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Landscape Architecture: Zen Garden Meets Desert, for Serenity in Santa Monica

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Landscape Architecture: Zen Garden Meets Desert, for Serenity in Santa Monica

July 26, 2019

What happens when a Japanese-style garden meets the southern California desert? For the very Zen results, let’s visit a serene gravel courtyard that landscape architecture firm Terremoto designed for Mohawk General Store in Santa Monica.

Photography by Caitlin Atkinson, courtesy of Terremoto.

Passionflower vines soften the redbrick facade of Mohawk General Store. “The vines were existing when we started the project and we decided to keep them because they were happy there,” says landscape architect David Godshall.
Above: Passionflower vines soften the redbrick facade of Mohawk General Store. “The vines were existing when we started the project and we decided to keep them because they were happy there,” says landscape architect David Godshall.

“This was an attempt to create a garden that was both Japanese and desert simultaneously,” landscape architect David Godshall says, adding that client Kevin Carney wanted a space to have movie screenings and to create a backdrop for fashion shoots.

The garden, formerly occupied by gardening shop Potted, had existing hardscape (some concrete slabs) and a few specimen plants—including two large palms—that the team salvaged from the previous design. “For the rest of it, we started from scratch.”

During the remodel, Terremoto removed “chunky, two-inch gravel and a fair amount of existing concrete” and replaced the surface with decomposed concrete with “a heavy dusting” of gravel on top to stabilize the DG, Godshall says: “With this approach you lose the negative aspects of getting DG on the bottom of your shoes and also the feeling that gravel is a trudge to walk through.”
Above: During the remodel, Terremoto removed “chunky, two-inch gravel and a fair amount of existing concrete” and replaced the surface with decomposed concrete with “a heavy dusting” of gravel on top to stabilize the DG, Godshall says: “With this approach you lose the negative aspects of getting DG on the bottom of your shoes and also the feeling that gravel is a trudge to walk through.”

“We made the design process conversational,” Godshall says. “We went cactus shopping with the clients. Then we went boulder shopping. After we got all the elements on site, an incredibly hardworking crew shadow boxed them into place. Then there was a lot of looking at how things looked, walking around, and shifting it around.”

Terremoto installed a vertical shiplap fence.
Above: Terremoto installed a vertical shiplap fence.

The custom benches are made of cedar planks on concrete bases. “We came up with the design after looking at a lot of benches,” Godshall says. “I went to the hardware store and saw little concrete piers that cost seven dollars each. I realized they are beautiful objects, so we got them and then bought a nice piece of cedar for each bench.”

An aloe tree plays the part of sculpture, complemented by a backdrop of passionflower vines.
Above: An aloe tree plays the part of sculpture, complemented by a backdrop of passionflower vines.
“This is an abstract clothing rack; it’s perfect as sculpture to put in the garden and when the shop hangs clothes on it, it looks very beautiful,” Godshall says.
Above: “This is an abstract clothing rack; it’s perfect as sculpture to put in the garden and when the shop hangs clothes on it, it looks very beautiful,” Godshall says.
An existing palm tree adds height to the serene composition.
Above: An existing palm tree adds height to the serene composition.

“We built a beautiful space that allows flexibility, for events, and which also is a sculptural space that needs no further justification, where people can take a phone call or do what they please,” says Godshall.

A pair of yuccas are intentionally crooked. “They’re amazing when they have lighting at night, very psychedelic,” says Godshall.
Above: A pair of yuccas are intentionally crooked. “They’re amazing when they have lighting at night, very psychedelic,” says Godshall.
Specimen plants have uplights trained on them to create visual impact at night. (See more ideas at Hardscaping 101: Landscape Uplighting.)
Above: Specimen plants have uplights trained on them to create visual impact at night. (See more ideas at Hardscaping 101: Landscape Uplighting.)

“Basically all of the landscape lighting is uplighting because the garden is not trafficked a lot at night, and we didn’t need to have path lighting,” says Godshall. “We like the look of dark landscapes so we lit up just the major plants.”

If you’re designing a desert garden, get more inspiration from 10 Ideas to Steal from Desert Gardens and see our curated guides to Hardscape 101 projects, including Fences & Gates, Decks & Patios, Swimming Pools, and Outdoor Showers. For more ideas about how to create layered plantings in a desert garden, see Succulents & Cacti 101 and more of our favorite desert garden projects:

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