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In the English Manner : Perennial Borders Have Slowly Come Out of the Pages of English Garden Books and Into Southern California Landscapes

March 08, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

AMONG AVID GARDENERS, they are the topic this spring, these plants called perennials. They are the new kids in town--a bit shy at nurseries, more than a little mysterious but ever so intriguing.

Long a staple of English and some Eastern gardens, perennials came late to California, perhaps because here we have so much latitude in what we can plant--from orchids that grow outdoors to flowers that bloom in the dead of winter. Remember that perennials are, for the most part, from harsher climates than ours and most die to the ground to survive the cold winters of their native lands. Californians are accustomed to year-round greenery and flowers at almost any time, so the traditional perennials have seemed unlikely choices, considering that they occupy space 12 months of the year but may flower for only a few.

But what gardeners have discovered in California is that perennials offer their own possibilities. It is perhaps unfair to attribute any trend to one individual, but the interest in and use of perennials in Southern California can be traced to Chris Rosmini, one of this area's premier plantswomen. She has been experimenting with perennials for more than two decades, sharing what she learned along the way with other gardeners at seminars and talks.

Rosmini's latest effort in perennials was the Los Angeles garden of Ruth Borun, which was photographed in full flower last May. Borun is an equally serious gardener--but not ashamed to call in a little help when faced with bringing order to a burgeoning collection of remarkable plants that had grown joyfully but haphazardly over the years.

In many respects it would be difficult to find a less typical California garden. True, there is a swimming pool and a patio or two, but the garden is devoted to plants. It is not obsessed with what California landscapes have become known for--what has been called "outdoor living" (there is no spa, no tennis court, no barbecue area, no bar). Yet it is not a passive garden, meant only to be looked at. Its beauty reflects Borun's study and hard work.

There are many elements to the Borun garden (including one of the few true rock gardens in Southern California). But the border of perennials is undoubtedly the largest in Southern California and one of the few to really do perennials justice. They are planted in one huge bed that sweeps the length of the yard, and they so fill the bed's ample boundaries that plants spill out on all sides and threaten to cascade into the pool at the base of the slope. The bed is so broad that there is a path behind it, without which the plants in the center would be completely out of reach. As it is, one must step gingerly through the lush growth to reach the remote interior.

(Although some of the best drama in the Borun garden comes from plants that are not perennials in the strictest sense--plants that can't be grown in Eastern gardens such as the towering pink watsonias, a South African bulb related to the gladiolus--for the most part, it's the perennial plants that are putting on the show.)

Do not stare too dreamily at English garden books, however, because perennials in California do not reach the crescendo of English perennial gardens; our seasonal clock is less precise. What do you think perennials made of last month's weather, when it sizzled one day and drizzled the next? Was it spring yet, or summer, or still winter? As a result, perennials here tend not to bloom all at once as they do in August in England. But in compensation, they tend to bloom over a longer period during the year.

What do perennials have over more-ordinary bedding plants? One advantage is the variety available, beginning with height. While seedsman strive to create ever-more-uniform marigolds and zinnias and try to make them ever more compact, they are also making the plants so much more like Fords and Chevys. From a distance the flowers are simply carpets of color, and to see them up close you must drop down on all fours. And when it comes to holding the attention of an active gardener, there are not that many annuals to play with, and those available have a certain similarity that doesn't pose much challenge after a point.

Unlike annuals, perennials last at least a few years, needing little care along the way, though eventually one must get in there and tend to them--by digging up and dividing the now-too-large clumps or by pulling them up and replacing them with fresh starts. A garden composed solely of common annuals may be a knockout at first glance (and not to be entirely knocked either, because there is still nothing brighter or more cheerful). But the entire planting must be ripped up and re-done at least twice a year, which is somewhat unsettling and a bit too much like growing corn or other crops. Most perennials, especially the traditional sorts, are not permanent in Southern California, but neither are they as short-lived as annuals.

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