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Raised Right : Planters Can Correct Garden Problems and Highlight Flowers

November 02, 1986|MARY ELLEN GUFFEY | Mary Ellen Guffey is a horticulture writer who tends a prize-winning Malibu flower garden.

This garden had two strikes against it from the outset, but a determined gardener prevailed. When Taffy Weinstein tried to dig a border to plant flowers in the backyard of her coastal canyon home, her spade hit rock after rock. To make matters worse, what soil there was was clay, through which water failed to percolate readily. Only a pick could penetrate the hard stuff; growing flowers, shrubs and trees seemed hopeless.

Weinstein, however, dealt with the deficiencies by using a device often recommended by landscape experts. Her husband, David, constructed a two-tiered brick-and-stucco planter that not only improved the drainage but also added a handsome architectural interest to a flat backyard. The raised bed highlights plants and flowers and makes them easier to reach for cultivation.

Weinstein prepared the new planter beds by mixing some of the native soil (minus the rocks) with mushroom compost, nitrogen-fortified redwood compost and a sludge product called Nitrohumus. After watering that mixture and letting it settle, she planted her favorite flowers.

English lavender, attractive for its silvery leaves and lavender-blue flower spikes, was high on her list because of its usefulness in both bouquets and potpourri. Although lavender is sometimes sold as an herb, it grows into a two-foot mound-shaped shrub that can be an attractive bush in the flower border for several years. Weinstein likes the way it cascades over the front edge of the bricks and softens the hard edge of the wall. Blue salvia ( S. farinacea ) , another long-blooming perennial, is considered by many gardeners to be one of the best all-around flowers for our climate. It can be planted in spring or fall and blooms from May through September. Complementing the blues are the gray leaves of dusty miller, perennial pinks and red annual phlox ( P. drummondii ).

Weinstein created a harmonious combination of rounded shapes balanced by spiky plants. For mounds, she used phlox, lavender, pansies and tiny white daisies ( Chrysanthemum paludosom ) , and for spires she used salvia, larkspur and snapdragons.

A second problem Weinstein faced was the presence of her pets--an anathema to most gardens. They can scratch, chew, dig and generally be bigger pests than slugs and caterpillars. Although Weinstein is an ardent gardener, she also is fond of Sunshine, a golden retriever, and Ferguson, a tomcat. Sunshine was 5 months old when Weinstein started this garden, but the raised bed--along with obedience school training--helped to keep the puppy out of the flowers.

To encourage vigorous bloom, Weinstein fertilizes her flowers every two or three weeks with Miracle-Gro, a water-soluble fertilizer. It's worth noting that even enriched soil requires supplemental fertilizing to produce lush flower crops. The addition of a bag of redwood compost to the soil at planting time won't provide all the nutrients plants need. Organic amendments alter the soil's physical composition, thus improving moisture retention and drainage, but plants still need fertilizer.

No slug or snail bait is used in this garden; because of her pets, Weinstein wouldn't risk pellets or meal. Instead, she regularly inspects the garden at night, removing all such invaders by hand, a messy but effective means of control.

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