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BEYOND POPPY LOVE : Water-Saving Garden Blends Beauty, Utility

April 07, 1988|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Just a hop and a skip away from the roar of the Pasadena Freeway in Highland Park is a garden built upon the simplicity and beauty of nature almost unassisted. Here flowers, shrubs and trees thrive on just 15 minutes of water a week.

Butterflies and bees have found paradise in the water-conservation garden at the historic Charles F. Lummis home, a state-owned, turn-of-the century landmark maintained by the Historical Society of Southern California.

Hundreds of wildflowers and plants indigenous to Mediterranean climates have been planted since the society undertook renovation of the garden three years ago. Many are in full spring bloom for the second annual open house to be held at the garden Sunday.

The event will be coupled with an exhibit Saturday of native wildflowers and conservation gardening at the Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery in Sun Valley, the state's original native plant nursery. Golden poppies, California's state flower, are in bloom along with dozens of other colorful native plants on an acre of non-irrigated hillside on foundation grounds.

While the Payne Foundation propagates only those plants native to California, the Lummis garden combines domestic and imported drought-tolerant plants. In other words, this garden goes far beyond the usual love for poppies.

Spanish Transformed Landscape

Lummis, a Harvard-educated writer who trekked by foot from Cincinnati to California in 1884, extolled the art and artifacts of the Southwest in articles for the magazine he edits, "Land of Sunshine."

Despite the art and artifacts, early settlers had little use for the native vegetation of Southern California, aside from the majestic oaks and sycamores. They were accustomed to more robust gardens.

In his book, "The Architecture of Los Angeles," author Paul Gleye points out: "The Spanish introduced nearly everything grown, thus beginning the transformation of the Southern California landscape into a lush garden where today almost none of the trees, flowers and grass is native to this region."

But the California sunshine is not always kind to plants that thrive in the moist and humid climates of Europe and the rest of the United States. In order for their gardens to succeed, the new residents had to find plentiful sources of water, starting the quest that goes on today.

But Lummis resisted the tendency toward the traditional water-thirsty garden and chose instead to landscape with drought-tolerant plants native to arid regions. He planted mainly cacti and yuccas, to which he added an eclectic mix of fruit trees and flowers.

Despite their originality, the grounds surrounding the Lummis home were never considered a garden spot, historical society members admit. "We had a desire for some time to bring some order to the garden," said Suzie Chamberlain, chairman of the society's volunteer committee which maintains the landmark.

"We knew we had a diamond in the rough."

As a result, the society asked students at Cal Poly Pomona to design a garden for a Mediterranean climate with water conservation features. A plan drawn by three students and finalized by instructor and landscape architect Bob Perry was selected.

Perry said the unusual architecture of Lummis' stone house "establishes the uniqueness of the garden in that it reflects the character of a person who had a pretty independent style. The intent was not to create a botanic garden but a design display on the use of these plants."

$120,000 Spent on Project

The garden is in its best bloom from spring through early summer, Perry said.

Denver Markwith, garden project director, said more than $120,000 has been spent developing the 1.7-acre garden, which is about half complete. More than $80,000 was provided by a grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The garden was selected as one of three national finalists this year in the annual competition for worthy public gardens in need of funds for completion. The Garden Clubs of America will award $20,000 to the operators of the winning garden, to be announced in May.

The historical society plans to raise $100,000 more to complete the Lummis project, Markwith said. Future plans include construction of a sound wall to shield the garden from freeway noise.

Plants featured include an unusual dragon tree, imported from the Canary Islands. The spiked head of the tree atop a tall, naked trunk shades the tower of the stone house where Lummis once sat to write about the West.

Lawn Needs 1 Mowing a Year

A low-growing, pink-flowering yarrow was planted last year as an experimental lawn substitute. Chamberlain said the yarrow is hardy, comfortable to walk on and blooms once a year. It also needs to be mowed only once annually, which made it a popular selection among maintenance volunteers, Chamberlain said.

Granite paths wind throughout the garden and around the Lummis house, inviting visitors to meander. Among the plants that can be found there are lavender, rock roses, woolly thyme, agave, bougainvillea, California lilacs and Douglas iris.

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