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GARDENING : Color Purple's Just Right for the Nursery


If you've read even one general gardening book, you know what you should do, don't you? That's right--plan first, plant later.

You ignore that advice? So do I.

Planning sounds reasonable in December, when you don't feel like planting anyway. But, come spring, when the nurseries are bursting with blooming beauties and you're itching to get your hands dirty, then it's a different story.

Well, buck up, fellow recalcitrants. Help is at hand. All we have to do is learn to love the color purple, insists master gardener Jan Zalba of San Clemente, and we can experiment to our hearts' content without experiencing embarrassing results.

"(English novelist and poet) Vita Sackville-West said that all the art of gardening boiled down to was putting two plants together to see if they married, and then tossing one out if they didn't," says Zalba.

"Well, the nice thing about purple is that it marries with anything. There's hardly a color it doesn't work with--except true blue--and nature didn't make much of that.

"So if you're fairly new to gardening--still putting things into the gardening and seeing how they work out--using a lot of plants with purple flowers and foliage as a base is a good idea. It makes everything else you plant look better."

Purple mellows bright colors like scarlet, orange and yellow, and, conversely, adds punch to pastels, says Zalba.

"The traditional pastel cottage garden just fades into oblivion under our hot California sun without a dark anchor," she says. "Purple does for pastel gardens what red does for Mediterranean ones."

A background of purple foliage can also make a small garden seem larger. "Purple recedes," says Zalba, "so planting purple at the back makes your flower beds seem deeper than they are."

A wide swatch of purple is also a good visual and psychological barrier to separate adjoining flower beds in totally different color palettes, she says.

A useful color, this purple.

There is no shortage of purple plants to choose from in creating a secure base for experimentation in your garden. ("God must have loved purple; he made so much of it," Zalba says.) But following are some suggestions from two gardeners with lots of experience in working with the color.

One is Zalba, a gardening instructor at South Coast Botanical Gardens in Palos Verdes for the last 17 years, and also founder of a private gardening class, the Fanatic Gardeners, based in Sierra Madre. The other is Mary Lou Heard, owner of the perennial specialty nursery, Heard's Country Gardens, in Westminster.

One of Zalba's current favorites for the back of the border is smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria "Royal Purple" ), a large deciduous shrub tree with dramatic burgundy-purple leaves that look particularly stunning backlighted by the rising or setting sun.

Zalba saw Cotinus for the first time in England, where it is frequently used as a dark backdrop to set off pale roses. Back home, Zalba was determined to find a specimen for her own garden and finally succeeded at Murietta Oaks, a desert specialty nursery in Murietta.

"What a desert plant like Cotinus is doing in gardens all across foggy old England I've never been able to figure out," says Zalba, "but it seems to do fine there."

The smoke tree has the potential to grow to 25 feet--and almost as wide--so the one in Zalba's moderately-sized border will be pruned back sharply each year, which will undoubtedly shorten its life. But she can live with replacing her Cotinus periodically, says Zalba, because "there's nothing that sets off pink roses better, and I love pink roses."

A more easily contained background plant is bronze fennel, which looks like a heather-hued cloud come to rest.

"It's the most soothing, restful color," says Zalba.

Not so its flowers, though, which are a rather Screaming Yellow Zonkers hue. Zalba snips off the offenders as soon as they appear. If your taste runs to the pastel, you might want to do the same.

Bronze fennel is a snap to grow and can be found in any nursery, says Zalba. The only trick to it, she says, is allowing sufficient room. "It's hard to imagine that little plant in its 3-inch pot shooting up to 5 feet in one season, but, believe me, it will."

Cut back the fennel early each spring, Zalba suggests, and let it regenerate, and divide or replace when it outgrows its location.

Heard of Heard's Country Gardens has three additional recommendations. If you have room for it, she suggests, nothing is more spectacular than Buddleia davidii (the common butterfly bush), especially the midnight-purple "Black Knight" cultivar.

"Its flowers are the most magnificent color--like the dark Midwest lilacs--and it stays in bloom until the weather turns cold," says Heard. "It's spectacular-looking."

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