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The Dry Garden: A visit with Susan Gottlieb and a landscape that sings with color, scent and birds

September 18, 2009 | 10:29 am

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GottliebPortrait They say that beauty comes from within, but in the case of Susan Gottlieb, it seems to come from the world around her. She is, at 67, not pretty, not handsome, but storybook beautiful. The former nurse has such an Alice in Wonderland-like grace and lightness that as she hops around her 1-acre garden in Beverly Hills, enchantment sets in.

Is she quite human?

Her husband, lawyer Daniel Gottlieb, chuckles thinking back to when he first showed his bride-to-be the house in the late 1980s. “She looked at the back said, ‘It’s all covered with ivy. There’s nothing for the birds.’ I said, ‘Can’t the birds make do with ivy?’ ”

GottliebPeruvianTorch By 1990, the ivy was on its way out and Susan Gottlieb began putting in a native garden chosen precisely because of the local flora’s unique benefit to local fauna. That act would in turn give rise to the visitors on Theodore Payne Foundation garden tours, to the garden’s certification as backyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation and to the Gottliebs’ becoming patrons of the water conservation movement in Los Angeles.

Nearly 20 years after Gottlieb urged her husband to rip out the ivy, native gardening is the model lauded by conservationists and utilities alike as the future for Los Angeles landscaping. Back then, however, she was one of a few activists widely ridiculed for their penchant for needles and thorns.

“I think people thought they were going to be stuck with a lot of cactuses and dry stuff,” she says.

Gottlieb’s home is anything but cactuses and dry stuff. Spilling out from beneath the shade of palo verde trees are native lilacs, matilija poppies, manzanita and native sages. There are, to be sure, succulents, interspersed with such elegance that Gottlieb refuses to take credit for it. They are the work, she says, of Topanga nurseryman Rogers Weld.

In the courtyard entrance, native toyon, coffeeberry and irises grow, as well as a camellia and an azalea that came with the house. Evergreens all, their dark lustrous foliage work well together.

Once inside, walls of glass reveal a changing garden on three sides: A passageway bordering a dining room and kitchen is given over to hummingbird feeders, five in all. (Gottlieb goes through 25 pounds of sugar a week, she says.) In case they get hungry, growing on the bank behind the feeders is native fuchsia, a hummer favorite.

GottliebBuckwheat

To the back, a small patio overlooking a yawning canyon is dominated by a series of water features. The fountains were put in for birds, but to her delight, they also attracted tree frogs. She fishes around for one that had been lurking around the garden hose recently. He’s gone.

GottliebWide2 “I may have disrupted him so often that he said, ‘Phooey, I’m not going to live here anymore,’ ” she says. Pictures caught of them can be seen on her website.

Around the other side of the house is a small saltwater pool, which she uses to rinse her hummingbird feeders, and an elegant cactus garden. But the place Gottlieb might spend the most time is in the series of terraces descending a steep hillside beyond the patio. Here she has bladder pods (she loves the harlequin bugs they attract), a kestrel house that has been colonized by bees, sages galore and sagebrush too.

There are too many plants to list here, but she keeps a diligent accounting, also available on her website. Since she and friends from the Theodore Payne Foundation hatched the idea six years ago to to stage annual native garden tours, she also religiously tags her plants.

Her achievement would be notable even if it had stopped with the gardening, but the more Gottlieb got into native horticulture, the more she learned about the impact of conventional gardening on Western watersheds and the cataclysmic effects for wildlife. A year ago, she and her husband opened the G2 Gallery in Venice. Dedicated to environmental photography, the proceeds of print sales go to a number of causes, including Theodore Payne, Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Heal the Bay and the California Native Plant Society.

She regrets that these new projects take her from her garden. But as a seasoned native gardener, she knows half the point of native gardens is that, once in, they really don’t need much intervention.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

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Photos, from top: Susan and Daniel Gottlieb's 1-acre garden in Beverly Hills; Susan Gottlieb; a Peruvian torch cactus; California buckwheat; one of the water features, popular with birds and tree frogs; coyote brush.

Photo credits: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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