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Hiding Behind the Hedges – The New York Times

The homes of Hollywood’s rich and famous have long been enclosed by walls of sky-high ficus, designed to shield their wealthy occupants from paparazzi and peeping Toms alike. Robert Frost may have thought good fences make good neighbors, but in Los Angeles, those fences are planted rather than built.

“Hedges are a constant in every design I do,” said Brent Green, a veteran landscaper in Los Angeles whose clients include Regina King, Regina Hall and Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne. “You guys are all concrete in Manhattan, and for privacy you have doormen,” he said to a reporter. “But here in Los Angeles, you can live near a freeway, a heavily trafficked street or be right on top of your neighbor, and you’ll still have a backyard. Hedges create privacy and make that a usable space.”

Los Angeles is a horizontal city, a sprawling quilt of stitched-together neighborhoods bounded by crags and ocean. Its real estate is overwhelmingly low-slung, single-family and short on breathing room between properties. In a city where the bedrooms and bathrooms of one house are often within sight of the house next door, a high hedge wall — which increases privacy while reducing both noise and air pollution — has become the ultimate status symbol.

In neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and Bel Air, entire blocks are made up of individually cordoned-off homes — residential jewel boxes tucked behind elaborate leafy curtains; the real estate equivalent of the velvet rope. Behind them, the city’s elite landscapers have crafted Alice in Wonderland-like gardens. The typical starting price for their elaborate handiwork, including plants and labor, is $1 million.

“We entertain quite often. We have small gatherings, dinners with 60 to 100 people, and even with up to 260 people. And people always appreciate the gardens,” said Andrea Alberini, whose husband, Carlos, is the chief executive of Guess. The couple bought their 10,000-square-foot home, on nearly an acre of land in Beverly Hills, for $16.5 million in 2014. The seller was Bruce Willis.

But they didn’t move in immediately — they spent more than two years remodeling both the interiors and exteriors. They brought in the celebrity landscape artist Scott Shrader, whose other clients include Patrick Dempsey, Ellen DeGeneres, Lionel Richie and Cher. He spoke to them about their hometown, Olivos, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and they told him how olive trees remind them of home. His vision was to first wrap the home, which sits on a busy stretch of Benedict Canyon Drive, in a double layer of sound-insulating hedge walls. And then inside, he would create a dreamscape inspired by Mendoza, in Argentine wine country.

“The concept from the beginning was a house that fell in the middle of an olive orchard,” Mr. Shrader said.

More than 20 olive trees, each of them over 100 years old, were brought in from Sacramento and transferred to the property via crane; lemon, lime, orange and apple trees were planted as well. But one of the first steps of the renovation was to plant walls of privet and ficus around the home’s perimeter; by the end of the renovation, they had grown to more than 10 feet and created, he said, “outdoor rooms with layered materials that create a sound barrier, privacy and seclusion.”

Most green walls wrapping homes in Los Angeles are made of Ficus nitida, which has dense, lustrous leaves and pesky invasive roots; sometimes they’re made up of Podocarpus gracilior, whose glossy, needlelike foliage grows in billowing clumps. Hedges appeal to homeowners not only because they offer privacy, but also because they’re tougher to police.

In the city of Los Angeles, front-yard fences are usually capped at 3.5 feet, and that rule applies to hedges and trees as well; in backyards and side yards, barriers must stop at 8 feet. Other cities within Los Angeles county, including Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Culver City, have similar rules on the books. But landscapers say that when the fence is something that grows, regulators nearly always turn a blind eye.

“With a hedge, you can go up to 20 or 30 feet,” Mr. Green said.

Patricia Benner, a landscape artist who has worked on the homes of Ewan McGregor, Moby and J.J. Abrams, said that on a typical project, she brings in around 50 24-foot hedges and plants them with six to 12 inches of space in between.

“My clients always point out the need for privacy. It’s a given. We plan ahead with a privacy hedge and if there’s a house under construction, we get in there and plant the hedges as soon as possible to get them growing as high as we can before they move in,” she said. “You’re not supposed to go above 42 inches in the front yard or eight feet in the back yard, but in Los Angeles, everybody does.”

David Offer, a Los Angeles real estate agent, and his wife, Leslie, cared so much about the privacy that eight years ago they moved from a home in Brentwood that didn’t have hedges to a new seven-bedroom house directly across the street that did. Their three children are now grown, so they are now gut-renovating that previous home, converting it from a six-bedroom house to a four-bedroom with a large primary suite and a gym, and Ms. Benner has brought in 12-foot ficus trees so this time around, they’ll have a hedge wall surrounding their home.

“I definitely feel like the outdoors now is an enclosed room out there, which is different from what we used to have. I didn’t know what I was missing before we had the hedges, and now I for sure want a privacy hedge,” Ms. Offer said.

Ficus trees are favored because of how fast they grow — many can shoot up by a foot or two each month. To avoid their roots burrowing into pavements and driveways, they need to be planted with root barriers and trimmed regularly.

At Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne’s home, which was in the flats of Beverly Hills — it’s since been sold — Mr. Green planted ficuses shortly after the house was purchased, and waited months for them to grow high enough to block their next door neighbor from view before the couple moved in. Last year, at Regina Hall’s home in the suburban neighborhood of Tarzana, Calif., he planted a series of eight-foot ficus hedges as part of a multiyear renovation while the actress traveled to filming locations. They’ve since doubled in size.

“Once she moves in full time, the privacy wall be fully grown in,” he said.

Mr. Shrader’s work in the Alberinis’ home includes a side garden where a firepit fashioned from a 12th-century Italian well is flanked by the purple buds of Forest Pansy trees; gravel low-water hard-scape, canopies of fruit trees and a swimming pool of Indiana limestone.

He brought a similar mentality to the gardens at Alison and John Hawkins’s Beverly Hills estate, where behind a street-front perimeter of twisting silver olive trees and privet hedges, a blush pink colonial villa sits on three quarters of an acre. The backyard was already hidden behind 30-foot ficus walls when the couple, who both work in private equity,bought it for $14 million in 2013. The Hawkinses love to vacation in France, so Mr. Shrader brought in a stone fountain fashioned from an antique cask once used for the grape harvest in Aix-en-Provence; Arras-style lawn furniture is positioned along gravel walkways under swaying palms and geometric boxwoods.

From the street, a passer-by would have no idea that an alternate universe exists just beyond their leafy green walls.

“It’s like Beverly Hills meets the South of France,” Ms. Hawkins said.

The average 24-foot ficus hedge costs $300 per tree. Ms. Benner estimates that her clients spend around $15,000 on the hedges that come with their landscape design; on larger properties, the cost can climb significantly higher.

“At the time, I was like, we could install a gold-plated hedge for less money,” Ms. Hawkins said about the design and planning process with Mr. Shrader. “But he said, ‘We have to do it this way.’ And he was 100 percent right.”

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