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STYLE : GARDENS : High & Dry

December 22, 1991|ROBERT SMAUS

Gardens filled with Mediterranean plants don't always get rave reviews at first. A year after Carole McElwee landscaped her Laguna Beach garden, neighbors were asking, "When are you going to do something about that?" But then the tough, twiggy plants blossomed in the spring of 1990, and fans have outnumbered critics ever since.

McElwee is part of a new wave of gardeners who think that these drought-resistant plants are appropriate for California. "We live in a very special climate that makes up only 1.7% of the Earth's surface. Shouldn't our gardens look like it?" she asks. In addition, McElwee chose Mediterranean plants, which don't need frequent watering, because her garden is perched on a bluff where soil made heavy by watering might shift.

Drought-tolerant plants do most of their growing during cool months, so they are best planted in fall or winter. McElwee amended her heavy clay soil and installed a mix of pastel plants found at a variety of nurseries. Here, a rather unusual dry country annual, Agrostemma githago 'Milas', or corn cockle, steals the show. Growing up to three feet tall, it has large pink flowers. The seed, which is poisonous if eaten, is available only through the Thompson & Morgan seed catalogue (P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527).

Also in flower are white California poppies and annual lupine, lavenders and Santa Barbara daisies, Pacific Coast iris and blue-eyed grass, freesias and ranunculus, seaside daisies ( Erigeron ) and alstroemeria, a wallflower called 'Bowles Mauve,' even a tough rugosa rose--all set against blue ceanothus 'Concha'.

In summer, these Mediterranean plants can stand the heat. In spring, they make quite a show, creating a garden that looks, and blooms, as if it belongs here.

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