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GARDENING : Relaxed, Rustic Retreat : Cedar Hill Nursery in Tarzana is a meadow in the midst of suburbia with some charming historical touches.

August 28, 1992|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You're driving down Tarzana Drive in Tarzana when suddenly the houses vanish and a shaggy meadow appears, complete with ancient cedar trees and dainty, skipping sheep. What you've stumbled on is: 1) a slice of the old Tarzana Ranch, former stomping ground of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, and 2) the approach to one of our region's most charming garden centers.

Cedar Hill Nursery, founded 21 years ago by the Herman family, which has owned most of the old ranch since 1943, is full of the ghosts of the Valley Past. The mournful deodar cedars that tower over the seven-acre spread were planted in 1911 and 1912 by Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times from 1882 to 1917 and original owner of the ranch.

Fifty-year-old farm machinery decorates the nursery's odd corners, harking back to an era when horses powered harvesters and hay balers. Even the sheep bring back memories of the old days: Six thousand of their furry ancestors once ranged freely over the meadowlands while barley and alfalfa danced in the wind nearby.

Though Cedar Hill--still owned and operated by the Hermans--sells a full range of reasonably priced annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, with an emphasis on bedding color, its lively atmosphere is even more of a draw for casual visitors than its plants. The oak-lined entrance drive is a case in point: Along with a few old plows and other toothy agricultural implements, there are antic vignettes everywhere. A wooden rowboat, for example, lies half-buried among leggy yarrows, salvias and snapdragons, while a beat-up buckboard loaded with cactus and other succulents suggest the dusty Old West.

From there, it's a short trek past a shade house and the blazing bedding plants of the sales yard, to a cool trio of ponds that fill the air with crashing water. A small geyser erupts in one, splashing into another stuffed with water lilies and water iris. The stream then dribbles into a quieter pool edged with a shaggy ruffle of cottage flowers--Canterbury bells, sweet peas and mustard-yellow coreopsis. "Please--No Fishing," says a sign, though a battered mannequin keeping watch from a gazebo nearby is clearly looking the other way.

Coupled with such whimsical tableaux--dreamed up by the nursery's staff of five--there are some serious greens for sale, starting with more than 100 boxed native oak trees, which are rarely seen in a retail garden center. Other unusual offerings include variegated box elders, Queensland pittosporum trees and large, boxed timber bamboos, all of them the legacy of a former Cedar Hill manager with a taste for the exotic.

Current manager Enrique Ortega says that the nursery has a history of indulging in employees' interests, which have added such unexpected delights as bonsai Japanese junipers and a rare cockspur coral tree to its otherwise very respectable garden stock.

Even Cedar Hill's run-of-the-mill items are handsomely displayed: azaleas, hydrangeas, gardenias and other sun-shy plants are arrayed around a burbling fountain in a shade house; indoor plants such as bromeliads, ficus and crotons gather on slatted tables in a greenhouse; and ferns, bananas and other tropicals line a shadowy glade hung with cedar boughs.

While parents browse among the flora, children can amuse themselves clucking at chickens or pigeons who live in coops on the grounds. Once a year, there's a public sheep-shearing, which is advertised in the nursery's Tarzana Ranch Flyer. This chatty promotional brochure offers gardening advice and Valley history on the side, courtesy of Ralph Herman, a developer and local history buff who oversees Cedar Hill.

Herman also crafted the funny metal sculptures scattered around the place--scrawny birds and flapping roosters--and is responsible for assorted machine scraps (remnants from inventions he has worked on through the years) heaped behind a Do Not Enter sign near the nursery's propagation shed. Herman's plans include converting the old ranch house on his property into a combination Otis-Burroughs museum and garden club restaurant, which would serve as a local horticultural education center.

In the meantime, his nursery offers a great way to spend an afternoon in a relaxed, rustic setting with plenty of color to spare.

WHERE TO GO

Location: Cedar Hill Nursery, 18320 Tarzana Drive, Tarzana.

Hours: 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

Call: (818) 343-2353.

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