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GARDENING : Details That Make a Difference : Expert professionals bring subtle, wide-ranging skills to tending and nurturing plants.

October 02, 1992|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

If one sound defines outdoor life in Southern California, it just might be the hysterical scream of a leaf blower. Any morning or afternoon, these scourges of serenity are out in force in our neighborhoods, along with lawn mowers, weed whackers and other high-tech yard-rangers whose job is to butch the wildness from our gardens.

But amid all that whining and gnashing, a smaller, quieter army is at work too, tending to the little tasks that help flowers bloom, shrubs thrive and trees tower on our horizons. Detail gardeners, as they're called, are trained to know landscape from top to bottom--from the bugs that chew up roses to the soil that feeds them--and their rates reflect their expertise. Charging anywhere from $25 to more than $100 per hour (depending on who they are, what they do and whether they bring a landscape crew), most detail gardeners leave mowing and blowing to others and focus on pruning, fertilizing, weeding, watering and vanquishing pests.

"I'm like a doctor," explains Jill Poole, a Laurel Canyon detail gardener. "I specialize in healing and helping, in maintaining the beauty of a landscape."

Poole, a former nursery owner and farmer from Capetown, South Africa, says that people often come to her because their plants aren't thriving, even though they've been well-watered and fertilized. "They don't understand," she says, "that the plants they've grouped together may have different watering, feeding, light and spraying needs."

Detail gardeners do understand. They know their plants. They study the soil. They've learned the latest in pest control.

Tarzana gardener Janice Sorensen, who has a degree in landscape design from Pierce College, speaks for many in her profession when she calls herself "a garden generalist." In school, her subjects ranged from botany to hard-scape construction, but one of her most vital talents, she feels, is attentiveness. "You have to really watch what's happening in a garden," she says. "Then, of course, you have to know what to do about it."

Some detail gardeners, in addition to their overall expertise with maintenance, have certain areas of interest and knowledge that enable them to offer more than top-flight garden care. Dian Kennedy of Sassafras Landscaping in Topanga is known for designing, installing and tending big perennial flower beds. Horticulturist Mary Anderson Cohen, also of Topanga, will care for special plant collections such as succulents and cymbidiums.

Among the garden types that benefit most from detail maintenance are drought-tolerant landscapes--which, says Cohen, "many traditional lawn-care people aren't familiar with"--and lush flower borders, which need to be picked through, painstakingly, for dead blooms. Small gardens with rapidly growing plants must be closely watched too, she says, to head off detrimental competition for space.

For the owners of professionally designed landscapes, specialty maintenance is often viewed as protection for an investment, akin to tuneups on an expensive car. Kennedy, who works with her own trained landscape crew, services some gardens--especially those with large-scale color borders--twice a week. Cohen, who works alone, calls in helpers as needed--mostly for heavy or routine maintenance jobs. The frequency of her visits varies--from weekly to every month or two. She stresses the necessity of at least quarterly landscape cleanups but says any degree of expert involvement is better than none.

"You can solve a lot of problems in an hour," says Poole. On the other hand, warns Sorensen, you can also create them, by hiring someone who "doesn't know what to do with plants except shear them into lollipops." In contrast, she says, detail gardeners "do a lot of things people don't even notice."

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