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Times Garden Editor Bob Smaus, above left, reveals secrets for creating a garden that just keeps on growing, despite drought, freezes, occasional rains and setbacks

May 26, 1991|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Frequently I mention my garden in my stories. Too frequently, it appears. Now the editor of this section, and a few readers, want to see what he calls "the garden editor's garden."

This is like asking a sports writer about his golf game, and a few years back I would have ducked the assignment, but the garden has finally come into its own and it no longer takes much coaxing to get me to show it off.

The garden looks best right about now. There are bulbs that bloom earlier and some perennials wait until late summer or fall to flower, but from April to the middle of June, it is a blaze of color.

The garden, in the back yard, is primarily a flower garden. There is a peach tree right in the middle and the necessary lemon, and we grow some vegetables and herbs here and there among the flowers, but my wife and I like flowers, so the garden is chock-full of them.

My last garden was on a hillside in Pacific Palisades and I grew California natives and other Mediterranean plants. When we moved closer into town (into West Los Angeles), we decided we needed a lusher garden to help offset the noise of airplanes overhead and a busy mall right behind.

Actually, we first tried to grow Mediterranean things like rockroses and ceanothus and they grew just fine for a few years, but they really don't like level lots and most died.

That's right, the garden editor can kill plants just like anyone else.

In fact, I killed some real beauties--a gorgeous Acacia pendula that looked like a gray-leaved weeping willow, a California lilac or two, a spectacular rockrose ( Cistus skanbergii for those taking notes) that was a mass of pink blossoms in spring. This last casualty had grown to eight feet across and left a huge hole in the garden when it passed.

So, about four years ago, we redid the entire garden.

We decided that since we actually had a very good soil--good enough to grow anything--and because our house was kind of small and cute, we would plant an old-fashioned flower garden like my grandfather would have grown. (My grandfather grew prize-winning begonias, fuchsias and delphiniums. I have a box full of ribbons he won at various flower shows.)

Our timing wasn't too good. The last garden needed practically no water at all. This one needs regular watering. Of course, there was no need to save water when we had a garden that didn't need any. Now we have a drought and a garden that needs regular irrigation.

We are not talking about 5,000 gallons a day here, but we do average about 600. We've managed to cut that to about 480 gallons a day, but we still use the most water on the block. I know because I had the temerity to call the Department of Water and Power a couple years back and ask.

We also have three teen-agers who can spend most of the morning in a shower, so I'm not sure how much of the water goes to showers and how much to the garden.

I keep intending to install drip irrigation, but at the moment we water the garden by moving a little $1.95 circular sprinkler around the garden on the end of a hose. This actually works rather well because we can water different areas for different lengths of time.

For instance, the delphiniums and roses need a lot, the lemon needs less, the shrubs and trees that make the background for the flower beds need very little, and so on. We can give every plant the water it requires.

One of the things we did four years ago was to simplify the background. We covered up several neighbors' fences (white painted wood, concrete block, stucco) with a plain wood board fence. We covered our neighbor's garage with wood lattice and then planted vines on the fences and lattice. The stucco walls of the house disappeared under Boston ivy.

In front of all these fences and walls, we planted plain, dark green shrubs, such as Texas privet and Carolina laurel cherry (Prunus caroliniana ).

What we created was a simple dark background for the flowers, against which they seem to glow, like jewels on black satin.

We even planted a lawn, but kept it very small to leave room for all of the shrubs and flowers. It is one of the tall, turf-type fescues that needs watering (in our part of town) only once a week and it is only 8 feet wide by 30 feet long--just big enough for a game of catch.

This left us enough room for some really big flower beds. The one with the delphiniums is 13 feet deep. They're a little hard to get into, but they let us do some staging with the flowers, putting tall flowers in back of short, with room left over for roses and the background shrubs.

In these big beds, we thoroughly prepared the soil, which was already a fine sandy loam, by adding quantities of organic amendments and fertilizer. And then we planted flowers. Lots of flowers.

In the photographs you can see some of our favorites. The tall blue spires are Pacific Coast delphiniums, mostly the Bluebird and Black Knight strains, which are dark blue with a white "bee," and dark purple, respectively. We also plant a mauve or two and a few whites.

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