Salad Days

WHEN BILL LAGATTUTA AND JUDY STARKMAN COME HOME to Hancock Park, they always find dinner waiting: salads of Swiss chard, red lettuce and arugula, artichokes and ripe figs, oranges and herbs. "We walk in the front door, out the back and snip, snip, snip," says Starkman, who is a director of commercials and public-service announcements for television. "Whatever's growing tells us what we'll eat."

"And what we like to eat, we plant," adds Lagattuta, a TV newscaster for the CBS show "48 Hours" and self-described "novice gardener."

A year ago, he could scarcely tell a pennyroyal from a passionflower. Now his garden has both, as well as palm trees and lavatera, lavender and flax. What excites him most, though, are the edibles. "It's such a thrill to see them grow, " he says.

When he bought the 1920s house seven years ago, the garden was overtaken by hip-high weeds. After 10 years in a condo, he chose the property partly for its weedy lot, which was rife with potential, and partly for the lines of the chunky, Spanish-style house. He maintained those exterior lines, though he radically redesigned the interior. Raising ceilings, removing walls, eliminating ornamentation, he gave the house a more modern sensibility and made its small spaces seem larger. He also opened them to the outside by adding wide, single-paned French doors.

"A great planner," as Starkman calls her husband, Lagattuta then turned to the landscape and encountered snags. Though a corrugated metal wall he built as a perimeter fence partnered well with the pared-down house, a new redwood deck seemed out of place, and a pair of columns never quite became a trellis. "At that point," says Starkman, "we decided we needed help."

They hired landscape designers Basia Kenton and Stephen Silva of Kenton & Silva and handed them a wish list. Lagattuta wanted shade, privacy and drought-tolerant plants that, given his hectic work life, wouldn't need much care. Starkman, who grew up "lawn deprived," wanted grass to loll on and a fireplace to cut the chill on summer nights. Both saw the garden as an airy annex to their 1,200-square-foot living space, and a potential source of prime produce.

Kenton and Silva, taking cues from the house and their clients' minimalist aesthetic, designed a simple concrete deck and a stairway leading from the kitchen doors to a circle of lawn. The circle, and its surrounding path of decomposed granite, unify the garden's parts: the dining area around the fireplace, the beds of lavatera, rockrose, kniphofia and other water-wise plants, the fruit orchard and the kitchen garden, in which fluffy greens look almost too beautiful to pick.

"At first, all I wanted was basil and tomatoes," Lagattuta recalls. "I didn't think I could handle more." Now, amid his cabbage and mustard greens, radicchio and bok choy, he's begun plotting his next crops.

"It's become the Y2K garden," Starkman jokes. "We're never going to the store again."

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