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GARDEN SPOTS : The Grace V. Kallam Memorial Garden Is Living Proof That the Temporary Disappearance of Perennials Can Double, or Even Triple, Your Flower Power

May 18, 1991|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"So many plants, so little time," sighs Huntington Beach landscape architect Shirley Kerins.

If you can't visit a nursery without buying a pot of something, think the newly opened blossoms of your plants are as exciting as Hollywood premieres, and find browsing through seed catalogues more entertaining than watching "L.A. Law," you'll understand Kerins' sentiment. Life is just too short to plant everything you covet.

But a perennial garden can double or triple your flower power.

You can shoehorn more plant varieties into a perennial garden than an all-evergreen one because many perennials have the habit of conveniently disappearing after their season of glory, says Kerins. Their temporary departure opens up space for other plants to shine the next season. And the one after that.

To see just how many different plants it is possible to pack into one perennial garden when it is planted by a professional, visit the Los Angeles Arboretum's recently completed Grace V. Kallam Memorial Perennial Garden. Too new to be listed on the Arboretum's visitors map, the garden can be found by following the path to its adjacent attraction, Meadowbrook. When you spot the dark red canopy of Eastern redbud trees and the bright yellow plumes of the 6-foot tall verbascum straight ahead, you've found it.

In the relatively modest half-acre plot allotted to the Kallam garden, Kerins has managed to incorporate nearly 400 plant varieties.

"There is a fine line between exuberance and chaos in a perennial garden," she says. "And the more plants you add, the more you push that line. But that's where the fun and the challenge comes in."

The Kallam garden is a memorial to Grace V. Kallam, a well-known gardener and amateur iris hybridizer in the Pasadena area who died in 1970. In his bequest to the Arboretum, Kallam's husband requested that a demonstration garden showing appropriate seasonal color for the residential garden be created in her honor.

"I wish I could say the opportunity to design this project came from my wonderful reputation," says Kerins. "Or because it was well known that perennial gardens are one of my specialties. But the truth is it was pure, dumb luck." Kerins designed a residential garden for Kallam's daughter, Barbara Cohen. Cohen, who was specified as an adviser in planning the garden in the bequest, later suggested Kerins for the project.

"So this wonderful plum of a project, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, just fell into my lap."

Perhaps. But the Arboretum couldn't have picked a better candidate for the job, in the opinion of Huntington Beach landscape architect Karen Olmsted and Wade Roberts, director of Sherman Gardens, where Kerins conducts a six-week class on botany and horticulture to new docents.

Her horticultural knowledge--honed by 12 years experience at Huntington Gardens where Kerins manages plant production and sales--doesn't often come in the same package with good design ability, says Olmsted.

"There are a lot of landscape architects good at design who don't know much about plants," she says. 'That's why you see the same things everywhere, which gets very boring. But Shirley's a good designer and she knows tons of plants. That combination is rare."

Kerins approached the Kallam garden design the way she would have a residential project. Her first decision was deciding what elements to retain.

"Since there wasn't enough money in the budget to put in hardscape, the existing trees were my starting point," she says. "They were the only hard things in the garden, and you need some hardness to contrast with flowers. Otherwise it's like too much dessert--all frosting."

The trees in the Kallam garden are all deciduous--perfect for perennial planting, says Kerins. "You can plant shade-tolerant plants under them in the spring. And fall-blooming plants later on, because they'll get plenty of sun when the leaves drop."

In addition to Eastern redbud, the Kallam garden contains several flowering cherry trees, a catalpa and four Chinese fringe trees (Chionantus retusus), which were recently blanketed with lacy clusters of flowers much like white lilacs.

"This tree would look magnificent on a lawn," says Kerins. "But Californians are so cranky about leaves. They want flowers but they don't want trees to shed. I think they want the leaves to fall upwards. But the law of gravity still works, even in Southern California."

Once pathways were laid out to utilize the deciduous trees, a magnificent view of the San Gabriel Mountains, and a meandering brook as focal points, planning the sequence of colors in the Rainbow Garden section was the next task.

"When I teach classes in gardening design here at the Arboretum," says Kerins, "the first thing people ask about plants is the color of their flowers. So I thought it would be educational for people to see lots of plants in different colors and how they work together.

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