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Laguna Vistas

by Stephen Kelly, managing editor

A view from the path: Low Italian hedges, jasmine, plumbago, and pride of Maderia line the upper edge of the lawn. Further up is the formal rose garden. The lemon tree in the terra cotta pot on the marble walk marks the location for a fountain, presently being sculpted in Italy.

Nestled on the Pacific Coast just south of Newport Beach, California, is Laguna Beach, a hilly, picturesque community abutting scenic beach coves to the south, and serpentine roads slithering up the hills to the north. Homes here have spectacular views of the city, the coastline and Catalina Island, the kind of properties seen for sale in the Friday real estate section of the Wall Street Journal--homes for multimillionaires that evoke a dream-like state when contemplated by plebian editors and their brethren, the hoi polloi.

Just such a property perches on the crest of Moorea Way via Skyline Drive, a 2.5 acre Mediterranean villa. Accompanying me to view the residence and the landscaping on this sunny, windy September afternoon is LCN Publisher George Schmok. We are cordially greeted by the founder, owner of Earthscaping, Jeff Powers, and the firm's co-owner, Steve Stewart. [In November, Jeff bought out Steve's interest in the company.] The duo has arrived from the Costa Mesa office, which borders Newport Beach, a short drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach.

We enter the property through an archway and an eight-foot wrought iron gate and heavy wood door into an expansive, circular "motor courtyard," appropriately named, as it bears little resemblance to my home's "driveway," particularly in regard to the Rolls Royce and Mercedes occupying space to the left of the courtyard. I could run laps here. The cars rest out in the open, not parked in their little house, what the French call a porte cochere (PC), in by-gone-days the shelter for carriages. This PC (dare I call it a garage?) is 20 feet high and larger than the cottages in the less elevated sections of Laguna Beach, and more solidly built. The PC's lower fa?ade reveals three arches supported by two columns, and five smaller columns in a rectangular opening near the top. Plenty of ventilation in this PC, a nod to the olfactory sensibilities of chateau residents in the horse and carriage days, but now just a sheltered area to de-car before striding into the house proper on those few days in Southern California when precipitation deigns to fall from the heavens. [Not to be snobbish, but I could use a PC. Just last night I got quite wet going the short distance from my truck to the house.]

To the side of the entrance resides the staff suite. Another little house.

Jeff Powers begins the tour: "The courtyard is done in low Italian hedges, and the perimeter in white roses. As you get close to the house, it switches to gardenias, hydrangeas, ferns and camellias. The theme of the motor courtyard is an olive orchard wrapping around, with arbustus below." [A few Arbutus marina and carob trees below, but mostly olive trees with a ground cover of Baccharis pililaris (coyote brush) and Ceanothus (Yankee point).

From the center of the motor courtyard towers a 40-foot ficus. The original plan called for a fountain here--go green! Sweet gum trees border the house, or should I say "villa." The villa was designed by architect John O'Neill. This was Earthscaping's first project with Mr. O'Neill; Earthscaping has since worked with the architect on a number of projects.

Tall, cascading white rose bushes accent the mauve, purple and red roses of the formal garden, surrounded by Ligustrum (privet).

The home exudes a villa-transplanted-from-the-Tuscany-hills attractiveness. We learn that many of the hardscapes inside and out are Italian quarried marble. Mama mia! as my mama was want to say, despite her English/Irish/French genealogy. The marble staircase inside the home was extirpated from Italian bedrock, assembled, numbered, disassembled and shipped; the fountain "out back" (in the courtyard above the reflecting pool) formerly resided on Italian soil. The villa residents have flown to Italy half a dozen times in their private jet to acquire their objets d'architecture. This is San Simeon on a budget.

We make a quick foray along the side of the house to view the fountain and a spectacular "reflecting" pool with the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Jeff had piqued my interest in the property when he told me on the phone about the pool: 2,300,000 hand-laid Italian tiles. From our vantage point at the side of the house, we gaze down 10 or 12 feet to the pool level and the pool house. (Yes, the pool has its own house, too.) To the right of the pool bubble two Jacuzzi, one exposed to the sunshine, one shaded beneath the marble overhang, and ... a bar. I imagine the dialogue: "Dear, could you mix me a martini. One does get parched while Jacuzzing." Betwixt the two Jacuzzi hovers a "privacy" waterfall that cascades a curtain of water on demand, completely obscuring the shaded area from the sunlight area. Use your imagination.

A sweet gum tree set off by white roses in the motor courtyard. To the right is the staff suite.

I digress. We're here to examine the landscaping. We descend a pathway from the motor courtyard until the Rolls slips from sight, but not our of mind. Opening to our left a vast vista of hills tumbling to the blue Pacific--water as far as my near-sighted eyes can see with the aid of contact lenses. To the right of the path unfurl jacarandas and a variety of shrubbery: carmel creepers; cape plumbago; primose jasmin; and pride of Madeira, few of which I could name, but nonetheless inspiring.

Jeff Powers tries to explain what the property looked like when he first saw it. "It was a knoll with native plants. The owner bought two lots, or about 2.5 acres," he adds. A knoll, I muse, what does that look like? A kind of bump of land, I suppose. "It was difficult to visualize how it was all going to come together," he continues, as we walk down the path along the side of the villa. "You were looking 24 feet down [before the grading], and there was also a ravine that had to be filled in."

My publisher, George Schmok, notes that it's handy to have a ravine about to fill in when you're lowering 24 feet of terra firma. None of that hiding the dirt in your pant legs for deposit elsewhere, as in "The Great Escape," I think. Odd how the mind wanders on such a beauteous afternoon ambulating villa grounds, the scent of flowers, citrus and sea breezes redolent in the warm air.

The perimeter fencing discourages coyotes, however, deer leap the fence to snack on the shrubberies. Earthscaping put blood meal down to curb their appetites. The trees here are mimosa.

"The perimeter of the property was planted while the grading was being done," Jeff explains. "In keeping with the Italian villa theme, Olive was the tree of choice to circumscribe the property. It took three years to build the house and two years to do the landscaping," he adds.

The sloping hillside above the path that descends from the house reveals green (baccharis) and purple hues (wisteria). Baccharis and Yankee point, planted for their fire retardant properties, dress the property's perimeter slope. An interlocking Keystone retaining wall, completely obscured by the groundcover, supports the slope. A similar retaining wall, but 25 feet tall, buttresses the southern slope, seen as you drive up the hill to the property.

"We had a house in Emerald Bay that we designed and installed that had the same kind of coverage" [baccharis and Yankee point], notes Steve Stewart. "The houses on both sides burned, but not [our] house. The ground cover didn't burn; the house didn't burn; there's a clue there," he laughs.

Southern California's recent spate of deadly, massively destructive fires have made news around the world; 10 years ago, fire swept up Laguna Canyon, spurned on by Santa Ana winds, and headed up the coast. It didn't burn the city center, but 366 homes and 17,000 acres burned in one day. All but one of the homes near the property on which the villa now resides burned to the ground.

This piece carries the titled "Laguna Vistas" for good reason. New homes on Laguna hills raise immediate, nosey concerns of neighbors, fearing the interloper will block their pricey views. The blueprints for the villa site plan, drawn in January 1998, underwent revisions in May, in October 1999, and in January 2002. The city approved the design, but a neighbor hired a lawyer and pleaded loss of view to the new trees. In fact, the grading lowered the land 24 feet and gave the litigious neighbor a view of Catalina previously blocked by the knoll. A settlement with the neighbor finally ensued and the blueprints received the green light on May 8, 2003, over five years from their generation.

Left: "Out back" at the terrace level: Italian-quarried marble hardscapes, custom-made Italian light fixtures, and Chamaerops (European fans) palms. Right: The entrance to the villa. Olive trees grow to the right; a jasmine to the left. The green ground cover is baccharis; the purple is Ceanothus (Yankee point).

Jeff's cell phone rings. Steve Stewart steps in to continue the tour. Further along the path we see the citrus grove and several species of avocados and orange trees. Another path that runs along the ridge of the slope leads to a "secret garden," being constructed for the family's 12 year old daughter. The rectilinear secret garden, a work in progress, presents a variety of fruit trees (peach, apricot, apple, avocado) and flowering evergreen trees (Prunus caroliniana) and weeping roses. The hedge on the slope side blocks the ocean view. No worries, "windows" will be cut. Walkways, benches and other accoutrements are forthcoming. Clearly an ideal, idyllic spot for contemplation, however, I immediately picture the daughter sitting there, a little older, smoking a cigarette out of site of her parents, or perhaps necking with her boyfriend as they gaze down the hill on the city's twinkling lights.

Leaving the garden and heading along the path, we round a corner and view an expansive lawn, slightly sloped in spots for drainage purposes. The lawn sits above the path, retained by another Keystone wall covered in baccharis. The Laguna building code (a two-foot drop or more) mandates a fence for the lawn's edge. The lawn, thick and lush, leads to the marble staircase. I espy a little white terrier gamboling about the rose garden up near the house. "Lucky dog," I think, imaging my beagles rough housing and chewing this verdant carpet.

"How many irrigation boxes?" George asks, always thinking like a landscape contractor.

"Only two for the slope and one for the garden," Steve explains. "A large one for the garden," he amends, when George raises an eyebrow. "The baccharis gets all its water from the lawn," Steve adds. One talented shrub that baccharis: fire retardant, conserver of water, and a design element here, seamlessly joining the lawn.

The hill side of the path features pride of Madeira, which is reciprocated below in the nascent olive orchard that sweeps the property's perimeter. The Madeira give way to bougainvillea. The path begins to curve up the hill, its sides thick with shrubbery: Jerusalem sage; sageleaf rock rose; toyon; cape lumbago; sweet olive; agave; carmel creepers; pride of Maderia; beschornerial yuccoides; and strawberry trees (dwarfs). Strawberry trees? It's a misnomer. These are shrubby trees with laurel-like evergreen leaves and "warty red berries."

George inquires about the fence surrounding the property. He figures it's for security reasons, but Jeff, now off the cell phone, explains it's for discouraging wildlife, particularly coyotes. However, Jeff recounts he once came out to the property to find the greenery on the side of the motor courtyard looking as though it had been mowed. "It was deer," he explains.

"Deer can jump over that fence?" George exclaims, looking at the 7-8 foot high fence.

Steve and Jeff assure George that they can. Of course there are also raccoons and possums about that have no problem with fences, either. "We put out blood meal," Jeff explains. Two unpleasant words to put in close proximity of one another. [My Google search tells me blood meal is a natural organic fertilizer, a fast source of organic nitrogen and "said to also deter deer." Not the most cogent statement. Do the deer know? Or do the deer say, "Oh, look blood meal, I'm famished."

It's not just the shrubbery and flowers that tickle the deers' fancy. Jeff explains why Earthscaping no longer uses drip irrigation. Big and little critters alike, raccoons possums and deer, smell the water from drippers, satisfy their thirsts and then eat the drippers for dessert.

The path finally leads up to the house and the formal rose garden, situated between the lawn area and the house. Low Italian hedges surround the roses--mostly mauve, purple and red roses--set off by tall, cascading, white rose bushes.

We've come full circle. Earthscaping has done a magnificent job of designing, landscaping and maintaining the plantings. The landscapes accentuate and complement the Mediterranean hardscaping. It's easy to see why Earthscaping has won dozens of landscaping awards from the Orange County Chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association.

The supernumerary plantings require a hefty maintenance contract. Jeff told me his crew of four men and a supervisor are out here every two weeks. I suspect the maintenance contract must be about my monthly mortgage payment, you know, that house without the PC.

We peeled back the baccharis pelt to reveal a loffel block retaining wall.

About Earthscaping:

Founded in 1971 in Costa Mesa, California by Jeff Powers, Earthscaping is a full-service landscape installation and maintenance company known for its creative, high-end residential and commercials services. Jeff Powers, a former planning commissioner for Laguna Beach, sits on the board of directors of the Laguna Greenbelt.

Earthscaping employs 130 people, subdivided into design, construction and maintenance divisions, including specialists in plants, irrigation, grading, masonry, carpentry and labor. The company is fully bonded and covered by workers' compensation and commercial liability insurance.

The firm's commercial maintenance clients include: the Staples Center, home to the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and the NHL's Los Angeles Kings; the California Speedway, the site of nationally televised motor sporting events; Riverside County; and the Federal Aviation Administration in Long Beach and Santa Ana. Earthscaping has also worked with the Orange County cities of Orange, Newport Beach, Fullterton, and Tustin.

With over 1,000 projects completed, a telling measure of customer satisfaction, Jeff Powers believes Earthscaping's attention to detail, quality and craftsmanship, and knowledge of unusual materials and plant species makes the company stand out.

"While maintaining our creative edge, we are conservative fiscal managers," Jeff Powers explains. "This is the secret to our success."

Earthscaping is a member of the California Landscape Contractors Association; American Society of Landscape Architects; and the Better Business Bureau.

Curious note: Earthscaping designed and installed a tree house high in a grove of sycamore trees in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The requirements of the client included a full-scale office with electricity, telephone lines, a kitchenette, a wet bar and a toilet. The estimated cost: $130,000. Earthscaping has garnered a slew of awards from the Orange County Chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association, including: two statewide Trophy awards (First Place and Special Effects); 20 Beautification Achievement awards; a first place in the large residential maintenance category; and a merit award. The Beautification Achievement awards have run the gamut: slope maintenance; medium residential renovation; installations for grand estates, residential estates, custom residential, small and large residential; medium lighting; small residential maintenance; xeriscape; commercial, industrial, and multi-unit installation.


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October 23, 2019, 10:30 pm PDT

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