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Digging for the Ideal Plan : Local nurseries may be the best source of information on turning a brown yard green.

August 13, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

The terror of the blank page is as common for gardeners as it is for writers. What and where to plant, how to create pictures with growing things, even how to keep them alive are questions that haunt gardeners, especially novices, and especially those on a budget.

Short of hiring a pricey professional to fill in the brown spots, there's a range of help available to those willing to do the digging themselves.

Perhaps the best source for assistance is a local nursery. Purveyors of plants, of course, have a stake in helping gardeners get growing. For this reason, most will, on an informal basis, offer design tips ranging from what to put in a window box to how to pull together a perennial bed, or even a whole front yard.

"It's called free advice," says Mike Connell, general manager for Green Thumb Super Garden Center in Canoga Park. "It's part of the service we offer here."

Even without seeing a customer's property, Connell and others in his field can, if given adequate information, assist with a garden's layout, plant selection, soil amendment and watering program. A gardener must bring to the nursery a set of dimensions and a rough description of the landscape area. But the best advice goes to those who arrive with additional facts.

Scott Hunter, nursery manager for Armstrong Garden Center in Northridge, counsels do-it-yourselfers to observe "where it's shady, where it's sunny, how long the sun lasts." He also suggests bringing in soil samples and noting existing features that would affect a new design: pools, walls, mature trees. Although a quick sketch is fine, Hunter says, he likes supplemental photos too.

In assembling a set of helpful reference pictures, Shelby Basso, manager of Sassafras Nursery in Topanga Canyon, advises: "Take overall shots as well as details of problem areas. Get angled views from where you'll be looking at the garden--from a porch, from the street, from the point of entry to the back yard."

Basso also encourages customers to bring in books or magazines containing pictures of favorite gardens. Often, but not always, people come to Sassafras wanting an English-style perennial garden--the type of landscape for which the nursery is best-known. Indeed, Sassafras' plant tables and displays, created by English-born owner Pamela Ingram, convey the flavor of this style and show customers how their plant choices would fit with it.

One Venice couple gathered enough plants and information during three visits to Sassafras to design an entire landscape themselves. Basso recalls: "They were hesitant about spending the money for on-site consulting. They brought in pictures and plans, and after their third visit, they had it all down on paper--price lists, materials, everything."

In the end, they hired Sassafras to install the garden, but their total cost was considerably less than it would have been with consulting and design fees.

For those who prefer--and can afford--on-site consultation, there's another range of available options.

Green Thumb has a staff designer, Carol Bond, who, after visiting a client's home, produces a landscape plan, a plant list and, if desired, an irrigation plan, for $525. Of this, $500 is returned to the customer in merchandise credit, and the store also supplies a list of landscape contractors, for those who don't want to install the plants themselves.

Taking a different approach is Van Nuys horticultural consultant Lili Singer, host of "The Garden Show" on KCRW radio and editor and publisher of the Southern California Gardener. As Singer dispenses on-site advice to residential clients at a rate of $100 per hour, her emphasis, she says, is on "giving guidance on existing gardens--what to do with what you already have."

For a more complete menu, Armstrong Garden Centers Inc.--located throughout the Los Angeles area--offers landscape design as well as installation.

Their services run the gamut from consulting visits (prices begin at $100 for a two-hour session) to the drawing of plans ($250 and up) to installing finished landscapes.

At Sassafras, $100 to $200 buys a consulting visit from Pamela Ingram or another nursery garden expert, who will provide advice on a range of subjects, from flower-border design to pest control.

For another $250 to $300, Ingram will do a simple garden plan with a plant list. If Sassafras is hired to install the landscape, the consulting fee applies to the cost of the project, which might range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, with its 11 acres of well-labeled plant displays, is one of the best sources of free advice around.

Although they don't make home consulting visits, they do share quarters with a full-service landscape-installation company, Sperling Landscape.

This fall, Sperling Landscape will begin offering a computerized landscape imaging system, which--for a minimum charge of $50--will enable gardeners to bring in a photo of their house and see what it might appear enhanced by various types and styles of greenery. As Basso points out, no landscape is created overnight.

Whatever its design, "A garden is a long-range event that unfolds gradually. But," she adds, "isn't that one of its pleasures?"

Resources Green Thumb Super Garden Center, 21812 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 340-6400. Armstrong Garden Centers, 9920 Balboa Blvd., Northridge, (818) 349-2299; 12920 Magnolia Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 761-1522, with other sites in Los Angeles and Orange County. Sassafras Nursery and Landscaping, 275 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, (310) 455-1933. Lili Singer, (818) 780-7420. Sperling Nursery, 24460 Calabasas Road, Calabasas, (818) 340-7639.

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