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GARDENING : English Charm, Local Roots


English cottage gardens--characterized by a blend of colorful, often fragrant plants cascading and rambling in the garden bed--evolved in a climate very different from the one in Orange County.

Still, the mood and classic charm of the cottage garden can be adapted to this region's arid climate.

David Stevens, one of England's leading landscape designers, said the key to success is using native plants.

"Instead of copying our (British) gardens, you can adapt our style but use the plants that flourish in your climate," he said.

And unlike in England, with its harsh winters, gardens here can offer color year-round if properly planned.

Stevens, garden commentator for the BBC and author of 13 garden books, is in Los Angeles as a consultant to the Chelsea America Flower Show, a 30-acre exhibit of model gardens and horticultural-related products and services. The show runs today through Tuesday on the site of the old Marineland on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Although the informally styled cottage garden is traditionally filled with plants such as roses, delphiniums, foxgloves, geraniums and hollyhocks, the Southern California climate is kinder to a different mix.

Landscape architect Janette Mestre of Newport Beach likes to use California native plants or those from similar climates such as the Mediterranean region, South Africa or Australia to create gardens with the same informal appearance.

"We have so many suitable plants we can use to achieve the visually interesting effects of cottage gardens," Mestre said. "Although this type of garden appears loose and wild, it really is carefully created through selection and arrangement of the plants."

One such garden she installed recently is at the Dana Point residence of Fred Greve and Sheila Vaughn. The owners wanted a low maintenance, water-conserving garden that was filled with California native plants, but one that also is colorful year-round.

Mestre achieved this by combining different colors and textures of native and indigenous plants. One garden bed contains Hemerocallis "Russian Rhapsody" (day lily), accented by Sedum "Autumn Joy," and Gaillardia grandiflora "Goblin" (dwarf blanket flower). Another planting in that garden consists of artemisia, white Leptospermum (tea tree) and Cistus corbariensis (white rock rose).

In a different garden in Corona del Mar, Mestre redesigned a patio and added a 10-by-30-foot side garden that features Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage); Scaevola (purple fan flower); Nierembergia "Purple Robe" (cup flower); oleander "Petite Pink"; Oenothera berlandieri (Mexican evening primrose), and Artemisia "Powis Castle" for its gray foliage.

"All these plants have similar water requirements and their colors harmonize," Mestre said. "When planning any type of garden, the first requirement is to group plants according to their water needs."

Mestre likes to use a variety of plant materials to ensure a succession of bloom. Even in winter, color can be achieved in gardens that don't include traditional winter-bloomers, such ascamellias and azaleas, by including plants with foliage color.

Sometimes, a mass planting of shrubs, such as the new dwarf varieties of oleander, can be a suitable background for placing individual perennial plants, Mestre said.

"One of my favorites is Phormium, 'Maori Queen,' a variety of New Zealand flax that has pink and green variegated leaves," she said.

Stevens recommends analyzing the soil pH to know which parts of the garden are more alkaline or acid to meet the plants' requirements. Acid-loving plants such as azaleas and camellias won't thrive in an alkaline soil, which is common in Orange County. Soil amendments can be used to correct the balance, though.

Stevens and Mestre both suggest some basics for garden design:

1. First, ask two questions: What have you already got in your garden that you want to keep? What do you want your garden to do for you?

2. Urban gardens usually provide privacy and a sense of refuge from the outside (unlike rural or view sites, where you can open the area visually to its surroundings). So some type of screening, whether by fence, trees or large shrubs is usually the first element that defines the garden.

3. Although traditional garden design places tall trees and shrubs toward the back, with successively smaller plant materials placed toward the front of the garden bed, don't feel restricted. You can intersperse different sizes of plants for visual variety.

4. Unless your garden exists just so you can accumulate specific plants (like rose enthusiasts sometimes do), avoid the temptation of planting only one of a kind. Instead, create drifts of three or five of the same variety.

"A small space is more visually pleasing if it contains three or five plants of the same variety instead of 50 different varieties," Mestre said. "Of course, you can always tuck in one striking plant as an accent."

Stevens likes the sculptural forms that cacti, agave and tree ferns contribute to the new interpretations of cottage gardens.

"Every garden is different because it reflects the needs and tastes of the homeowner," Stevens said. "You can get inspiration from seeing gardens, but you must make it fit your own set of requirements."

Once established, let the garden evolve, Stevens said. "There's always something you can add to a garden, and always something new to learn."

For those wanting to view model gardens and hear a variety of prominent horticultural speakers including Stevens, the Chelsea America Flower Show--patterned after the famous English Chelsea Flower Show--is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Tuesday. The show is on Palos Verdes Peninsula at the site of the old Marineland. Admission is $10 for adults; $5 for children 2-9, and free for children under 2. For information, call (310) 648-6623.

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