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Room to Grow : Finding Place for a Garden Presents Special Challenge to Gardeners With Small Yards


Everyone becomes a gardener in April--it's just in the air. People can't stay away from nurseries or wait to get their hands in the soil. As a result, more gardens get planted at this time of the year than at any other.

But for many gardeners, the trick is finding the room to do some planting. The car trunk may be full of shrubs and flowers but there's no place around the house to plant them.

Some new homes have surprisingly small back yards. Some older homes have been enlarged at the expense of the garden. Perhaps a swimming pool fills the back yard. Many gardens have matured and are now too shady for those tomatoes you were looking forward to.

Or maybe you're just one of those gardeners who never has enough room no matter how big or sunny the garden is, or who covets his neighbor's empty back yard or that vacant lot a few blocks away.

During the past year we've seen some pretty clever solutions to this problem--people who have found a place for a garden, even in cramped quarters. Sometimes, they're surprising or unlikely places.

Not enough sun for tomatoes in the back yard? Use the front yard. Although many homes have small back yards, most have ample city-mandated fronts, usually 20 feet deep.

Janie Malloy runs a small business in Pasadena called Home Grown that installs and even maintains vegetable gardens for those who haven't the time or the expertise--or the energy.

For architect Mike Kent, who filled his back yard with a garage big enough to build an airplane in (which he plans to do), Malloy designed and planted a huge vegetable garden in the front yard.

In a modern-day version of plowing up the prairie, she rented a sod-cutter and carted off the old lawn.

Then she laid out a series of raised beds, made of 2x6-inch lumber. She didn't use treated lumber or railroad ties because she's suspicious of the chemicals in them.

She also fenced the garden to protect the vegetables (a three-foot fence in front yards is allowed in most communities) and built an arbor for edible grapes. She carefully worked around an existing citrus tree.

She left the soil alone where the paths between the beds would be, but she laboriously double-dug the ground under every bed. Double-digging is the ultimate way to prepare a garden bed that's going to be used a lot, for instance, growing crop after crop of vegetables. You dig twice as deep as normal when turning the soil, in this case about 2 feet deep. No mechanical tillers are allowed, everything is done with a spade.

Only the top foot-deep layer is amended; the bottom is simply broken up so roots and water can penetrate.

Malloy's gardens are completely organic, so she added special organic fertilizers, cow manure and compost.

The beds are irrigated with drip tubing, a double row running down each bed. Usually she puts gravel on the paths between the beds to keep feet dry, but in this case she's trying to get chamomile to grow in the paths.

When the photographs were taken this past month, the bed closest to the sidewalk was filled with potatoes, and broccoli was just finishing up in the beds behind. There were carrots and lettuce and a handsome red mustard that added a little peppery taste to salads. Soon the beds will be replanted with summer crops, including tomatoes. In the front yard, there's no shortage of sun.

Fill in the pool.

Gerry and Eva Silver wanted a smaller, easier-to-fill pool and got a flower-filled garden in the bargain.

They had Robert Moore of Brentwood Engineering & Pools make their big old pool into a sleek new lap pool and were going to pave over the unused portion when Jack Wheeler of Jack's Unique Gardens in Van Nuys said, "Wait!"

He figured out how to plant an exuberant garden inside the walls of the old pool, by drilling drainage holes in the bottom, then filling it with rubble, gravel and soil so it became a giant container.

To keep the dirt from sifting down into the rubble, he used weed control fabric on top of the gravel. Remarkably, the plants grow in only 18 inches of soil, all the city would allow. They are regularly irrigated with automatic sprinklers.

Wheeler really knows his plants, having worked at just about every nursery in the San Fernando Valley, starting when he was only 12, and this garden filled with unusual plants shows the breadth of his experience.

The small garden is packed with an astounding collection of perennials, from the tall Verbena bonariensis and Sidalcea malviflora to the low coreopsis 'Moonbeam' and brachycomb at the front of the bed. Plants even grow on, and in, a quaint birdhouse at one end of the bed.

It is basically a pastel pink and blue scheme, with touches of soft gray foliage and pale yellow. He says that the mix of perennials provides color for 11 out of 12 months.

Eva Silver says you can't imagine how wonderful it is to swim among all the flowers--"It's a touch of paradise"-- and she's glad they didn't pave it over.

Kick out the horses.

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