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Curb Appeal

Succulents, grasses and wild irises replace a languid lawn along a Santa Monica street. It's a gift from one water-savvy gardener to all who pass by.

January 21, 2007|Ann Herold

A longtime Californian, Susan Bell had lived through one drought after another, so she was certainly primed to hear the call. Or perhaps it was simple relief that, after years of trying to nurture a plant determined to languish, she had permission to stop. There Bell was at a UCLA lecture, hearing a distinguished landscape architect preach about the wastefulness of growing grass. That day she went right home and vowed to rip hers out.

In the front yard, she replaced the turf with ribbons of Mediterranean plants--rosemary and lavender and westringia--and ground-cover roses so that her garden would look more like a Persian rug and use about as much water. Then, eight years ago, looking out at her one remaining grass plot--a 14-foot-wide curbside rectangle--she did away with the demanding St. Augustine. She replaced it with succulents and wild grasses, plants that didn't have the showy pop of traditional flowers but enchanted her with their subtle variations in green and blue and gray. They surprised her with how well they flourished in the shade of the existing magnolia and jacaranda trees, city property that Bell was forbidden from trimming without a permit. Then the Muhley grass presented its startling purple flowers, and the aloe its sunset-colored bloom. Her favorite, though, is the native iris, its fountains of blue emerging in March and lasting up to three months.

Passers-by make a point of thanking her for the garden, so much more public with its natural textures right there at your feet. "I look forward to seeing your garden every day," one gentleman informs her. Others exclaim at the garden as they emerge from their cars. Children walking to the nearby elementary school jump onto the boulders Bell added three years ago. She isn't thrilled about that, or the dogs that walk through the plants. She bends down to pick up two snapped-off succulent leaves, which she pushes into the soil--covered in a fine Xerimulch that enhances the landscaping--in the hope they'll root. But Bell understands the nature of her gift, and that sometimes she has to be patient with those who take it for granted.

Nearby is a Modernist house whose curbside parkway has been stripped of its grass and planted with ferns. Normally, though, "it's hard for people to give up the conventional," she says, looking at the thin swaths of turf that line the long thoroughfare. Not that her curbside display hasn't generated a following. One street over, Shari Phillips hired Bell to redo her yard after seeing the designer's curbside makeover. Along the low stucco wall surrounding the house, Bell created an Ali Baba vision: a thick border of succulents, mini groves of westringia and echium and a few elegant mayten trees to accompany a bubbling Art Deco fountain. But across the sidewalk is a Mojave mirage: stark beds of decomposed granite dotted sparsely with agaves. There's little to distract from one spectacular Agave attenuata that's spouting an arcing spray of flowers in apparent defiance of gravity.

Then last year, Bell was hired by another Santa Monican, Paddy McAuley, to transform the curbside rectangle in front of her distinctive brick home. Under a streetside magnolia tree Bell put a carpet of succulents. Flanking them are matching quadrants of boxwood hedges embellished with lavender bushes and tree roses. It's a more traditional garden, a little more water needy, but so much more vibrant than that underachieving grass. Too bad about the magnolia leaves, Bell laments; they have to be swept up by a gardener and thrown away as they won't decompose into a suitable mulch.

Which reminds her of her own magnolia tree. She had called last year about having it and the jacaranda trimmed and was told that city crews wouldn't get around to her street until the spring of 2007 (Santa Monica homeowners who want to cut back their trees on their own schedule must apply for a permit and then hire a licensed contractor). In Bell's case, she's waiting for the city to make its planned visit. Hopefully when that happens, the workers will tread very carefully. There's a lot more than flattened grass at stake.



Dog Gone

Curbside gardens are particularly vulnerable to canines. You could install an iron rail fence, like New Yorkers do, but how urban is that. You could surround it with an electrified "hot wire," and send a shock through the neighborhood. The best option might be simply a sign. Here are three websites that offer them, with varying degrees of attitude., which supplies the signs shown here, sends a direct message with its postings in aluminum or plastic. Prices start at $9.95. pulls no punches with its signs, which are more graphic in their warnings. Available in heavy-duty aluminum. Prices start at $9.45. offers a kinder, gentler message to dog owners. There are even the words "please" and "thank you" on their sign. Prices start at $9.99.

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