Outside L.A.

For landscape architect Joseph Marek, a love of plants has shaped a life outdoors


WHERE THE WEATHER IS CONSISTENTLY TEMPERATE, as it is in Southern California, spaces for outdoor living demand just as much attention as interior rooms. Designing inviting outdoor garden rooms that combine a rich plant palette and useful living space has become one of landscape architect Joseph Marek’s trademarks. An enticing blend of bold plant combinations and architecture are found throughout his own Santa Monica garden, which he shares with partner John Bernatz. In this garden you find succulents growing next to roses, flax mingling with canna, and kangaroo paw colliding into bird-of-paradise. Set against the richly painted exterior walls of the house and design studio, the textures and colors of foliage and flowers come to life.


After experiencing a variety of climate extremes, from Mississippi to Alaska, Texas-born Marek had a clear vision of where he wanted to settle down. He established his career in New England, then headed straight for Santa Monica’s coastal, year-round growing season. He has never looked back. Despite living in this ideal climate— where almost anything will grow—Marek shows great restraint and careful consideration when choosing the plants for both his own garden and those of his clients. His front entry and courtyard garden exemplify this. They are a quiet starting point for the garden, shielded from the outside world by a hedge of deep green Juniperus chinensis ‘Spartan’. There is no gate to close this part of the garden from the street, though; the two men prefer leaving the entrance open, in case a curious neighbor or passer-by wishes to sneak a peek or step inside for a closer look.

Visitors are lured into the garden by the dramatic soft yellow flower spikes of Aloe arborescens ‘Lutea’ and the burnt orange flowers of giant A. thraskii. Springtime reveals a glimpse of Marek’s favorite English rose, ‘Golden Celebration’, cascading into the bold bluish green foliage of Agave attenuata. In summer, the entry to the courtyard garden is accentuated with Agapanthus ‘Elaine’, a dark purple form Marek prefers. It hugs each side of a geometric-patterned walkway formed of two tones of sandstone.

Design Outdoor Rooms

with Joseph Marek’s hints


In the gardens behind the house, Marek exercises less restraint. Indulging his lifelong love of plants, he uses all available space to test new possibilities for his design work. Mixed with an exhilarating range of plants are various equally exciting hardscapes, including several water features woven throughout the garden rooms. Marek finds even the slightest sound of water masks distant traffic or other unwanted noise. In exchange for the minimal amount of space they require, his water features create a serene atmosphere.

Living only a stone’s throw from the ocean can wreak havoc on a gardener’s attempt to cultivate tomatoes or roses easily, but that doesn’t deter Marek and Bernatz from trying. Finding a fragrant rose that gives a big show of bloom without succumbing to rust or mildew is one of Marek’s favorite challenges. He tries newly released cultivars every year—mainly in muted shades of orange, apricot, and peach—and so keeps the sun-filled rose garden full to overflowing.

Just in front of the rose garden is a long narrow strip used to grow tomatoes and squash, or lettuce greens during winter. In this area Marek also grows some of his favorite dark-flowering sweet peas. Among them are the deep burgundy ‘Midnight’, maroon ‘Black Knight’, and the dark blue ‘Blue Danube’, all clambering upward on metal obelisks. A September planting will make a show of flowers by early winter.


If you study the structure of his garden, with its distinct rooms, you can begin to understand the architectural principles Marek employs. His background in architecture and a keen understanding of both interior and exterior space allow him to design outdoor spaces mat are at once beautiful and functional. When creating gardens, he pays close attention to a house’s windows and doors, and considers how residents live inside their homes. He begins any outdoor room much as one would an indoor one—by building walls. These are, more often than not, borders of hedges. Some of his favorite plants for such use are bay laurel, rosemary, spartan juniper, and black acacia (Acacia melanoxylon). Marek also employs “true” walls. “I’m a big fan of plastered masonry walls,” he says. He uses these as a strong backdrop for furniture, and avoids using invasive climbers, such as Hedera helix, to cover them.

Both Marek and Bernatz acknowledge that creating beauty requires a great amount of care and time. It is Bernatz who is most likely to be found working in their garden on any given day, accompanied by Pablo the dalmatian and a Jack Russell terrier called Cooper. Bernatz has been known to employ a few quirky tools to keep the garden looking its best—pruning with a favorite serrated kitchen knife, edging the lawn areas with a pair of scissors, or using their shop-vac to quickly rid the rose garden of leaf litter after the winter pruning. It seems in this warm garden, tools for indoor chores have made the switch to outdoor living, too. H

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