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SIDEWALK SPECTACLE : Gardening Out Front Can Be a Different Experience

October 20, 1985|BY ROBERT SMAUS

Growing flowers in the front yard--not merely a few petunias along the walk but masses of flowers, a side walk spectacle such as that shown here--is an entirely different gardening experience. You must abandon the idea of your garden being a private paradise and surrender to eyes from the street. People are going to stop and stare and ask questions. And although you cannot be alone with your thoughts, as you might be in the backyard, sharing your garden may bring a certain satisfaction. Just wait until that first passer-by stops and tells you that "it's beautiful," or until cars drive by ever so slowly, heads turned toward your garden.

The spectacle before you is the garden of attorney Ruth Crego Benson. It's on a busy street in Westwood, with no shortage of joggers, passing cars and neighbors on their way into town. The stucco walls that baffle the entry attest to the traffic and its attendant noise. It is also a garden of drought-tolerant plants.

So much has been written about the ability of these plants to survive --how tough they are, how little maintenance they require, how they can grow on dew and spit--but very little has been mentioned about the show they put on, how spectacular they are in bloom.

Many drought-tolerant plants have a reputation for being temperamental and short-lived. That's one of their survival tactics--disappear when things get tough. But before they do, to make sure that their progeny survive, they flower as though there's no tomorrow, usually in the spring before dry weather arrives. In the Benson garden, the show starts in March and lingers into May.

The idea of using drought-tolerant plants came from Robert Cornell of Zen Landscape, and it was an idea that worked. Because much of this garden grows in the parking strip between street and sidewalk and because the rest is separated from the house by a low wall, it seemed a good idea to plant things that wouldn't need to be watered often. Most parking strips are planted with grass and need frequent irrigation, much of which runs down the gutter. By contrast, this gutter is seldom awash with water that might have been better used to keep Mono Lake full and the salt flies happy.

It also seemed a good idea to choose plants that were a bit on the rugged side so that they could be stepped on occasionally or even survive the wheels of a Chevy or two. And it was hoped that these plants would need less maintenance than most; but as many gardeners have discovered, most drought-tolerant plants need as much care and tidying up as any other plant--maybe a bit more. They can be a quite a challenge to grow, and your skill as a gardener will be tested with dispatch. Some of the drought-resistant-but-difficult plants include brilliant yellow sunroses, pink evening primrose and bush morning glory (silvery foliage, white flowers); easier are yellow broom, verbena (low and purple) and the flat-topped lavender statice and yellow yarrow.

In a very short time, these finicky plants turned Benson into an avid gardener, the kind who haunts horticultural events and plant sales. To the basic slate of drought-tolerant plants she now has added unusual perennials, antique roses and other choice collector's plants. The questions of passers-by have become increasingly difficult to answer.

Now this garden has depth of interest and varying seasons of bloom. And, of course, it requires endless work--although there is always someone to talk to while pulling weeds or watering.

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