Small Garden, Big Style

Growing an oasis in the desert of suburbia

By Mark Storer

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

If Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t say “bloom where you are planted,” he should have. The quote is lost to history, but it fits the Transcendentalist writer’s ethos well—and it is attributed to him. It also fits the ethos of Tom Archbald and Manuel Marquez’s home in Midtown Ventura: a 1929 bungalow with a colorful garden flowing through the confines of a limited space.

Windows in every room frame lush garden clusters and colorful blooms; near floor-to-ceiling doors merge indoors and out. Homeowners Tom Archbald and Manuel Marquez take in a view.

“When Tom and I looked at the house, it had promise,” said Marquez, a retired physician. “But it was overgrown with a trellis, ficus plants, and a white picket fence. There was a little benign neglect, but we saw more. It is small, but it’s also airy and light.”

The pair bought the house in 2009 and moved in the following spring. They hired Richard Sanders, a Ventura landscape designer, to complement the work they’d done on the 1,000-square-foot structure. “It took two-and-a-half years to finish,” said Marquez. “It feels like longer.”

The Spanish-style house with new floors, windows, and kitchen is now part of the garden that surrounds it. Light and air fill the interior, thanks to the addition of windows in every room. “We had a wonderful coincidence in that our neighbors, Matt and Monica Huntington, designed the renovation. Matt is an architect and we worked with him to make the changes,” Archbald said.

A ramshackle detached garage was updated and transformed into usable space, with room for two cars and a 375-square-foot office for Archbald, a practicing psychotherapist. “There’s kind of a need to recharge and refocus,” said Marquez of his and Tom’s jobs. And it’s not all about large and open spaces; it’s about light and color, sense and flow.

Archbald lived for a time in Southeast Asia, and Marquez is of Latin-American descent. Both backgrounds inform the décor of the house, while simple American furniture fills the rooms. But it is looking through the windows at the surrounding garden, a kind of Midtown oasis, where one captures an almost Hollywood movie magic. Outside each one, a series of hanging baskets abundant with colorful flowers occupies the vista. Impossible chartreuses and reds, simple blues and purples fill nearly every view from the house.

In the backyard there remains a banana tree, which dominates as an off-center piece next to an outdoor kitchen and reclaimed wood deck. Dymondia grows between the flagstones of a walking path. Manzanita, jasmine, wildflowers, and lavender give way to thicker bushes and tall grasses, and eventually to willowy palm trees. A Buddha statue watches over the garden. The layered effect draws eyes across the space, and the trickle of a fountain, the quiet of the greenery, and the many colored plants offer respite along the main path toward the garage and Archbald’s office.

You’d never know the Pacific View Mall was on the other side of the back wall, which is covered with hanging plant containers. “The Sears parking lot is right on the other side,” said Archbald, “but [my] clients are awed when they walk in here. They talk about how calm they feel … Light, color, and natural beauty: those are the three most important elements.”

Inside the house, the first thing Sanders did was take all the curtains down. “I want light,” he explained, echoing the sentiment of Archbald. “And I want something attractive outside every window. The more views you have, the more space you have.”

Coleus and ornamental kale, large iresine and oxalis with purples and yellows, chartreuses and fuchsias line the walkway around the back of the office. Begonias adorn the path as well. And they’re all visible through the many windows. “We wanted to be expansive; it was important to pick doors that allowed the outside and inside to come together,” said Marquez. “In fact, the city originally rejected our plans because there were too many windows and they felt there wouldn’t be any efficiency. So we had to go back with statistics and data to show them that the windows held in heat and cool air.”

The driveway is comprised of sand-based bricks in a herringbone pattern, leaving room for a bioswale down the middle, with low succulents, red flowers, and fescue splitting the tire paths. The front yard isn’t really a yard, per se, and in California that is the way most landscape designers think it should be. Palm trees were left as they were, but Sanders planted a new series of layers and colors. “Lavender, thyme, mimulus—or native ‘monkey-flower’—more fescue, cordyline, purple sage, and euphorbia are all over here in the front,” Sanders said. He allowed year-round color to fill in the middle and around the edges. Seasonal greens and patterns come and go. A man-made creek allows for drainage while separating the garden and native buckwheat, lambs ear, and blue oat grass. Matilija poppy and manzanita fill in the layers as well, and attract birds and insects.

“It’s the movement that Richard designs that really is attractive,” said Archbald. “It’s a matter of letting the garden speak for itself and invite all comers..

A gurgling fountain lends to the garden’s mellow vibe. (You’d never guess the Pacific View Mall was right next door.)

Flowering artichokes and succulents like aeonium infuse color and geometric patterns into the property. Manzanita (top left) and other native plants attract local birds and insects.


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