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Elements of Surprise

A Venice Garden Mixes Japanese and Tropical Plantings with an Airstream Trailer and a Craftsman House

July 07, 2002|SUSAN HEEGER

Fred Sutherland grew up gardening on a tiny lot in Newport Beach, where his dad, an ex-merchant marine, soothed his sailor's heart by building boatlike decks and wrapping columns with nautical rope. Later, in San Juan Capistrano, there was a Wild West garden full of hollyhocks, covered wagons and old car parts. "He was an odd, eclectic guy," recalls Sutherland, who has hung a star-shaped lamp of his dad's over his own Venice garden gate. "His life, environment and art were all one. That approach rubbed off on me."

Though Sutherland's life took a different turn--he does residential and commercial development and design and co-owns the Los Feliz restaurant Fred 62--his garden is as personal and passionate as his late father's were. Beyond that rose-wrapped, Japanese-style gate, around his eggplant-colored house, red banana trees rustle among bamboo and goldfish dart beneath water hyacinth in a pond. His potting bench was once a restaurant prep table, and his backyard fountain is filled with succulents dripping from its tiered bowls. In his borders, onions grow beside nandinas; tomatoes splash around agaves, ferns and verbena. "First I fall in love with plants. Then I find out what they do," he says.

Take the 'Ingrid Bergman' rose. A deep, velvety maroon with red-tinged new leaves, it called to him from the aisles of Home Depot's plant department. He bought several and plunked them in beside cactuses and salvia and amid herbs, where they stand out like moody flags. "I leave them wild and gangly, just barely trimmed," he says. "They're hardier than I expected. Of course they pick up every bug that comes along, every mildew, and I battle them all plant by plant."

Sutherland started his garden in 1990 after returning from seven years in New York, where he'd designed apartment interiors for artists such as Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. With his wife Jessica, Sutherland bought a 1920s bungalow on a 40-by-70-foot lot that was smothered in concrete. Once he blasted out the paving, he began planting in a frenzy: morning glories, ficus, nasturtiums--"all the wrong stuff," he concedes. "I learned by watching things take over, ripping them out and starting again."

On his second pass, he chose more carefully: fruit trees (apples, guavas, peaches, plums, pears), along with shade greens such as ferns and callas and, for a sunny corner, lavatera.

Then he and Jessica bought the house next door, the 1918 Craftsman where they live now with their children, Emmett, 11, and Travis, 13. This doubled Sutherland's garden space and gave him more room to experiment with tropical plants and to create outdoor living spots. He built his fishpond and introduced the banana trees (leftovers from a restaurant he'd designed). He scrapped his driveway for a garden-edged path, built a lounging deck and installed an outdoor bed. He also hauled in an Airstream trailer as an office/guest house, creating a "Florida fantasy" around it, complete with cannas, birds of paradise and more bananas. Near this "homage to John Waters," there's a tree made of glass bottles, a garden path of restaurant-kitchen floor matting and a planting bed stuffed with bronze flax, echeverias, red tea tree, acacias and aeoniums, which, improbably, work together. "I'm fascinated by dramatic layering and depth, the illusion that, if you can't see past something, it might just go on forever."

Last year, having admired perfectly round melons in Japan, he trained honeydews up a fence, where they ballooned and ripened like living ornaments. This year he's teaching himself the art of bonsai, practicing on baby junipers from Home Depot. He has designed a swimming pool, which will soon replace the Airstream trailer.

He hand-waters his plants, which allows him to mix whatever he likes, including drought-tolerant species with thirsty greens. As he waters, he prunes; as he prunes, he considers whether or not it's time to feed the beds with fish emulsion. "No one knows how obsessive I am out here," he admits. "It's insane. But I like to focus on little details. Otherwise, I'd never relax. Anywhere. Ever."

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