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STYLE : GARDENS : Originality by the Yard

August 01, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER

In the old town of San Fernando, not far from the mission but a world away from the tree-lined luxury of South Brand Boulevard, lies a small neighborhood of frame cottages and adobe bungalows. Roosters crow there in the mornings, and dogs patrol yards behind wrought-iron fences. Gardens are tiny, but they teem with flowers and imagination. Combining lusty plants with unusual materials, they reflect the gardening traditions and tastes of local residents, many of whom come from Mexico.

Leafy cannas in hot shades of red and yellow abound alongside rustling hollyhocks and cosmos. Often the blooms are mixed in among tomatoes, corn and chile peppers and surrounded by the paddles of nopalea cacti, another local food staple. Those who tend these plots stretch their space even further with plantings in washtubs, birdbaths and lengths of terra-cotta pipe. Adding statuary and strings of lights, they transform conventional yards into quirky Edens.

Maria Davila plants cannas, geraniums and crown of thorns in the bowls of castoff toilets, which line her porch and patio. Her gardens spill out onto surrounding parkways; her melons and squash grow with daylilies and gladioli. Even her back-yard shrine to the Virgin Mary has its own landscape, complete with potted jade plants, succulents and boulders.

A few blocks away, Isaura Moreno has a garden in a different vein: a fantasy realm of flea-market figurines and children's toys. Decked with succulents spilling out of seashells and animal-shaped planters, her lawn is a stage for village and farmyard scenes. At its center sits a nymph in a birdbath full of water hyacinths. At its edges, pink flamingos and the Blessed Virgin preside over dolls, elves and frogs, all of which are bathed in the nightly glow of Christmas lights.

Nearby, the garden objects in another landscape are the plants themselves--eye-fooling plastic and silk flowers that adorn genuine greenery. Faux poinsettias and rosebuds enliven spider plants and bird of paradise and twine up a front stairway beside lavatera and hibiscus. In the tradition of cottage gardens created out of love, this yard is typical of its neighborhood only in its originality: It's a vision of color, a personal place.

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