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GARDENING : Clinging Vines Spread Gentility Over Depressing Condo Walls


"Solid walls drain away our vital energy," insists Jana Ruzicka, a Hungarian-born Laguna Beach landscape architect. "Looking at something that unimaginative all the time is depressing."

Condominiums and townhouses, with their concrete hedges, are spreading across the country like St. Augustine invading dichondra. If Ruzicka is right, all those blank expanses must be sapping lots of spirits.

Fortunately the situation is easily remedied.

There are no shortage of ways to enliven energy-sapping stretches of blank walls, suggest landscape experts, if we learn to look at them as artists would. They're just blank canvases, waiting to be filled with our imagination.

Ruzicka has some fairly radical solutions for breaking up--some times literally--those long stretches of unadorned wall. But the quickest way to obscure a wall is to plant a vine under it. Take the violet trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides) that blankets the fence facing Coast Highway inside Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar.

The vine looks as if it has been there for decades, and, actually, it has, but it grew to its current dimensions within a few seasons, according to Wade Roberts, garden director.

"It's a great vine for beginning gardeners," he says. "It needs a substantial fence or trellis to support it, but that's about it. It's not susceptible to any particular pest and requires no special care. You can't go wrong with it."

Another vine that will yield quick results, according to Charles Kyle, manager of Nurseryland in Fountain Valley, is Lonicera hildebrandiana, giant Burmese honeysuckle. This summer-blooming evergreen has 6- to 7-foot white tubular flowers that turn yellow or soft orange, remain on the vine a long time before dropping and are hummingbird magnets, he says.

Beyond these virtues, L. hildebrandiana will grow one or two feet above a wall or fence without support, according to Huntington Beach landscape architect Shirley Kerins. "If you don't want to see into your neighbor's house from your dining room window, or vice versa, that's a distinct advantage," she says.

While the vine needs to be propped up on guide wires initially, says Kerins, eventually it gets woody enough to provide most of its own support.

Another favorite of Kerins for solving a different problem is Chinese lantern (Abutilon), a viny evergreen shrub with yellow bell-shaped blooms and red calyxes that remain on the stems and provide bright points of color against the green foliage when the flowers fall.

"One of the ugly features of many Orange County homes--including my own--is a garage wall that extends forward past the entrance on one side, creating a bare stucco wall that calls out to be ornamented," she says. "Abutilon is a great plant for the bright shade you typically get in that area."

If you want a vine that provides a tracery rather than a mat of green, consider hardenbergia, a purple-flowering vine in bloom now and readily available at nurseries. Kyle, at Nurseryland, particularly likes it combined with the complementary yellow blooms of Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens).

Solanum jasminoides, the potato vine, is another easily manageable vine favored by many gardeners. Huntington Beach landscape architect Karen Olmsted is one who sings its praises. "It blooms 12 months out of the year, its vines don't get woody, and the bees love it," she says. "It's messy, though--it drops a lot of flowers and leaves--but it's pretty litter."

Other good vines for small gardens are polyanthus jasmine, Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), Mandevilla "Alice du Pont" and Guinea gold vine (Hibbertia volubilis).

Another good way to decorate a bare wall is through espaliering--training a shrub or tree so that its branches grow in a flat plane. It's the perfect way to squeeze in a permanently green foundation plant and seasonal annual or perennial color within narrow borders next to walls.

"Just about any shrub with the potential to grow 6 to 8 feet can be espaliered," says Kyle. "But the ones that tend to grow flat instead of round work best."

Among his favorites are the pink powder puff plant (Calliandra haematocephala) for its gracefully cascading, dark metallic-green foliage and the lavender starflower (Grewia occidentalis).

"Starflower looks kind of rambling and brambly in a container," he says, "but it trains beautifully. If you pinch it back frequently, it gets nice and dense, and it's in flower a good part of the year."

Camellias, both C. japonica and C. sasanqua, are excellent espalier candidates for the shady canyon-like side yards you see in many town home lots, according to Sherman Gardens' Roberts, who uses them often in private landscaping jobs.

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