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The Changing Scenery : The Most Beautiful Gardens Don't Grow According to Plan but Evolve and Develop Over Time

March 16, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Contrary to what is often supposed, most good gardens develop by trial and error and are done in bits and pieces. What appears to be planning is usually discovered to be evolution.

Success in gardening would be easier and more quickly attained if this weren't so. A brochure that fell from the pages of a popular English gardening magazine advertises "Complete Beds and Borders . . . supplied ready for you to Plant by Numbers." Herbaceous Border 1 at only 26.95 is undoubtedly a good buy, but planting from numbers, or even from your own drawn plans, seldom works. If a planting plan existed for any of the world's great gardens, it was most likely prepared after the fact.

Nor can you set aside a weekend and do it all. A good garden evolves with time--the result of living in it, observing it and, of course, trial and error.

Sally Winslow's garden is no exception. It began, two decades ago, as do most--a perimeter of shrubs of the usual sort around a lawn. Two small beds were reserved for spring flowers, one in the shade of a large Chinese elm, one in sun. Then the gardening bug bit. During the next 20 years, the large and the uninteresting were removed, better backgrounds were constructed, and many plants and planting combinations tried. "I used to have huge drifts of ranunculus and other annual flowers," says Winslow, "but all of them would tip over and die on about the same day, and there would be huge holes in the garden with much of spring left." Now there is a pleasant mix of many plants that bloom at different times.

"I sometimes think I have tried to plant one of everything that I could find in a nursery or catalogue," she says. "And what a lot of failures! I haven't tried peonies or fritillaries, but over the years I have ordered from Wayside Gardens and White Flower Farm and tried almost everything that is supposed to grow in Zone 8 to 10."

There are still annuals in the Winslow garden, to be sure, but perennials are the important players. And the perennials with handsome or intriguing foliage are most valued. In the shady half of the garden, under the elm, hellebores, with their elegant glossy leaves, and a variegated hydrangea, with cream edging on its leaves, brighten the shadowy dark even when there are no flowers.

However, although there are many fine gardens where "one's gardening evolution (is) necessarily . . . towards the silver, the green, the glaucous and grey" as lamented by the English gardener/writer Christopher Lloyd, Sally Winslow is still in love with flowers and color. So in love that some things must be sacrificed. For instance, a few years ago, the dichondra lawn was substantially reduced when an island was cut out to create a haven for little plants. Here are some of the most delightful flowers in the garden--tiny plants found mostly in catalogues or discovered in specialty nurseries in Northern California--what might be called rock-garden plants, though here they grow on ordinary flat ground that's more like a meadow. In the middle is a sculpture of the gardener--on hands and knees, weeding--fashioned by her son. But even this bed is filling up, so these rare little plants are now finding sanctuary in concrete troughs shipped home from an English vacation. All this is seen against a definite background (a trick learned in England): a new fence and hedges of Carolina laurel cherry and Texas privet.

"Probably the most frustrating part of gardening in a relatively small area," says Winslow, "is that the minute something gets fully grown and beautiful, it is going to be too large the next year. In my garden, bigger is not better. I can't tell you how many plants have been deep-sixed because they turned out to be too large."

But that's how gardens evolve.

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