LOS ANGELES — Julie Burleigh has designed highly tailored organic gardens for clients all over Los Angeles, but at home in the West Adams neighborhood, her personal garden reflects a more freewheeling sensibility.
Easy-care California natives and hearty gray-blue aloes snipped from a neighbor’s yard share space with giant ageratum with ethereal, lavender-colored flowers, and herbs such as African blue basil and winter savory. Bright red geraniums, figs and other familiar plantings are interspersed with less common white sage and the aromatic edible lovage, which tastes like celery and can be harvested for soups and salads.
The plant palette outside the 1908 Craftsman is something of a “live painting,” said Burleigh’s partner, photographer Catherine Opie.
“Julie is not afraid of merging things in an atypical way,” Opie said. “I am always in awe of what is coming up or what there is new to eat.”
Burleigh approaches her landscape with a loose hand, the kind of less-deliberate style and experimental sensibility that is resonating with gardeners who aren’t captivated by the hyper-orderly, geometric plantings that have come to define modern gardening. The casual approach, she said, allows her to treat the changing landscape as a place to practice.
The couple moved here 11 years ago because they wanted a large house in a diverse neighborhood, but after Opie’s portrait and photography studio was added to the backyard, little ground and sunlight were left for gardening.
That didn’t discourage Burleigh, who grew up on a farm in Louisiana. She responded by growing blueberries and blackberries in planters and building a raised bed for more edibles in the front yard using old scaffolding. Burleigh said her less-regimented approach stems from her background as a painter.
“I feel like I’m pretty good at staring at a garden and thinking about what I need: something spiky here or dynamic there. Or something soft,” she said. “I allow myself to stare at it and think about what colors and shapes I’d like to see.”
Burleigh also has no problem editing herself. “Gardening is like anything: The more experience and chances I take, the more ruthless I can be. If I don’t like something, I’ll pull it out and find a home for it.”
Nothing has animated Burleigh’s garden more than four chickens — a Salmon Faverolles, two Ameraucanas and a silver-laced Cochin.
“I let them have free rein, but they were eating everything in the garden — even the succulents,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I am just too vain to let my garden be a mess.”
The chickens were also hopping out of the yard and into the street. Her solution: an enclosed chicken run alongside the house that connects the chicken coop in the backyard to a pen in the front, facing the street.
“I created it so they could have more room to roam,” Burleigh said. “But I also thought, how can I make it look good?”
She started with old-fashioned double-loop wire fencing — “granny fencing wire,” she called it — discovered on Craigslist. She attached metal poles secured in concrete. To keep their dogs out and the chickens in, Burleigh topped the curving track with deer fencing, which is so sheer it’s almost imperceptible. She then lined the ground with mulch and pine shavings and other organic matter; the chicken manure goes to her compost heap.
The coop in back was constructed from simple fence paneling painted white and brown, and doors came from old kitchen cabinets.
In the front yard, Burleigh installed drip irrigation to draw bugs for the chickens to snack on.
“I started getting more eggs from the chickens once they started eating all that protein and enjoying more sun,” she said. Running bamboo along the side of the house creates a wall of privacy and shields the neighbors.
Seven years later, Burleigh admits she’d construct the chicken run differently today. She regrets placing the run so close to the house because in the winter “it can get smelly.” But there’s no denying the chicken run is a delight, not only for the couple and their son but also for the neighborhood. By extending the chicken run to the front yard, she stays connected to her street.
“I like the lively quality the chickens add to the garden,” she said. “They always sound like they are worrying or complaining. Our neighbors often stop by with their kids and watch them.”
Added Opie: “It has been an incredible thing to watch and see. It went from being a messed-up lawn with two dead palm trees to this wonderful environment where all the creatures are incredibly happy.”