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The Fall Garden / DESIGN

It's dry all over

Two homes, one idea: Drought-tolerant need not mean dull.

September 27, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

At first glance, the two homes have nothing in common. One's an urban update of a rustic log cabin. The other, a 1920s Mediterranean casa. What links them is their imaginative drought-resistant gardens -- drastic departures from the lush carpets of grass that used to surround each one and that still front almost all the other houses in their neighborhoods.

Neither of the homeowners set out to be environmentally up-to-date. Water conservation was not a top priority or a major part of their original plans.

In one case, the existing lawn and many flowers around the rustic house had died. The couple, who'd just bought the place, wanted to revitalize the garden, add new plants and pizazz. They had no idea what kind of plants.

The other homeowners' problem was more complex. They too had just bought their home, a rambling Mediterranean. Its outdoor area was not attractive or livable. Too much concrete, no privacy from the street, totally wasted outdoor space. They wanted to enclose the front area, to create an outdoor room where they could relax in private, entertain and allow their dogs to play.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Plant names: In a Sept. 27 Home story profiling two drought-tolerant gardens, the botanical name for lamb's ears should have been listed as Stachys byzantina instead of Stachys lamiaceae. The botanical name for gray santolina should have been Santolina chamaecyparissus, not Asteraceae compositae.

In both cases, drought-tolerant plants became part of the solution -- although in entirely different ways. Despite being dissimilar in architectural and garden styles, the homes prove just how versatile these plants can be. Once used mostly as stylistic botanical props where something unusual was called for, they are becoming part of the garden vernacular, equipped to live on low doses of moisture and survive bouts of drought.

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When Susan Avallone and her husband, Carr D'Angelo bought their Sherman Oaks spread four years ago, neighbors had nicknamed it the Ponderosa. The brown wood house, perched on a corner, was highly visible -- its front and side exposed to the streets. A redwood rail fence corralled the vast, flat, park-like swath of manicured grass that encircled the place.

When the new owners temporarily turned off their sprinklers while re-staining the exterior, the grass quickly turned as brown as the house. And Renee Gunter, who'd been hired to do a bit of landscaping, seized the moment: "Want to do something radical? Be ecologically responsible? Be a pioneer in your neighborhood? Want to go grassless?"

Not an option, retorted Avallone, who grew up in rural New Jersey and loves the feel of grass between her toes. But then, she recalls, "Renee started asking all these deep, meaningful questions about how do we want to live our life in this house, and what do we really want to have to do in the garden?"

After reflection, it turned out that Avallone, a librarian turned screenwriter, and her film producer husband D'Angelo ("Hot Chick," "The Animal") didn't really want to have to do much. Why squander water and money on a boring lawn suitable for croquet when what they really wanted was water conservation, easy maintenance, a bit more privacy and some aesthetic inspiration?

Gunter, owner of Urbanscapes in L.A., removed (and recycled) the fence and existing plants. She mounded organic earth in strategic spots to lend elevation and depth to the landscape around the home's front and side.

She planted the perimeter with large drought-resistant species -- a huge Agave neglecta flanked by two Acacia baileyana rise from a berm on the corner -- making the house almost invisible from certain perspectives. What the couple received in trade for their pleasant but useless lawn is an entire environment -- a kind of private park in which they can wander and which delights their senses.

The new wraparound garden is a sanctuary for a stunning array of drought-resistant grasses, shrubs, ground covers and succulents of many shapes, sizes and colors. Winding right through it is what Gunter calls a "dry riverbed," a broad, meandering path of smooth gravel that invites people to wander through and enjoy the unusual plantings.

The garden now seems welcoming from the street -- so much so that parents bring their children to wander the pebbly path and study the flora. Yet it also seems protected by the plantings, which provide a kind of visual fence.

Strolling the path in bare feet is a treat, Avallone says, and her yen for grass has been sated by something she likes better than green: Big clumps of Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica), which are tipped with her favorite color, red.

"Not all our neighbors could appreciate the yard right away. It took time for things to fill in and bloom," Avallone says. But acceptance is dawning, she says. One couple returned repeatedly to stroll the path with their baby. Avallone introduced herself, and they asked her lots of questions. She passed their house recently and says she realized "they were actually inspired by what we've done. They've changed their own front lawn to a dry scape, with lovely lavender, rosemary and succulents -- and it looks great."

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