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Botanic Garden Offers Visitors Walk on the Wild Side : Paths Take Visitors Through Park's Vast, Lush Grounds

August 19, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

There is something Zen about the quiet art of gardening; it is restful, spiritual and yet quite physical, all at once.

I came to this realization while on a most pleasant three-hour escape at the simply gorgeous South Coast Botanic Garden located on Palos Verdes Peninsula in south Los Angeles County.

You'll see dozens of volunteer gardeners around these vast, lush grounds, planting, replanting and tending a huge variety of flowers, shrubs, vegetables and even trees. It's amazing how at peace the gardeners look while going about their chores.

South Coast Botanic Garden occupies grounds created as a sanitary landfill during the late 1950s. Today, it is a rolling, hilly park, where one ambles freely on paved, semi-paved and unpaved roads, or on quiet lakeside paths complete with chirping birds.

What makes this garden all the more remarkable is the location, smack in the middle of elegant suburban homes and adjacent to the city of Torrance, which looks like 100 square miles of shopping malls. Because of the unique microclimate of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it is not unusual to find summer flowers still in bloom through November, as well as trees flowering before the spring.

10 to 10:15 a.m.: Just inside the front entrance you will find the variegated Volunteer Garden, filled with flowers, bulbs, produce and cactus. Those patches you see contain carrots, Oriental garlic, string beans, tomatoes, radishes, even watermelon, grains like paddy rice and barley.

The old-fashioned gazebo off to one side is surrounded by long rows of gorgeously scarlet, five-foot flowers called canna. Off to the other side, there is an interesting cactus garden to walk through. Most of the species are tagged for identification.

10:15 to 10:30 a.m. Continuing east takes you to the Rose Garden. It is super-fragrant in here, thanks to varieties such as Arizona, Great Century, Toscana and dozens of others.

This is a good place to sit and contemplate.

"We get a lot of joggers and thinkers," said one of the volunteers as she tended a bush. I took a seat on one of the trellised benches, and just sat for a few minutes. Too bad picnicking is not permitted on these grounds. This would be a dreamy lunch spot.

10:30 to 11:45 a.m. The rest of the time allotted here is better spent on a self-guided walk, or perhaps just a free-form walk.

You will get a map of the grounds as you enter, and that will help you orient yourself, because it is possible to lose the way. One road leads down into Color Gardens, variegated trees and shrubs, blue-shaded flowering trees and shrubs, blue-green-gray foliage garden. Another, the road heading to the park's north, leads you through a shaded area of ficus, palms and pittosporum.

This is the road I would choose because it is fragrant and lush with tropical and sub-tropical vegetation, and affords a view of the surrounding homes that overlook the garden. But wherever you walk, you're bound to enjoy the fresh, cool air, reason enough to stroll around here.

On the road going to the park's north, you'll learn that figs and the India rubber tree are members of the ficus family, and you will pass one of the garden's true landmarks, a California fan palm tree. Trudge downhill on an unpaved path near this point, and you will find yourself in a little wetland, where frogs bellow, dragonflies buzz and fish jump around. It looks more like Malaysia down here than anywhere in the Southland.

Heading back, you can visit a nursery, where plants are for sale. Take them up to the front gate to purchase them, or pass through a mini-redwood grove. I'll bet you didn't know there were redwoods around here.

11:45 to noon: Don't leave without visiting the garden's gift shop. You won't find great bargains here because it is the store's policy not to undercut local merchants, but prices are quite reasonable.

In addition to kites, gifts and miscellany, there is an extensive selection of books related to nature or gardening: a Bonsai book, publications from the Audubon Society with titles such as Herb Gardens and Bird Watching and a terrific book about wildlife on the Pacific Coast. The all-volunteer staff is most forthcoming, too.

Noon to 1: If all this walking has stirred up an appetite, then California Cucina, located on The Brickwalk in tony Rolling Hills Estates, has a pleasant outdoor patio for Mediterranean-style outdoor dining.

You can lunch on pissaladiere, a southern French-style pizza, Italian panini sandwiches and lots of trendy pastas, before finishing off with a foamy cappuccino, a bracing way to complete a completely bracing morning walk.

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