmail.com) returns to work in earnest after a five-year hiatus, it further stands to reason that taking time off to be a homemaker and mother, to be with her children, neighbors and their chickens, wasn't a case of a career derailed, or even delayed, but rather enriched.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable landscaping appears here on Fridays.

Photo credit: Emily Green

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