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On Stage : The Los Angeles Garden Show Is the Only Act of Its Kind

October 19, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Having a garden show is a great idea. Under one tent, so to speak, one can see what's going on in the world of gardens. I usually come away with a pocketful of notes on new plants and those I have never tried but now must; on inspired designs that might help make sense of my garden; on tools that might make the work less of a chore, and on bug sprays, fertilizers or potting mixes worth considering.

I also bring home a few plants and usually a lot of books. At a garden show, I can browse through the hundreds of books that are never in bookstores and buy plants from specialty nurseries that are too far away to zip over to on a weekend.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Garden Show is the only act of its kind in town. It began two days ago, but you have until Oct. 26 to pay it a visit at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia (hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily). Anything might be there, and a little of everything usually is, from California native plants to the rarest of tropical orchids.

Some people have told me that they have been disappointed in the Los Angeles Garden Show, that it is not like Chelsea or Philadelphia. But it's our garden show and still young compared to those venerable institutions. And if you see something there, you know it works for Southern California, which is highly unlikely at Chelsea or Philadelphia. Furthermore, I don't think those people were paying close attention. I usually make several trips to Arcadia; each time I learn something new and I always take something home.

Last year, for instance, I found a number of ornamental grasses that I had never seen before in California, or even at Chelsea. Right now, two of them are in my garden--one, a striking blue-gray, grows by a few rocks and the other near a variegated pittosporum, harmonizing nicely with its own multicolored leaves. Both turned out to be just what was needed; I had not been able to figure out what to plant in those two areas that wouldn't spread too wide. At the same show, I saw a variegated lemon that had yellow and green stripes on the leaves and fruit. I still wish I had bought it just to amaze my friends.

In the garden, one gets so involved in whatever one is doing at the moment that the rest of the plant world goes largely unnoticed. I'd been trying to decide what vine to grow on a fence until I saw the staghorn ferns last year and realized that they were the perfect solution. They have been happily stuck to the fence ever since.

These are the kind of discoveries an avid gardener makes at a garden show, though often not on the initial go-round. I didn't spot either of the two grasses at once; garden shows tend to be overwhelming on first glance.

One also rediscovers just how much can be grown in Southern California. No yard could contain it all, and no book, even the weighty "Hortus Third," could even list it. Which is why it's nice to see a sampling in person, at least once a year, as a reminder of the opportunities we have. Until I see them at a show, I tend to forget about orchids and cactus and ferns and bromeliads. And about subtropical fruits, proteas, strawflowers, chrysanthemums, carnivorous plants and undoubtedly others that have slipped from my mind during the past year.

Designing is the most difficult part of making a garden, and I also find myself spending a lot of time analyzing what the designers have done with the many outdoor plots. I am not above copying; some of the cleverness in my garden can be traced back to the show.

In many ways, our garden show is better than Chelsea's and Philadelphia's. At those shows, you almost can't see the displays, even if you are taller than average--so many people are clustered in front of them. I have a vivid image of the famous Blackmore and Langdon delphiniums at Chelsea--or, rather, the upper thirds of these very tall plants. They appeared to sprout from people's heads and shoulders. If those delphiniums had leaves different from our own, I have no idea what they looked like.

At our show, crowds aren't expected, and because it runs for more than a week, visitors aren't as frantic as they are at the short Chelsea and Philadelphia shows. The middle of the week is even peaceful. And there are lots of outdoor displays, which is only appropriate in our climate. An umbrella is required at Chelsea, and snowshoes sometimes at Philadelphia, which is held before spring has arrived.

Our show isn't perfect. I used to wish that it was held in the spring, when so much more is in flower, but I've come to appreciate the timing. I don't need any prodding to get out in the garden in the spring but I do in the fall, and I've learned just how much does flower in autumn, contrasting brightly with my own garden, which seems to go barren then.

I do wish that it was even bigger and that a lot more nurseries were represented: Southern California has hundreds of small nurseries that I can never hope to visit in person, and I'm sure that each one has something I would love to grow.

I wish that shopping carts were available, but you might consider bringing along a sturdy bag for your purchases.

But it is our garden show, and everything there makes sense for my garden and my climate. And it is a lot shorter drive than it is to Chelsea or Philadelphia.

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