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.