A Bel Air couple gives their worn-out garden a face-lift with the help of landscaper–to–the–stars Brian Tichenor

To hear Paige Doumani tell it, her conversion from casual observer to active participant in her own Bel Air garden was nothing short of miraculous. “I had always enjoyed looking at landscapes, but I was never really interested in gardening myself until Brian unlocked the door,” she gushes in her breathtaking backyard. “I used to love to travel, but Brian taught me to appreciate something different. Now there’s no place I’d rather be than right here.”Pardon Doumani if she sounds like an adoring disciple of a spiritual adviser. Until landscape designer Brian Tichenor came along, she couldn’t tell a buddleia from a brugmansia, nor did she care to; now, in addition to weeding and pruning four hours a day, she’s on a first-name basis with every one of the scores of plants she tends around her home.

Of course, before Tichenor transformed Doumani from novice to green thumb, he presided over the equally amazing metamorphosis of her garden. Applying his extensive knowledge of English gardens, he took the steep, inaccessible, weed-snarled lot and turned it into a tableau rich in color and texture as well as mystery and whimsy. The Beverly Hills designer, who also happens to be a gifted architect, massed flowers to suggest abundance, framed views through multiple passageways and contrasted formal plantings near the house with rustic elements farther away. Plant-wise, Tichenor chose with California’s dry summer months in mind. “The idea was to take the very organized English garden of the early 20th century and superimpose a palette of plants that grow in a Mediterranean climate,” he explains.

The resulting landscape, which invites exploration at every turn, could easily pass for a country estate in the Cotswolds. Unfolding in stages over six years, it proved so striking even before completion that it was named one of the stops on the local Virginia Robinson Gardens tour in 1996‚ a remarkable feat, considering Tichenor had originally been brought in only to remodel the house.

In 1992, Doumani, a native of South Africa who’d spent 20 years in Hawaii before moving to L.A., and her stockbroker husband, Michael, were newlyweds shopping for their first home. They bought the one-acre hillside property after falling in love with the spectacular view and sense of quiet remove. But the previous owners were an elderly couple, and the 1930s Georgian-style house needed updating. After interviewing several architects, the Doumanis chose Tichenor of Tichenor & Thorp to oversee the renovation and capitalize on the property’s view‚ on clear days, anyway‚ of Catalina Island.

Tichenor, who, along with his wife, architect Raun Thorp, has since created gardens for Richard Gere and Pleasantville director Gary Ross and revamped the Cecil B. De Mille and Charlie Chaplin estates in Los Feliz, refined a plan for the Doumani remodel over the next six months, and then construction began. Ultimately, he retained the footprint of the 5,000-square-foot house while making one major change: a rear-end overhaul that thrust the Doumanis into the world outdoors. “Brian converted five rooms‚ a tiny kitchen, a maid’s quarters, a bathroom, a pantry and a mud room‚ into the new family room and kitchen, which both open to the new dining patio,” Michael says. “Now these rooms are where we spend most of our time and eat most of our meals, regardless of the season.”

The Doumanis were so pleased with the architectural makeover that they handed over the muddled garden to Tichenor, too. In fact, they made only two demands: that he incorporate the South African plants Paige remembered from her childhood home in Cape Town and that the landscape be an unpredictable place where they could ramble, “not your typical Beverly Hills garden with impatiens.” Says Paige: “By then, we knew we could trust him to do whatever he wanted.”

Unlike the house perched at the top of the hill, the grounds below posed one challenge after another. Neglected pittosporum trees and lantana choked the precipitous slope. On a terrace halfway down, the swimming pool was a mere puddle in a vast expanse of concrete. And deciding which was uglier—the chain link fencing or the sheet-metal shade overhand—was a toss-up.

Tichenor’s first concern was making the garden relate to the house, so he laid out the backyard’s main paths along the axis he’d created between the front door and the view through the house of the rear horizon. From these wide grass-carpeted corridors, he slowly worked his way outward, clearing rampant overgrowth and moving dirt to fashion one terrace at a time. “Getting from one elevation to another was a real knotty little problem,” he recalls. “It took quite a bit of time to find the right pathways, stairs that worked and grades that made sense.”

Dilapidated brick walks were replaced with new ones that offer sure footing as they descend the slope in gentle switch-backs and beckon visitors through arches, under bowers and past garden ornaments to the landscape’s unseen reaches. “I was trying to develop what’s known as a prospect garden,” Tichenor says. “You’re always coming upon another vista through a series of portals, so there’s a sense of openness and distance.” Perfect for the leisurely strolls the Doumanis had longed for.

At the heart of the garden, a neatly clipped myrtle parterre epitomizes the formal character Tichenor found appropriate next to the house. Symmetrical hedges surround pink Bonica roses, bisected by a brick stair that also divides mirror–image borders of the English roses known as David Austins. The east garden near the living room is also tightly focused, devoted solely to hybrid tea roses. “I have a hard time cutting the flowers, except for the Bonica and Iceberg roses, which are so prolific,” Paige says. “Besides, I’m outside so much, I’d rather have them out here.”

On the lower terraces, Tichenor’s more pastoral approach is apparent in the arrangement of mondo grass and bamboo around a pond filled with water iris. The effect is that of a small underground stream bubbling up at an outcropping, which is actually red Colorado fieldstone hauled in to complement the brick paving. In a clearing across the way, a miniature bookcase on wheels–a metal sculpture by Napa Valley artist and Doumani family friend Jack Chandler–serves as a refined yet fanciful counterpoint to the rustic setting.

As the garden progressed, Tichenor took advantage of the uninterrupted view of adjacent lots and the nearby Bel Air Country Club. He trimmed vegetation extra–low to expose neighbors’ treetops and the golf course’s fairways. “These borrowed landscapes create the illusion that those elements are part of this garden and make it seem bigger,” he says.

When he got to the pool terrace, Tichenor stripped away the ‘50s concrete, chain–link and sheet metal in what he likens to “a sort of chemical peel.” He kept the old pool but edged it anew with Santa Rita stone and lawn for a softer, cooler look. Then he designed an arbor–shaded bench that will eventually be veiled with roses. “At the moment, this is my favorite place,” Paige says. “I like to sit with a cup of coffee or tea and just look back at the house with my two cats.”

Throughout the garden, flowers from Paige’s youth mingle easily with a cavalcade of others she’s come to know and love. “It was a great opportunity to use some oddball things that we don’t often get to because it’s hard to talk clients into trying them. But Paige was receptive,” Tichenor says. This allowed him to supplement her jacaranda trees, pride of Madeira, callas and babianas with their less familiar cousins arctotis, sparaxis and crocosmia. He rounded out the African mix with drifts of more common hydrangeas, abutilons and other tried-and-true performers.

To create a contrast a with the scads of flowers, Tichenor also worked many dry-climate shrubs into the “bones” of the garden. Westringia wraps around a stone bench in a cushy niche and, where a brick wall would have looked heavy-handed, an airier rosemary border does the trick. “Paige was willing to let me layer up the greens as a way to make the garden complete,” he says. “Given the exposure, that’s been a good idea.”

The Doumanis can survey their lavish domain from the elevated dining patio Tichenor furnished with a pergola of fragrant wisteria for summer and a cozy Rumford fireplace for winter. With lemons, limes and tangerines ripening within arm’s reach, they entertain out here often.

“Friends always comment on the various shades of gray and green, and I love that it’s so restful,” Paige says. Michael is just as thrilled: “My office is two and a half miles from here, in Westwood. When I come home, it feels like I’ve come away to the country.”

And as for Tichenor, he’s pleased to be able to pass the reins to his client. “Some people, like Paige, become very involved with their gardens; some never get it,” he says. “As we continue to work together each year, adding and revising different parts, I see where things have disappeared or she’s moved something that hasn’t quite worked. But she’s the expert now. She’s the one who knows the garden best.”