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Shade Makes the Grade : A fragrant garden of many colors blooms beneath spreading walnut trees at a Sherman Oaks home.

April 30, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times.

In sunny Southern California, any yard may potentially be a paradise, but it takes work to get things growing.

Despite our mild-mannered climate, so encouraging to plants from around the world, garden makers face challenges here that may tax the limits of their ingenuity. Flower beds have to be hacked out of inhospitable hillsides and slopes secured from the eroding power of winter rains. Fast-growing hedges and trees must be found to screen out increasing hordes of neighbors.

But even shade trees--so welcome during the blazing summer--can loom as obstacles when it comes to planting underneath them, especially for those whose knowledge of shrubs stops at junipers and roses.

Less than a year ago, this Sherman Oaks garden, designed by David Low of L. A.-based Robert Cornell & Associates Inc., was a gullied incline, scruffy with ivy, overgrown trees and a load of railroad ties someone had dumped and forgotten.

"The whole yard was unusable," the owner recalls. "There was no way to even get to it. You could only peer at it from a balcony."

A self-described "black thumb," she hired the designer first to clear up her hillside's drainage problems, then to give her access to her property and finally, she says, "to create a place I could enjoy."

Whether to keep or replace the old California walnut trees was never an issue for Low. "Trees this size would cost a cajillion dollars," he says. "These were already embracing the area. They dictated the space."

A clearing between two of the trees made a perfect spot for a deck and bench, which were built partly from the abandoned railroad ties and cantilevered out over the slope. Grading was done to provide a path to the deck--a gently angled, woodsy walk made of decomposed granite.

The next step was to choose plants that would shore up the eroded hill and make a pleasing shade garden around the bench.

The client had three requests for Low: "I wanted flowering things," she recalls. "I wanted variety--especially contrasting colors--and I wanted fragrance."

Low took all these into account as he developed a strategy for erosion control. First, he says, "I put down ground cover, the roots of which knit the soil together and the leaves of which slow the rain down before it hits the soil. Then I pinned shrubs through it."

His ground cover choices included several California natives--the fragrant Catalina perfume, California swordfern and ceanothus "Yankee Point"--and other tough shade-lovers, such as the yellow-flowered creeping St. Johnswort.

To this he added native shrubs--ceanothus "Concha," mahonia and penstemon--along with some non-thirsty imports that could tolerate the conditions.

To screen the rather monolithic wall of the house, which the bench faces, he used the reddish-leafed purple hopseed and the delicately scented silverberry. Nearby, to shake things up a bit, he planted orange-blooming day lilies, a deliberate and heated contrast to his largely pink and blue palette.

"As a rule," he says, "wherever you want to focus attention in a garden, you do something bold, either with color or foliage texture or both."

While the garden is still new--it went in last summer--and it's still early in the season, other plants will soon be making a similar splash, especially in the sunnier areas beyond the tree canopies. There, a couple of spicy smelling heaps of Mexican marigolds are about to erupt in gold blooms that will show nicely against the lavender spikes of Mexican bush sage and the white-and-yellow flowers--reminiscent of fried eggs--of native matilija poppies.

Most of the garden's plants, Low says, went in small, as a cost-cutting measure and for ease of growth. "It takes less effort for a plant to get established--to grow into a place," he contends, "if it hasn't spent a long time growing in a pot."

His advice on choosing plants for a shade garden is simple: "Don't just pick something you like, stick it in and hope it will do well," he says. He recommends observing the space and its light and shade patterns over time, then going to a full-service nursery such as Sperling in Calabasas or Sassafras in Topanga Canyon, and talking to knowledgeable salespeople about selections.

He also advises people to sit down with Sunset's "Western Garden Book," which, he says, "has real, comprehensive information relating to Southern California."

Ideally, the payoff for time and effort spent researching, observing and plant-hunting should be a beautiful, site-appropriate garden that gives back as much as it gets from those who tend it. Or, as Low's client puts it: "There was nothing there. Nothing. Now, it's a magical place."

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