Dressing up the Garden: Conversation with Stephen Block

Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work.” Nature not only inspires us to be creative, but also inspires us to come together and experience the power of fresh air, trees or the changing colors of a sunset. Whether it’s gathering the kids around the fire pit on a brisk spring night, drinking wine on your terrace or inviting your closest pals over for a relaxing Sunday afternoon at the pool, the outdoor spaces in our homes give us a sense of being in harmony with the world around us.

FullSizeRender_Stephen_BlockStephen Block, founder and owner of Inner Gardens, a Los Angeles-based firm that provides landscape design services and a global array of sophisticated garden accessories and furniture to affluent homeowners and celebrities, has a deeper connection to nature than most. After more than 27 years in the landscape and gardening business, he still marvels at a plant’s ability to regenerate. “Plants are in my hands and in my heart,” he says. “There is a vibration to them.”

His horticultural talent eventually earned him the recognition of top interior designers like Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Michael Smith. He designed the landscape for Ellen Pompeo’s Mediterranean-style villa in Los Feliz, which featured an outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven and a kitchen garden for vegetables, fruit trees and a chicken coop, as well as for Elton John and David Furnish’s Beverly Hills abode, both decorated by Bullard and featured in Architectural Digest. His growing garden collection — one of the most enviable and largest in the country — includes everything from $5,000 vintage English terra-cotta pots to $18,000 19th century French wire gazebos. “It’s like jewelry for the garden,” he likes to say. “These objects make the house shine.”

To mark the beginning we spring, we asked Block to share his insights on the latest and greatest outdoor trends, as well as the easiest ways to dress up a home’s exterior.

Previews Inside Out What’s hot for the garden right now?

Stephen Block In general, the outdoor world is modern, modern, modern right now. It doesn’t matter if you have a Spanish-style home or an English Tudor, everyone wants a modern edge. Homeowners are looking for cleaner lines and less is more — and that’s also an extension of the interiors. Even when I sell vintage pots and outdoor antiques, I’m buying them with clean lines and very little detail. Of course, concrete is a staple. It’s modern and simple. We do a lot of mixing of styles and periods, and even mixing concrete with terracotta.

The gardens themselves tend to be modern too, but they are more consistent with the exterior architecture.

Previews Inside Out With the drought in California and greater focus on finding water saving solutions in other parts of the country too, are you seeing an increased demand for drought tolerant landscaping among your clients?

Stephen Block I would say it represents 50% of market today. There are still homeowners who have not given up on their lawns. This is happening even as we continue to see reports in the news about homeowners getting fined for their water usage. Some homeowners are converting their gardens with succulents and Euphorbia, more gravel and decomposed concrete. We’re also seeing lower water usage grass being developed, but it’s not as green and it doesn’t feel as good on your feet. The question for those of us in the landscape industry is, “how do we create landscape designs that arrive at lower water usage without making them look like Palm Springs?” For me, I like to design Mediterranean-style gardens with lots of gray and green tones. I like to use a lot of rosemary and lavender, as well as fruiting olive trees and shrubs that can survive on very little water. I also look at other ways to cut water usage, such as converting spray heads to drip irrigation — and of course, many cities are requiring this as well.

Previews Inside Out You’ve worked with several leading interior designers. What’s it like collaborating with them?

Stephen Block Yes. I’ve worked with Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Christopher Winters and Michael Smith. I enjoy working with them a great deal. We really view the exterior as an extension of the interior. When you’re working with designers of this caliber, they help drive the design, and they’ll often do the furnishings outside. I also do a lot of exterior decorating and work with landscape architects. I call it “the jewelry of garden design”: the urns and fountains and fencing. These are all must-haves. It’s like getting dressed for a nice night out and there is nothing to make your outfit shine.

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Previews Inside Out What type of plants are you drawn to?

Stephen Block I’m drawn to Mediterranean plant material. We plant a lot of olive trees. Arabian Lilac and Vitex Purpurea are my go-to plants. I love Westringia and Li’l Ollies, which is a shrub form of an olive tree. And then of course, lavender. I love the color. I especially love the gray-green lavenders, and the shape and texture (fuzzy) of the flowers. I also like to use Agave Attenuata, which is a gray-green color. And now you know my palette!

Previews Inside Out How important is it for you to balance elements, like fire and water, in your landscape designs?

Stephen Block We view it as part of finishing a garden. We make a lot of fire pits. It’s not just a practical element to keep warm on cool nights, but it’s also interactive — people can sit around a fire pit and socialize. It’s a way to bring people together, and we’ll often create a dining area around them, so people can eat on them. Even kids can gather around them and make s’mores. If I had a choice between fire and water, I would take fire.

Previews Inside Out What are your clients asking you for, right now?

Stephen Block I work with very sophisticated and successful clients, and they are like everyone else. They want their home to be comfortable and livable. That said, we are seeing a lot of outdoor rooms with televisions.

Previews Inside Out You were previously a real estate agent before turning your sights towards horticulture. Has your real estate experience been helpful in your line of work?

Stephen Block Yes, because I understand the value of curb appeal. When the landscaping is beautiful, you set people up to love that home from the very beginning. Spending money on landscaping is really important, especially when you are trying to sell a home. It’s psychological. People often have an emotional response to landscaping and they don’t even know it. It manifests in a positive feeling when you first drive up to a house. It’s no different than walking in the front door. It’s like a blind date. People often know within minutes if they are interested in a house or not.

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Previews Inside Out What should homeowners do in terms of outdoor improvement when listing their home?

Stephen Block They should think about the approach to the garden from the street. They’ve got to spend money at the front door. Everything needs to be fresh. The flowers must be fresh. Set out beautiful planters, and all of the jewelry of the garden.

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