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Pretty in Pink: An Artist’s Dry Garden in LA’s Topanga Canyon

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Pretty in Pink: An Artist’s Dry Garden in LA’s Topanga Canyon

November 1, 2019

Charmed by a funky building in LA’s Topanga Canyon that “had always been inhabited by artists,” in 2010 artist Carly Jo Morgan bought a 1920s house with a sprawling hillside garden.

At the time, the garden had an emerald lawn, flowers, and fruit trees more suited to an English cottage than to a dry southern California landscape, but the previous homeowner said that gray water was enough to keep it so green. However, Morgan and her then-husband Matthew “realized that wasn’t true when we got the first water bill,” she said. “We immediately began reimagining something that was drought tolerant. After all, we live in a desert.”

The Morgans, who designed the garden themselves, were fortunate to have landscape architect Martin Rodriguez as a new neighbor. “He was super helpful with tips on creating a dry creek bed out of rocks, and grading the hillside,” said Morgan. He also built the forms for a series of pink concrete retaining walls that would become the star feature of the artist’s garden: “I wanted a pink color palette to amplify the desert vibes,” she said, “and to make the garden come alive at sunset.”

Photography by Gillian Steiner for Gardenista.

The Morgans created a rock river along one side of the garden, composed of small boulders they collected over time. The largest stones, including those used as seating around the small pink concrete table shown above, are from Southwest Boulder & Stone.
Above: The Morgans created a rock river along one side of the garden, composed of small boulders they collected over time. The largest stones, including those used as seating around the small pink concrete table shown above, are from Southwest Boulder & Stone.

Morgan and her former husband designed the desert-pink walls and matching furniture together, and hired a contractor to pour the cement. “I learned so much watching the cement be poured,” said Morgan, who cites the experience as having been influential in her own work (she makes Terrazzo Furniture).

Pink muhlenbergia grass is the preeminent plant in the garden; it offers vibrant color during fall blooms.
Above: Pink muhlenbergia grass is the preeminent plant in the garden; it offers vibrant color during fall blooms.

When they started designing their garden, the Morgans set priorities: The landscape would be drought tolerant, kid friendly, and welcoming for guests.

See more ideas for designing with Muhlenbergia in Muhly Grass 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

The center of the garden offers a prime view of the Santa Monica Mountains. The fence is made of rough-sawn redwood from Topanga Lumber.
Above: The center of the garden offers a prime view of the Santa Monica Mountains. The fence is made of rough-sawn redwood from Topanga Lumber.

After the Morgans purchased the property, they kept the existing palm and oak trees and planted a weeping pine, a few acacias, and an olive tree that was a gift from a close friend.

The gravel, called Palm Springs Gold, is one of Morgan&#8
Above: The gravel, called Palm Springs Gold, is one of Morgan’s favorite features of the garden: “It has pink and mauve crystals in it that glow under the moonlight, making the yard look snowy on a full moon,” she said.
A long concrete bench juts out from the house, and defines the brick patio as an outdoor room. Matthew Morgan made the coffee table, which has a wood base with marble slab top. The black Acapulco chairs are from a garden store at the base of Topanga Canyon.
Above: A long concrete bench juts out from the house, and defines the brick patio as an outdoor room. Matthew Morgan made the coffee table, which has a wood base with marble slab top. The black Acapulco chairs are from a garden store at the base of Topanga Canyon.
The desert-pink concrete and gravel &#8
Above: The desert-pink concrete and gravel “ended up inspiring my work as a furniture designer,” said Morgan.
Just off the house&#8
Above: Just off the house’s front patio: A playtime setup for Morgan’s daughter has a small wood table and two vintage school chairs. A vintage wicker bell pendant hangs overhead; it’s from a booth at the Mercado Sagrado festival in Malibu Canyon, which Morgan curates.
The pink-tasseled cushion was a wedding gift from a friend, the artist Stephen Haskell.
Above: The pink-tasseled cushion was a wedding gift from a friend, the artist Stephen Haskell.
The white planter is from Merchant Yard in Venice and the terra cotta planter is from the Rose Bowl Flea.
Above: The white planter is from Merchant Yard in Venice and the terra cotta planter is from the Rose Bowl Flea.

Morgan added several cactus and succulent varieties throughout the landscape—mostly opuntia and euphorbia from California Cactus Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

To the side of the garden, near its entrance, is a concrete frame that&#8
Above: To the side of the garden, near its entrance, is a concrete frame that’s “the beginning of an art studio that will eventually be glassed in,” said Morgan. “In the meantime, it functions as a stage for mellow music nights.”
Two white grasses flank a short stairway and French doors on one end of the house.
Above: Two white grasses flank a short stairway and French doors on one end of the house.
Artist Carly Jo Morgan and her dog.
Above: Artist Carly Jo Morgan and her dog.

Would you like to add color and movement to a garden with perennial grasses? For inspiration, see our Garden Design 101 guides, including Grasses 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

And for more favorite Los Angeles gardens, see:

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