The annual Venice Garden Tour is over for another year and while we will have to wait until next year to see backyard gardens, we can still get daily enjoyment from garden extensions into usually neglected small strips of land between the sidewalk and curb.
It’s a pleasure to walk and drive around Venice and see the colorful patches that have sprouted up.
This curbside cultivation is not new in Venice but it does happen more often now to satisfy esthetic rather than practical purposes.
When Heide Sutter moved into her newly completed 1970s prefab house on Cabrillo Avenue, she remembers that the entire street was “weeds and big high grass and no trees.”
Not one for mowing, she decided in 1980 to cement in the grassy area with cutouts for flowers.
“Grass is okay for a backyard for kids to play or for a park, but I don’t like grass myself,” she says. “I did it because I got tired of the high grass with the dog stuff in it.”
Heide says she was the first person on her street to plant curbside and, though undocumented, perhaps the first person in Venice to do so 26 years ago.
Heide accomplished another first in Venice. One of the reasons she never had time for mowing was because she spent her days in a bikini bodybuilding at Muscle Beach.
After she exhibited her seriousness for the sport, she was accepted as the first woman into the club.
This was during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early days in Venice, when he could hardly speak English. Heide, from Germany, was able to converse with him in German.
One day, he invited her to a photo session on the beach. Joe Weider was the photographer. He suggested that Heide get on Arnold’s shoulders.
This photo has been immortalized in Pumping Iron, Arnold’s first book. She also appears at the end of the movie of the same name.
Another curbside beautifier is painter and sculptor Cosmo Goffredo, who moved into an apartment down the street from Heide in 1984.
Two years later, the inspiration for his artistic surroundings came about after he got tired of stepping in dog poop. He planted ficus and pepper trees that are now full-grown.
“They were about the thickness of my wrist,” he says.
Interspersed among the plants are his wood sculptures and rocks from places such Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and the Salton Sea.
He has also recycled items found around Venice. A fish display tank from a restaurant now holds goldfish.
He buys little plastic animals and marbles and puts them on the covered top of the tank for children to take.
Part of an original Dudley Avenue pagoda juts up from the ground. A board from a construction site is used for seating.
“I looked at the environment and figured out what would fit in and work well,” he says. “It’s a little oasis in the big city.”
Architect Steven Shortridge, who bought a fixer at the corner of Cabrillo Avenue and Altair Place in 1996, had a curbside garden as part of his remodeling plan and, taking it one step further, he landscaped the area around the entry to his home, which is located on the alley.
“I put the entrance on the alley side to activate it so it wasn’t just like a trash stop,” he says. “This alley is a big connection in the neighborhood to Abbot Kinney [Boulevard]. It’s almost used like a walk street as much as it is for cars.”
Stephen actually turned the landscaping, by Jay Griffith, into a neighborhood effort. His neighbor opposite him paid for doing his side of the alley.
The owner at the time of the property across the street paid for his side and chipped in with Stephen for the rental property side opposite him.
“We paid to have that done because it’s the connection to Abbot Kinney,” he says.
Queen palm trees were planted at all four corners for continuity.
“It just wasn’t a concern about my house,” says Stephen. “It was something that was done for the good of the neighborhood.”
Last year, Leslie Libman bought a condo in a four-unit building on Cabrillo Avenue.
She moved from a home in the Hollywood Hills and she has always had a garden wherever she lives.
Her gardens were mostly recycled, with plants primarily from neighbors and her gardener.
When she moved to Venice she brought with her a lot of cuttings “that were just sitting in these sad pots ready to die” on her patio.
“I thought the building was a little brutal for the neighborhood,” she says.
In addition, “the grass in front of the place was half dead from all the animals peeing on it.”
She walked around the neighborhood and saw all the other parkway gardens. That gave her the idea to plant the one in front of her building.
After getting approval from the other three condo owners and pooling money for materials and purchased plants, she planted drought-resistant types that have flourished in six months.
But having a garden still doesn’t keep dog poop away, Leslie can attest.
“I think it’s really sad,” she says. “I’ve seen people who let their dogs in the garden. It shows a real lack of respect. Gardens are meant to be enjoyed, not destroyed.”
Leslie would like to see more curbside gardens.
“As I walk around my neighborhood, I’m always thinking how great it would be if we could just do like a community thing and everyone would get out and plant their parkway and take care of it, because it is really very trouble free.
“It kind of gives you a sense of ownership where you may not have a yard — here you do have a yard. When you’re walking you have something nice to look at.”
Not only is it pleasant to look at pretty gardens while walking, it’s a pleasure to do so while driving. One of my favorite curbside gardens is at the “Cactus House” east of Lincoln Boulevard.
I always look at it while passing by and it always gives me an uplifting feeling.
An early memory after arriving in Los Angeles was going to the cactus and succulent garden at the Huntington Library in Altadena.
I’m reminded of it when I see David Peters’ garden in front of his home and the extension into the parkway.
David is a hardcore cactus and succulent enthusiast. He became a member of a society specializing in these types of plants in 1990 when he started his gardens.
He has gone on expeditions to seek out specific specimens. He even went to Phoenix after being approved to get a permit to bring back desert plants that are protected.
Did you know that cacti are fragile, not tough like they appear?
“They’re used to a specific ecological environment,” says David. “If you take them out of their environment, it’s really hard for them to survive.”
However, that doesn’t happen overnight. It can take eight to ten years for a cactus to wilt away.
Temperature makes a big difference.
“It doesn’t get hot enough and it doesn’t get cold enough,” says David. “It requires some bare minimum of freezing in the winter in order to germinate the seeds.”
David explained how an agave propagates. The plant will send up a flower once in its lifetime. The stalk can grow as much as 12 inches a day.
You can see perfect examples right now on Cabrillo Avenue and at the tip of Windward Avenue and Grand Boulevard across from the post office.
The stalks are reaching to the sky and look like they’re ready to bloom any day. After the flower opens, the stalk dries out and then it dies.
New little plants are sent out from the roots to fall off and grow in the ground.
Yes, there is a certain pain associated with cacti. Tip penetration into the skin can cause swelling or blistering. Juice in the eyes can cause burning.
“Just from being down on all fours contorting and reaching,” says David, “I don’t know how many times I’ve wound up going to the chiropractor after a weekend of gardening.”
A plant can be manicured or pruned to take on a certain shape.
“It only gets that way by being unmolested,” says David. “If you start hacking on things, the part that you’ve been carefully allowing to grow in a certain direction is lying on the ground.
“I’ve learned not to get too attached to stuff because of that.”
People spend time, energy and money to beautify their surroundings, not only for themselves but so everybody walking or driving by can also enjoy a visual “ah” moment.
Let’s do our part by keeping our animals out of the gardens and by not taking any cuttings.