When it comes to gardening, the English are contradictory blokes.
They meticulously file their hedges into poodle-like shapes. Then they let their grass grow freely, daisies and dandelions welcome. They line their cobblestone walkways with carefully arranged planters. Then they haphazardly overstuff the surrounding soil with a potpourri of flowers.
The resulting effect is a blend of country and city, natural beauty and human creativity.
Landscaper Nick Sutcliffe brought that British accent to Southern California when he transplanted here 11 years ago. His Newport Beach-based business, English Gardens, specializes in the style of gardening he learned while growing up in villages outside of London.
He could persuade his clients to flood their gardens with a medley of colorful blooms rather than confining themselves to only a few varieties. But unshaven lawns were not their cup of tea; folks on this side of the Atlantic like their front yards clean-cut.
"That took some getting used to," Sutcliffe said. "Americans are so precise; we're not nearly as fussy in England. We use a combination of grasses mixed with moss, because of the moisture. Daisies spring up, and we don't mind at all."
So Sutcliffe compromised. He mows grass short--his only concession to the American way, aside from replacing plants that do poorly in this climate with California-friendly substitutes.
His client Diana Sterling initially balked at the English affinity for a hodgepodge of multicolored flowers. "I wasn't sure if I liked it at first--it looked overgrown to me," the Fullerton resident said. "But now I think it gives the property such a jolt of color."
Frequent compliments from passers-by helped to confirm her reassessment of the English approach. "What a beautiful yard!" gushed an elderly couple walking their dog on a recent morning.
"People ring our doorbell to ask for our landscaper's telephone number," said Sterling, who basks in the glory with her husband, Ed Sterling, a plastic surgeon. "Sometimes I see people snapping pictures of our lawn."
When Sutcliffe took control of the Sterlings' yard 10 years ago, their front lawn was a "jungle," he said.
"They had junipers and Hollywood twisters blocking the house, palm trees everywhere--it was too much," Sutcliffe recalled.
He cleared out some of the trees, instead making manicured hedges the lawn's focus. Five-feet-tall bushes sculpted into perfect domes primly frame the driveway and gardens.
The dark green plants, dotted with delicate purple flowers, look like dwarfed trees. Actually, they are vines--potato vines, although they do not produce potatoes. "It's not the nicest name," Sutcliffe complained. He uses them in place of the bushes native to England that founder here.
"It takes a number of years of training and pruning the potato vines every week to get them like this," Sutcliffe said. "Originally, they are loose rather than dense; gradually, they fill out."
A dedicated non-professional could whip the plants into shape, Sutcliffe said, though the feat requires an eye for symmetry.
For do-it-yourselfers, Sutcliffe recommended perennial flowers, which survive throughout the year--as opposed to annuals, which are seasonal. "I can make gardens that are fairly maintenance-free, but the more maintenance-free, the more limited you are in the types of plants you can use," he points out.
The Sterlings include in their garden numerous annuals; Sutcliffe rotates them every few months in accordance with the season. Pansies, ageratum, marigolds, petunias, blue salvia and red salvia thrive during autumn. Impatiens, begonias, vinca and stocks enjoy winter.
Sutcliffe's own home, in Chino Hills, is a good example of the English tendency to binge on flowers. In his compact front and back yards, more than 75 varieties of perennials and herbs currently are in bloom--among them, asters, statice, white vinca, salvia, geraniums, roses, baby's breath, Spanish lavender, honeysuckle and rosemary.
He boxes the flowers inside a serpentine "dry wall," typical in his home country. The flat flagstones are sandwiched together with soil, allowing the garden's overspill to grow through the layers of the wall. "It's a very natural look," Sutcliffe noted.
The abundance of flowers and plants in his small, 45-by-25-foot back yard makes the area appear more spacious, Sutcliffe said. And, he added, they provide "an atmosphere of quietude."
Sutcliffe favors Marathon II grass, which has a finer blade than Marathon I. "Its look is the nearest you can get to an English lawn," he said.