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Backyard gardens: Filling space with grace

Renter James Duell wanted a serene refuge; his landlord wanted it low-water. They both got their way.

September 26, 2009|Lisa Boone

At a time when more people are getting serious about responsible landscaping, James Duell's garden is a reminder that you don't need a lot of space -- or water -- to create something inspiring. His exquisite design, a strip along the path to the guest house he rents in Culver City, is evidence of a love affair with plants and an eye for color.

"I started landscaping almost 20 years ago, and it has been so much more than just an education," says Duell, who trained at the venerable Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and has worked at public and private properties, including the grounds of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

The scale of his home garden may be smaller, but the effect is no less delightful -- and surprising, given the unusual variety of plants. A self-described "plant zealot," Duell thinks nothing of driving 100 miles to Rancho Santa Fe to investigate a nursery.

"I think he has a plant problem," jokes his landlord, Danny Peterson.

The landscaping project began five years ago when Peterson told Duell that he was thinking about removing his concrete driveway. With his landlord's blessing, Duell threw himself into transforming the strip so that now, it's practically spilling with succulents, California natives, hearty bulbs and rock-solid plants such as Catalina ironwood. What can't fit in the ground is scattered in pots.

It is a professional gardener's laboratory, of sorts. Duell starts seeds on the steps of his house. Behind it, sickly plants are being nursed back to health. Equal parts plants-man and artist, Duell mixes textures and colors. Low-lying orange and mustard-hued Sedum nussbaumerianum succulents blend with bronze New Zealand flax, bright green agave called Splendida, orange-red Crocosmia bulbs, purple Verbena bonariensis wildflowers and blue and pink Echeveria succulents.

The more traditional creeper Boston ivy covers a fence, the falling leaves creating an effortless mulch. Tiny succulents pop up between the circular pavers that form a pathway where the driveway once was.

As with any garden, nature has played a role in its evolution. When raccoons and possums trampled his fragile sedums ("I was pulling my hair out finding craters in my garden," he says), Duell crafted a lovely natural-looking fence made from buddleja and bougainvillea stakes.

Duell's criteria in creating the garden: color and water.

"I'm nowhere near where I need to be in terms of water conservation," he says, even though he waters his plants only two or three times a month.

Drought-tolerance was the only stipulation that Peterson gave Duell before he started planting.

"I told him, 'You can have the entire backyard for all I care,' " the landlord says. "The one thing I wanted was drought-tolerant plants."

For Duell, gardening is more than just a collection of pretty flowers.

"I know the best gardens serve a higher purpose than themselves," he says. "There's so much at stake now. Especially in this part of the world. There are magnificent gardens to be created using succulents and drought-tolerant plants."

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lisa.boone@latimes.com

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