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Adventures in Landscaping

The Couple Who Redesigned Their Backyard--and Lived to Tell About It.

September 28, 1997|Sysan Heeger

The story veers between romance and comedy: A husband and wife--Dan Rhodes and Katherine Spitz-- team up to make a garden for themselves. He's an architect; she's a landscape architect. They buy a house on a third of an acre and envision trees, flowers and pavilions, all inspired by memories of trips to Europe. But before the scene can take shape, there are disasters and delays: A view-grabbing apartment building goes up behind their lot. They decide to renovate their house and construction trashes the grounds.

"The whole ordeal took forever!" recalls Rhodes of the garden saga in Mar Vista that spanned 11 years in all. Adds Spitz: "It was like writing a novel. We got lost in the middle and forgot the plot line!"

Nevertheless, over the past year their garden has come together at last. A cramped yard has grown into a series of rooms that satisfies a family's outdoor needs. There's a back porch with comfortable chairs and a spacious, elevated dining court. The keyhole-shaped lawn is ample enough for Sam Rhodes, a sports-minded 9-year-old. The giant timber bamboo Spitz introduced has blotted out the unsightly apartments, and enough orange trees survived the wear-and-tear of construction to form the backdrop for her rose collection. Even the soil is better--full of gypsum and redwood compost--and the family's two Irish wolfhounds have learned to walk around the beds instead of through them. Finally, a pair of garden structures Rhodes designed are now complete, giving the landscape a fanciful air. Like twin white temples, they flank a staircase ceremonially, pointing the way from one lawn terrace to another. At night, lit from within, their polycarbonate roofs glow like lanterns.

One of the buildings has become an army base for Sam. The other is a potting shed for Spitz, who devotes her spare time to testing various greens in her deep, long perennial borders. Among her horticultural triumphs are purple-blooming snail vine (Vigna caracalla), which quickly smothered an ugly chain-link fence, and the yellow-flowering French pavonia that thrives alongside rugged daylilies, nasturtiums and artemisia in her garden's sunniest patch. Other lusty growers include California native sages and ceanothus.

Whatever she plants, Spitz acknowledges that she will never be finished. "I have an urge to try out every last intriguing plant I see."

"This is a work in progress," Rhodes agrees. "A lot of work!"

"But look at us," Spitz says with a grin, "we're still married!"

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