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Garden Notes

The Perfect Flower Bed : Even in a Small Space, a Little Work Will Yield Big Bursts of Color Year-round

December 14, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Recently, I confessed to having rearranged my garden several times because things didn't turn out as I'd hoped. I should admit, though, that I have one flower bed that did work out on the very first try. Not that it was planted that way, never to be meddled with again, but rather that it has always looked good from the day it was planted, about four years ago, and has accommodated seasonal changes and changes of heart with ease and grace.

It had a definite beginning: Two roses--'Double Delight' and 'Mon Cheri,' my wife's favorites--had to be a part of it. They became the anchors. Next, I had to figure out what ought to be there, what would go well with those two bright roses. Usually, in starting a bed, I simply plant whatever is sitting in pots in the backyard or at the nurseries that month. But this time, using colored pencils, I made primitive sketches.

Understand that I have had little practical experience with color. My 9-year-old daughter already knows more about color than I do. When people tell me that sitting down to plan a color scheme is beyond them, I can only admit that it seemed beyond me, too; but it was possible and, well, fun.

At first, I drew just blobs of color. Only when satisfied with that scheme were the forms and shapes of the plants added. I played it safe, not straying far from the deep-carmine red of the roses. I practically wore out the lead in the pink pencil. For the contrasting color, I settled on blue and bluish, being determined to plant delphiniums, which are shades of blue with an occasional deep violet.

White and gray for the foliage were used to break up the other colors in case they clashed and also to make the flower bed look less congested than it was actually going to be, since, as usual, I would be trying to fit far too much in one place. White and gray lend an airiness, like shafts of sunlight in a forest.

I didn't want everything the same height; I wanted the drama of abrupt change. With a pen, I sketched, over the colored masses, shapes that would look right with the rose bushes. Their roundness begged to be relieved, so the delphiniums (the shorter Blue Fountains strain) went to one side and slightly behind, their spires looking like church steeples above a village of roses.

At the other extreme, I drew some low-spreading plants that would fan out in front like alluvial deposits washed down from the mountains of color behind them. Those in turn were interrupted by little clumps of vaguely grasslike plants, looking like sedges bursting above the flat surface of a pond.

At that point, I had a few actual plants in mind, but most of the sketches were just that. I was going to have to find the plants that would go in particular spots.

Several arrived on their own. In the mail came a new purple miniature rose from Sequoia Nursery / Moore Miniature Roses (2519 E. Noble Ave., Visalia 93277). It wasn't to be introduced for another year or so and only had a number, but it ended up with the name 'Sweet Chariot.' Two more roses came home with my wife from the Huntington Rose Symposium: 'Pernil Poulson,' a coral pink, and 'Lilac Dawn,' a light lilac. In my scheme, those balanced the other roses.

Nursery shopping turned up more parts for the puzzle. Dianthus deltoides , a tiny dianthus that spread into a two-foot patch of dark green and ruby red, was one. To go behind that were taller dianthus, including 'Pink Parfait' and the white-flowered 'Jealousy,' each with gray foliage. More plants with gray foliage found their places: the white-flowered form of Lychnis , common culinary sage and woolly thyme. A pink sunrose came to rest nearby, and gray lamb's ears settled in at the base of the roses. A rare little baby's breath, Gypsophila repens rosea , which I have never again seen at nurseries, filled in some of the gaps with tiny pink flowers on a spreading plant that only grew a few inches tall.

To harmonize with the lilac rose, I found an Eastern perennial phlox, Phlox nivalis --the kind with prickly pin-like leaves--that was a light lavender. White came from Shasta daisies, iberis, a white agapanthus and a white bedding salvia. Purple and lavender came from Verbena rigida , columbines and several veronicas. The little tufts that were to spring from the low-growing plants turned out to be a pink zephyr lily, Zephyranthes grandiflora , and the more common white rain lily, Z . candida.

The planting is a mixture of common plants that one can depend on and uncommon plants, which add a little adventure to the undertaking. It is also a conglomeration of flowers that bloom at various times of the year. That has become an increasingly important goal in my garden--one not easily achieved.

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