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Ordered Chaos : Three Landscape Designers Apply Subtle Organization to the Carefree Summer Garden

April 05, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Without a doubt, more flowers and vegetables are planted in April than at any other time of year. Vegetables are usually placed in the ground with some plan in mind, but flowers often go in on a whim, wherever there is room. In most gardens, their planting could be much more painterly. Blame it on the giddiness of spring.

The flower gardens pictured here, however, are blameless. Each one was thoroughly thought out and carefully planned--though not on sheets of paper--by garden designers before a shovelful of soil was turned. These designers--Mel Light and Renee Cinman of the Sowing Machine in West Los Angeles, Sandy Kennedy of Sassafras Landscaping in Topanga, and Robert Fletcher of West Los Angeles--have a penchant for flowers. They've also got good ideas on planning and planting a spring flower garden.

"We are planting more flowers with more imagination" is how Mel Light sums up what is so evident in these gardens, and what sets them apart from others. The choice of colors and how much weight each color carries are other essential considerations. Sandy Kennedy suggests adhering to a color scheme of, say, blues, purples and pinks or perhaps yellows, oranges and reds--but then throwing in some exceptions. For instance, in the garden she designed for Sandy Borowski, pictured here, Kennedy used mostly blue, lavender and pink flowers but then perked it up with some bold dashes of yellow and red. Similar colors are kept together, in their own little colonies; that way they have more impact and the garden does not look so salt-and-peppered.

Note the presence of white flowers in all three gardens. Like shafts of sunlight, white flowers add airiness to the plantings and help assuage some of the differences between colors.

Though the traditional mainstays of a spring-planted garden are the colorful annual flowers of summer--such as marigolds and zinnias--many perennial plants also are used, though they aren't treated much differently than the annuals; they're planted in the spring, right along with the annuals, for just a season of color. This greatly simplifies their use and care.

Perennials add an easily discernible drama that results mostly from their height. Annuals tend to be low and rounded in shape, and they are the perfect foil for perennials that are tall and spire-like, such as the delphiniums in one garden or the salvia in another.

Many perennials are blue, or close enough to be called blue, a color almost missing from the world of annual bedding plants. In a summer garden, full of hot, bright colors, the blues are a welcome and often startling contrast to the yellows and reds.

Annuals tend to be neat and tidy in the extreme, but perennials are often less well-behaved; offering the most clear-cut example are the coreopsis in Robert Fletcher's design, which have laid down on the path in repose. Designer Renee Cinman deliberately looks for plants that are "not too neat or immaculate" for the casual, carefree look that they bring to a summer garden. In Cinman's path-side planting, flowers spill out onto the paving, their exuberance unconstrained by the flower beds. She also arranges the plants so that similar flowers are not aligned on both sides of the path, and she purposely puts some tall plants in the front of the beds rather than placing them all toward the back.

If these gardens were not planned on paper, how were they worked out? Most often on the spot. Though each designer had a good idea of what he or she wanted the garden to look like, the final placing was done while the plants were still in their little pots. There they sat while elements such as height and color were considered. The plants often were rearranged again and again before being planted.

It would only be fair to point out that all of these gardens required a great deal of work at planting time, though not that much afterward. Much effort went into the preparation of the soil, because flowers demand much from soil. Organic amendments and fertilizer were thoroughly mixed to a depth of at least a foot, and the resulting soil ended up bearing little resemblance to what was there before.

Plant a summer flower garden now, whether it be of annuals or perennials, or a mix of the two, and you will have flowers into the fall.

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