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STYLE / GARDENS : Points of Interest

June 18, 1995|SUSAN HEEGER

Small and flat, plagued by bad dirt and cramped by buildings, a city lot can test a gardener's ingenuity. What plants won't die or get trampled on, or, if they survive, won't overrun a scrap of ground? How do you add interest to the landscape without demanding too much maintenance and water?

For Venice artist David Gale, the solution was succulents. Though these prickly characters--agaves, aloes, opuntias and euphorbias--are popular in local gardens, they're often mixed in as madcap or sculptural elements in flower borders. In Gale's, they fill the terraced rows in front of his Oakwood district house and studio, and march in neat lines through his back yard, surrounded by gravel walks and corrugated-steel fences. With their dusky gray and olive spikes, they fit right in with the industrial tone of his compound, where he forges high-tech metal furniture.

But as simple as this garden appears, it was a long time in the making. Ten years ago, when Gale designed his two-story stucco house, he was "paralyzed," he recalls, over what to plant between the building and the street. A conventional garden was out of the question. He had no time to clip and mow, and fussy flowers would have looked absurd against his bold "urban fortress." He began by building terraces, to add depth to the lot and texture to his home's plain facade. He planted cacti along the sidewalk, but they got whacked and stepped on by passers-by. As an alternative, Santa Monica garden designer Mary Effron and Pomona nurseryman John Greenlee recommended a tough, blue-gray wild rye grass-- Elymus condensatus 'canyon prince'--that could withstand heavy foot traffic. On higher ground, Gale put several kinds of agaves, from the common century plant to its more exotic striped and colored cousins. Over time, and with Effron's help, he added water-thrifty succulents: Yucca whipplei , an assortment of aloes.

In the back yard, because of weak soil and ravenous insects, Gale scrapped his corn and vegetable patch and fell back on potted succulents. At first, he just arranged the containers around his yard, but two years ago, having been spiked once too often by a prickly pear, he decided to plant everything out of harm's way, in the existing beds.

Now the garden flourishes with an occasional pruning and once-a-month watering. As Gale sees it, his are the perfect plants to grow in any urban jungle.

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