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The Changing of the Yard : Rethinking Your Garden Often Means Making New Friends But Keeping the Old

October 12, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Every now and again, flower gardens require rethinking. In my case that means right now. Flowering in one of the beds is a weedy perennial, a Solidas that has me perplexed. "Weedy" is being polite. It leans this way and that and is so exuberant that I really don't know what used to grow near it; I only know what grows under it. If I stand the branches up straight, the plant is taller than I would like, at about five feet. Along the tipsy stems are scattered small leaves, many of them brown and shriveled, so the foliage is nothing to write about.

It has grown to occupy an area about 8x8 feet, or most of the bed, which is pretty frightening, considering it all came from a single-gallon can that was divided into six pieces and planted only last January.

What requires the rethinking, of course, is where to move this monster, because it does have one redeeming quality: It is in full flower even now, in the fall, and has been since June, when it was only three feet tall. In late August, it was just about the only thing in my garden that could have been called showy. It was covered with flowers that are a lovely, summery yellow, although up close they resemble (too much, perhaps) dandelions.

Similar problems are not uncommon among gardeners. Everything in my own garden has been moved at least once. And sometimes, so much is in the process of being rearranged that it's difficult to know that it is indeed a garden.

Moving plants is harder with some than with others. Perennials, because they die down in the fall, or at least stop growing, are relatively easy to dig up and move about. It could even be said that moving perennials is a necessity. So many of them are new to California gardens and gardeners that we do not know what to expect when planting them. I don't know anyone who has grown this weedy solidaster, and I don't know where the nursery got it, but a good guess is back East. I doubt that it grows to five feet there, and that it flowers for five months of the year, so even if I knew which Solidaster I have, and looked it up in a reputable book, I wouldn't learn how to grow it here. So move plants we must, once we find out just what it is we're growing.

This can be viewed as a lot of work. You could, of course, leave everything where you planted it and save yourself the trouble, but the challenge of growing perennials is to create a stunning picture. Flowers and perennials give you the palette. However, visit most nurseries, and you would not be aware of how large that palette is. So at this time of the year I do something else that helps with the rethinking. I go shopping.

I visit every nursery I can to see just what they have, making sure I go to the ones that have reputations for stocking lots of perennials, such as Burkard's in Pasadena, where the solidaster came from, Sperling's in Agoura, Sassafras in Topanga, Palos Verdes Begonia Farm and Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar. And then I send away for every mail-order catalogue I can find listed in any gardening magazine, since perennials ship rather well. Along the way, I invariably pick up a few small shrubs, bulbs, a rose or two and other miscellany.

With all my new acquisitions gathered in a corner of the backyard, I let them set until early spring, while I think about them and read about them, making grand plans for how they are to be made into a garden. (I've found that there is no point planting them in the fall because they just sit in the ground, waiting for spring to arrive while the weeds grow among them.)

If I look back over several years of gardening like this, I see that about 70% of my planning paid off. The plants bloomed when they were supposed to and were the right color, grew to about the height I had in mind and got along fine with their neighbors. Looking at my notes, I've found that I've had the most luck with pink, red and lavender or purple schemes, which harmonize well and are almost sure-fire. It is so hard, for me at least, to get yellow and orange flowers to blend with other plants. Too often it becomes a shouting match, with one wild color screaming at another. So that 30% of my planning efforts gets moved, often.

Sometimes I never do find a good home for a plant, and I generously give it to some unwary friend or relative. My mother has quite a few 'Ole' tree roses that were part of one of my costly plans that didn't work out. That orange-red color was too much to deal with; it wanted a place of its own, at her house, it turned out.

It's not quite time to move perennials; I've found that they transplant better in February, just before they start growing again. So that gives me another few months to figure out where to move my weedy solidaster. Certainly it will move back three places to the rear of the border, since it is much too tall for the middle. But the tough nut is what to grow in front of it, knowing as I do now that it has a tendency toward leaning. I've thought of planting the giant Pacific strain of delphiniums. Those would most likely grow right up through the solidasters, and the blue and purple flowers above the yellow sounds nice, so maybe I'll try that. And, if it doesn't work, I can always move them.

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