Home & Garden

Two gardens, one idea: Drought-tolerant doesn't have to mean dull

HomesMetal and MineralBuilding MaterialEnvironmental IssuesConservationDeathLifestyle and Leisure

At first glance, the two homes have nothing in common. One's an urban update of a rustic log cabin. The other, a 1920s Mediterranean casa. What links them is their imaginative drought-resistant gardens -- drastic departures from the lush carpets of grass that used to surround each one and that still front almost all the other houses in their neighborhoods.

Neither of the homeowners set out to be environmentally up-to-date. Water conservation was not a top priority or a major part of their original plans.

In one case, the existing lawn and many flowers around the rustic house had died. The couple, who'd just bought the place, wanted to revitalize the garden, add new plants and pizazz. They had no idea what kind of plants.

The other homeowners' problem was more complex. They too had just bought their home, a rambling Mediterranean. Its outdoor area was not attractive or livable. Too much concrete, no privacy from the street, totally wasted outdoor space. They wanted to enclose the front area, to create an outdoor room where they could relax in private, entertain and allow their dogs to play.

In both cases, drought-tolerant plants became part of the solution -- although in entirely different ways. Despite being dissimilar in architectural and garden styles, the homes prove just how versatile these plants can be. Once used mostly as stylistic botanical props where something unusual was called for, they are becoming part of the garden vernacular, equipped to live on low doses of moisture and survive bouts of drought.

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When Susan Avallone and her husband, Carr D'Angelo bought their Sherman Oaks spread four years ago, neighbors had nicknamed it the Ponderosa. The brown wood house, perched on a corner, was highly visible -- its front and side exposed to the streets. A redwood rail fence corralled the vast, flat, park-like swath of manicured grass that encircled the place.

When the new owners temporarily turned off their sprinklers while re-staining the exterior, the grass quickly turned as brown as the house. And Renee Gunter, who'd been hired to do a bit of landscaping, seized the moment: "Want to do something radical? Be ecologically responsible? Be a pioneer in your neighborhood? Want to go grassless?"

Not an option, retorted Avallone, who grew up in rural New Jersey and loves the feel of grass between her toes. But then, she recalls, "Renee started asking all these deep, meaningful questions about how do we want to live our life in this house, and what do we really want to have to do in the garden?"

After reflection, it turned out that Avallone, a librarian turned screenwriter, and her film producer husband D'Angelo ("Hot Chick," "The Animal") didn't really want to have to do much. Why squander water and money on a boring lawn suitable for croquet when what they really wanted was water conservation, easy maintenance, a bit more privacy and some aesthetic inspiration?

Gunter, owner of Urbanscapes in L.A., removed (and recycled) the fence and existing plants. She mounded organic earth in strategic spots to lend elevation and depth to the landscape around the home's front and side.

She planted the perimeter with large drought-resistant species -- a huge Agave neglecta flanked by two Acacia baileyana rise from a berm on the corner -- making the house almost invisible from certain perspectives. What the couple received in trade for their pleasant but useless lawn is an entire environment -- a kind of private park in which they can wander and which delights their senses.

The new wraparound garden is a sanctuary for a stunning array of drought-resistant grasses, shrubs, ground covers and succulents of many shapes, sizes and colors. Winding right through it is what Gunter calls a "dry riverbed," a broad, meandering path of smooth gravel that invites people to wander through and enjoy the unusual plantings.

The garden now seems welcoming from the street -- so much so that parents bring their children to wander the pebbly path and study the flora. Yet it also seems protected by the plantings, which provide a kind of visual fence.

Strolling the path in bare feet is a treat, Avallone says, and her yen for grass has been sated by something she likes better than green: Big clumps of Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica), which are tipped with her favorite color, red.

"Not all our neighbors could appreciate the yard right away. It took time for things to fill in and bloom," Avallone says. But acceptance is dawning, she says. One couple returned repeatedly to stroll the path with their baby. Avallone introduced herself, and they asked her lots of questions. She passed their house recently and says she realized "they were actually inspired by what we've done. They've changed their own front lawn to a dry scape, with lovely lavender, rosemary and succulents -- and it looks great."

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A few miles east, in Studio City, Gail Silverton lives with her new husband, Joel Gutman, in a house she bought four years ago. The house itself was great, but the outdoor space in front was neither useful nor usable. "It was a white Mediterranean with a small patch of grass, a huge tree, a white picket fence and a lot of concrete out front," says Gunter, who was called in to evaluate landscaping potential.

She saw possibilities for what would become a mini-estate. By building a wall across the front, removing the concrete and reconfiguring the space, she could create a lush and livable garden that could double as a private outdoor room.

Gunter designed a 5-foot-high wall across the front of the property to connect with an existing side fence, so the area would be private. The front wall is made of stucco, Saltillo tiles, recycled sewer pipes, old timbers and decorative ironwork from India. She did more hardscape inside the wall -- creating a new, expanded, outdoor front room that is concrete-free and lushly exotic.

The path from gate to front door is now flagstone, with fragrant thyme plumped among the stones.

Silverton wanted to retain a patch of front lawn for her two Yorkies to play on, and Gunter surrounded that with lush plantings of herbs, vegetables and varieties of drought-resistant grasses, ground covers, aloes and agave.

She planted lambs ears (Stachys lamiaceae) and santolina (Asteraceae compositae) along with the brilliant orange, low-growing succulent Sedum nussbaumerianum -- all mixed in with Evelyn roses, Russian sage, cabbages, celery, artichokes, tomatoes and a variety of herbs.

Silverton, who owns a preschool and a gelato bar in the neighborhood, says she's sampled all the edibles in her yard, and they're delicious. "We can't eat the cabbages, however. They're too wormy."

The garden brings delight on a daily basis, she says. "We walk out here and suddenly see something new that's popped up that we didn't even realize was growing. It's a great adventure." It's also a great addition of useful private space meant for fun and relaxation in this house that once had nothing in front except a patch of grass.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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