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Flowers That Don't Take Direction : These Characters Will Shun Sun and Play to Your House

January 30, 1988|MARY ELLEN GUFFEY | Mary Ellen Guffey tends a prize-winning flower garden in Malibu

Anyone who has a garden knows that most flowers will grow toward the light, rudely turning their backs to viewers from the house. If the flowers were in pots, they could be rotated to show their attractive sides.

But flowers in beds are not so easily controlled. That's why it's important to choose plants that won't act like sunflowers, obsessively adjusting their heads to follow the rays of the sun from daybreak to dusk.

Martha Mandel, whose picturesque Malibu garden is located on cliffs above the ocean, faces this very problem. Her flower garden descends southward toward the sun and the ocean, while the house lies behind the garden in the shade of big trees. Mandel has learned to use plants that don't display all their blooms facing the sun, thereby leaving relatively bare stems to be seen from the house.

One of her favorites is red salvia ( S. splendens ), the fiery trumpet-like annual that is a mainstay in Midwestern and Eastern summer flower gardens. Every fall she sets out salvia seedlings, which are doubly pleasing. The scarlet spikes dutifully maintain color around the entire column so that bare backs are not a problem, and they also create holiday cheer at Christmas.

Striking New Shades

If red salvia is too much of a garden cliche for you, try some of the striking new shades--purple, salmon, rose, pink or violet. (For the best selection, order seeds from Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29647, or Thompson and Morgan, Jackson, N.J. 08527.)

Other annuals that are unlikely to turn their backs because their flowers surround a stem are larkspur, snapdragon and stock. Dependable perennials (although they're better treated as annuals in our climate) are delphinium, blue or gray salvia ( S. farinacea Victoria or White Porcelain) and foxglove.

Mix and Match

Another short-lived perennial that won't turn away is the fascinating penstemon or beard tongue ( P. gloxinoides ). To some gardeners, the oversize snapdragon-like flowers are old-fashioned and gaudy, but for others, penstemon blooms are an exciting change from ordinary garden selections. Because an entire bed of penstemon would probably be overwhelming and monotonous, try them in groups of three and intermixed with other garden flowers.

In soil that drains well and is not overwatered, penstemon plants last for two or three years. In our warm climate, seedlings may be planted in the fall or early spring. Seedlings can sometimes be found in garden centers; you may, however, have to order them at a nursery that specializes in perennials. Cut back after the first bloom for additional display.

Looking Up to Light

Low-growing plants with blooms that tend to look upward are also good options for a garden with a single-direction light source. At this time of the year, alyssum, ageratum, lobelia, violas and annual phlox may be planted. The perennial white candytuft is another excellent choice, blooming heavily in early spring and repeating if sheared lightly. Later in the spring, when the weather warms up, try the increasingly popular impatien.

Barbara Leachman, horticultural specialist at Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, recommends three others. Among annuals that can be planted now, she suggests fairy primrose ( P. malacoides ), which sends up 10-inch stems of delicate blooms arranged in lacy whorls.

"No. 1 on my list, however," Leachman says, "is the azalea, which not only provides excellent color in trouble spots but also makes a wonderful cut flower. The blooms are long lasting, and most azalea plants need to be pruned anyway."

For problem areas, she suggests clivia, a bulbous perennial that practically takes care of itself.

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