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GARDENING : Learn by Change : Landscape architect Lee Newman weaves a variety of foliage colors and textures at his home.

March 05, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times.

Landscape architect Lee Newman can't get enough of the great outdoors. In his Westlake Village office, he designs gardens for large-scale residential developments. At home nearby, he's constantly in his own garden--rearranging shrubs, adding to his rose collection, trying out a new sedge grass or an oddly colored flax.

"My aim here," he says, "is to express myself and to experiment. That's how I learn--by always changing things."

The result is a garden that stands out on a street of large Spanish-style homes with clipped green lawns that never change. By contrast, what little lawn Newman has is tough Bermuda grass, which in winter goes brown, an effect that set off alarm bells among his neighbors after he put it in two years ago. Another matter of concern was the 96-inch box coast live oak that he had trucked in for a terraced planting bed. Around that went ornamental grasses--also winter-dormant--and hardy natives like dwarf manzanita and mahonia, which aren't seen much in local yards.

"My neighbors have kept it simple. I went crazier," Newman concedes.

Even the contractor who installed his garden, Dennis Bailey of Cascade Landscape in Moorpark, was surprised by some of Newman's choices.

"Oh my gosh, what's this thing going to look like?" Bailey remembers wondering as he inspected the weedy-looking grasses. Now he thinks that the garden's "just great," and adds, "I've got almost the same thing at my house."

Newman reports a similar turnaround among his neighbors and attributes it to the seduction of variety. Even at quiet times of year, his garden never sleeps. In late winter, his evergreen pear trees are in snowy bloom, camellias have burst forth beside his front door and a wild bank behind his house is abuzz with bee-attracting rosemary.

But more important to Newman is the great variety of foliage colors and textures he weaves into his plantings, by placing red "Maori Queen" flax so that it sprays out above clumped carex and blue oat grass, or backing up a green santolina hedge with silvery artemisia and deer grass.

"So much grows here," he says. "If you take advantage of the climate, you're forever being surprised."

A garden not heavily dependent on flowers is also easier to maintain, he points out. As spring approaches, he has merely to cut some grasses back, prune deciduous trees and prepare to fertilize--that is, when he isn't out buying more plants at favorite local nurseries like Sperling in Calabasas and Treeland in Woodland Hills.

"Plants to me are like shoes to Imelda Marcos," he says.

To accommodate the varying needs of all he brings home, he plants in zones and waters each differently with a timed system of drip irrigation. Thirsty greens--of which his garden has only a few--are grouped close to the house, where they can be enjoyed more readily. Ornamental grasses--a passion of his for the wavelike movement that they bring to a landscape--are scattered throughout.

What unites the disparate group of flora is a backbone of hardscape--paths, walls and patios--all made of either Arizona flagstone or stamped concrete in a terra-cotta shade that matches the tile roof of Newman's house. The home's arched windows are echoed in the hardscape details, among them the two raised, semicircular planters in front of the house and a similarly shaped seating wall that rings a lily pool in the back.

Choosing such a visual theme is a good way to build a landscape, Newman advises, as is what he calls "strength in plantings"--creating textural or color fields by using large numbers of a few plants and thus avoiding a "one of this, one of that" clutter.

He admits that for the plant lover, it can be hard not to fall for the odd, weirdly shaped specimen, but his solution is to restrict these to pots, reserving beds for massed compositions--drifts of rosemary, mounds of scabiosa--that show dramatically against the backdrop of nearby hills.

Even a finished design, though, doesn't signal the end of the process. "Gardens are never done," Newman says. "They're living things, they change. And that's when it gets exciting."

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