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Gardening : GREEN THUMB : Transplant From East Learns the Hard Way

March 21, 1993|CHARLES SURASKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Surasky loves to grow re-blooming irises for his wife and daughter in the hills of Altadena.

Transplanting a green thumb from the East Coast to Southern California isn't as easy as it seems.

Nearly a decade ago my wife and I moved to California from Connecticut. Confident that my gardening experience would provide long periods of emotional therapy, bountiful gardens and a higher value for the house, I plunged into re-landscaping our home.

Unfortunately, the confidence was misplaced; a high percentage of our first years' gardening money, time and effort was wasted. Now, eight years wiser, our gardens are filled with success stories. To help new residents avoid the problems I encountered, I offer below some tips for success:

We arrived in Pasadena in October, 1984, and moved into a Tudor-style home built in the 1920s. The house had character but the landscaping was a disaster. The sprinkler system's pipes were rusted shut and the sparse plantings fit one of two classes: dead or overgrown.

Knowing how much landscaping can improve a home's appearance and increase its value, I plunged into our urban reclamation project. The most obvious eyesores, the overgrown hedges, were easily tamed by "Chain Saw Charley." The gardens were another matter.

The November-through-March period wasn't too hard on my ego. The mild, occasionally wet weather compensated for my lack of knowledge. Then the dry season arrived and, despite increased hand-watering, nearly everything I planted in the gardens died. The second year's efforts produced similar results.

In the third year, after moving to a home with larger grounds, I reluctantly admitted I didn't know how to be a successful Southern California gardener. That revelation was the start of the development of my "green thumb."

To overcome my lack of experience, I started asking questions and listened to many people: landscapers, weekend dabblers, serious gardeners, nursery employees, etc. In fact, I tried to talk with everyone I saw working on or in a garden. That was a major step in the right direction.

Slowly, I learned the unfamiliar names and needs of easy-to-grow plants, and the gardens became a source of pleasure.

To shorten your transition from a "rookie" to a "pro," here is some of the best advice I received:

--Read everything you can about gardening in Southern California. Don't assume you know what to do and when to do it--you probably don't.

--Learn what type of soil you have. Living in the foothills means working with rock-filled sandy soil. Having clay or adobe soil presents completely different challenges.

--Improve your garden's soil. No amount of watering or fertilizing can overcome poor soil. Make this an ongoing process and you'll reap rich rewards.

--Maintain a compost pile. It reduces your weekly shipment to the dump and provides your gardens with the fastest, most wonderful soil amendment and fertilizer.

--Talk with your neighbors about their gardens. They'll help you avoid common gardening mistakes. If they're as nice as mine are, they'll give you some "sure thing" plants to get you started.

--Visit your local arboretums and nurseries. They're staffed by pros who know their business.

--Look carefully at the plants surrounding local commercial buildings. They were chosen by landscape professionals for their ease of care, longevity, flowering season or color, etc. Match your conditions to a commercial landscaping you like, select the same plants and success will be yours!

--Hand-water as little as possible. Your gardening time is limited; automatic watering systems free you to perform more important tasks and they help produce better gardens.

--Remember that we live in a desert. Plant water-thrifty plants (including lawns) wherever possible.

--Plant your perennials after the end of our summer. That usually means October. Planting then gives your perennials six months of cool, sometimes wet weather to overcome transplant shock and prepare for the dry and hot season.

--Live in your home for at least one full year before you decide on an expensive remake of your landscaping. A little perspective and experience will serve you well.

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