LANDSCAPE designer Robert Cornell just wanted to save water. When he planted drought-tolerant shrubs instead of turf grass on a little belt of land between the sidewalk and the street, he hardly expected the brouhaha that followed.
The landmark garden on Veteran Avenue in Westwood -- planted in 1983 and believed to be one of the first xeriscapes in Los Angeles -- didn't impress the neighbors. They said Cornell's blue-flowered ceanothus reduced their view as they exited their driveway. So they called the city.
Cornell and his client stood firm. Faculty from adjacent UCLA, including a horticulture instructor, wrote letters of support for the design and the use of water-sipping native flora. In the end, the city said the ceanothus could stay, but Cornell's client was required to assume, in writing, all liability.
Decades later, street-side gardens are relatively common. Faced with a weedy or barren eyesore, homeowners have the burden of planting and watering the patch of ground themselves. The parking strip, the parkway, the tree lawn -- forget what to call it. Who actually owns it? Are these miniature gardens really allowed? And if so, which plants should be used?
Contrary to popular belief, officials say, the city does not own the parking strip (more on this later). Most cities do regulate trees on the strip and maintain them as staffing allows. In many cases, however, any landscaping beyond those trees -- be it grass, flowers or shrubs -- is left to the homeowner to plant and maintain.
"Some communities have stringent rules, others don't," says Ann Meshekoff, owner of Ground Effects Design Group in Van Nuys. "Some cities demand permits for everything."
Pasadena and Santa Monica promote turf alternatives in the parking strips, though Santa Monica requires a permit. The municipal code of Beverly Hills calls for grass but allows substitutes with approval from the Public Works Department.
Los Angeles' long-standing guidelines state that between curb and sidewalk, homeowners should plant only turf, and a revocable permit is required for deviations, says Lance Oishi, a senior landscape architect for the city.
Though those rules are still on the books, times and tastes have changed.
"In the late 1970s and early 1980s, gardeners started using water-wise, better-suited plants such as common yarrow [Achillea millefolium] in place of turf grass," Oishi says. With thousands of miles of residential roadways and only five landscape architects, the Department of Public Works can't review every parking strip. Instead, Oishi recommends that L.A. residents follow these unofficial guidelines:
"Plant low-growing plants, no more than 6 to 12 inches high, and the city won't make a big deal.
"Use plants that match the aesthetics of the yard, but don't let it get out of hand. Avoid thorny things. Keep shrubby plants below 30 inches -- no tall hedges or solid green walls, especially near driveways and street corners."
Oishi says L.A. is developing new streetscape guidelines. The best designs are driven by common sense. Oishi recommends that the two feet nearest the curb be planted with grass or some hardy groundcover that can withstand some foot traffic. He also suggests allowing at least one path from the street to the sidewalk.
CITIES' rules and approaches to enforcement can seem inconsistent, partly because of the complex question of who controls the parking strip. State code says a homeowner's property includes the sidewalk and parking strip, Oishi says. But, he adds, because the land is a public right of way, if it's not cared for properly, the Department of Public Works can revoke the permit.
A number of eccentric parking strips have sprouted in Venice, where old street trees are dying out and garden space is at a premium. Succulents, Mexican bush sage, rosemary and ornamental grasses (some invasive) are popular. One uncharacteristically formal design corrals roses, herbs, annuals and lollipop-shaped olive trees within tightly clipped boxwood hedges.
No matter the location, low maintenance and proper scale are crucial.
"Parking strips are tiny, unattractive areas with uncomfortable shapes," says Kathleen Irvine, principal of Blue Gecko Landscape Design. "They're difficult to water and usually hotter than other areas because of reflected heat off the asphalt and cement."
She points out that in places such as Venice, foot traffic influences design.
"It's important to keep the sidewalk clear and retain the sense of open neighborliness peculiar to this area," she says.
For a strip 4 feet wide and 30 feet long, Irvine incorporated the sturdy Lilliputian flowering perennials Geranium harveyi, Cistus salviifolius, Coreopsis 'Moonbeam' and Anigozanthos 'Bush Ranger' (one of the dwarf kangaroo paws) with dainty ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis). Spring-blooming freesias and babianas rise through patches of wooly thyme and mulch. Stone paths and wide spacing between plants allow for foot traffic to the sidewalk.
"Plant selection is often a matter of self-defense," says Van Nuys designer Meshekoff. "People will pick flowers and whole plants, even pebbles."
Her parking-strip portfolio includes adjacent 9-by-30-foot strips in Venice, one belonging to Jackie Lavin and Brian Finney. They wanted the abundance of an English garden in front of their Craftsman bungalow.
To bring flowers -- and butterflies -- closer to eye level, Meshekoff built a berm and filled the pocket garden with brilliant colors: purple butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), orange desert honeysuckle (Anisacanthus thurberi), deep amethyst autumn sage (Salvia greggii), bronzy Phormium 'Jack Sprat,' plus daylilies and grasses.
She added yellow and red-orange cultivars of tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), specifically for monarch butterflies. Lavin has noticed the monarchs prefer the red-orange milkweed, and for camouflage, they spin their gossamer chrysalises on the shimmering silver foliage of Artemisia 'Powis Castle.'
Next-door neighbor Richard Ford asked for a sparer look with bold forms and rich colors to complement his minimalist remodel. Large pavers and stone paths in Ford's parking strip wind through earth-hugging Dymondia margaretae, Erodium chamaedryoides, tiny sedums and ground morning glory (Convolvulus mauritanicus). Larger plants include tree-like Aloe bainesii and coral aloe (Aloe striata), red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria) and sea holly (Eryngium bourgatii).
Sure beats mowing more lawn.
In Pasadena, the home parking strip of city spokeswoman Ann Erdman is awash with California poppies. She planted sunflowers last week for summer color. "They'll be nice and tall by July," she says.
In another part of town, native poppies and globe gilias are starting to fade in the strips flanking Barbara Eisenstein's corner lot, but the show isn't over. Her pocket garden includes deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), beargrass (Nolina parryi), aromatic sages, baby oak trees and a soft carpet of yarrow.
Eisenstein, the horticultural outreach coordinator at Rancho Santa Botanic Garden in Claremont, admires a different strip around the block.
"It's much lighter and airier than mine," she says. "They've used hummingbird and butterfly magnets -- lots of pink and coral clarkias and penstemons with lavender pink Verbena lilacina 'De La Mina.' It's very pretty."
Pretty, indeed, and smart too. Says Erdman: "Planted parkways have become, quite literally, curb appeal."
Lili Singer can be reached at email@example.com.