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Green Thumb : Maturity Is One Key to Beautiful Garden

August 28, 1994|MICHELLE GRINGERI-BROWN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I'm one of those gardeners who's always poring over glossy coffee-table books and Times' gardening calendars, envious of the bountiful borders and casual cottage plantings that have become so popular in the last few years. Gardens that seem to call for a full-time gardener and a revolving charge account at Burkard's or Sassafras Nursery. Gardens that make me look outside my 1928 bungalow and wonder what I'm doing wrong.

As it turns out, I'm doing nothing wrong. This season, I've come to realize that what's been missing in the past is simply maturity, an attribute not considered a plus in green beans or sushi, but irreplaceable in a landscape.

I've been gardening for 20 years, but belonging to the mobile, down payment-less generation, never stayed for more than three years at any one rental. I never fully understood just how great an impact established roses, abundant ferns and full-sized shrubs could have on my garden.

Eight years ago we were finally able to buy a modest home, and my current landscape is now finally showing the benefits of my previous years of gardening.

Whether I'm taking a break from the latest project to sit and enjoy the flowers or watching my husband show our neighborhood children how to pick snow peas, our garden has added an element to my life that is hard to define.

Roses clamber up the four corners of the house, reach across the roof and wind their way through peach and lemon trees. The mixed flower beds are full to bursting with campanula, violets, delphinium, iris, aubrieta, Shasta daisies, coreopsis, impatiens, calla lilies, mint, various ferns and over 25 varieties of modern and old-fashioned roses.

Volunteer nasturtiums and Johnny-jump-ups have insinuated themselves into any bare patches, weaving a graceful tapestry that far surpasses my own studied attempts at casual opulence. The garden has finally come into its own.

When we became homeowners, our very first project was to eradicate the thigh-high foxtails in the back yard, which was pretty indicative of our priorities. Never mind the 1970s bender board in the kitchen or the unpainted shutter out front, get out there and rent that rototiller.

Overgrown shrubs and trees were removed and several hundred dollars worth of compost and other amendments tilled into anything that even resembled soil. When a tree which was supporting a Belle of Portugal rose collapsed on the driveway we never even considered removing the rose, but cashed in vacation time and quickly built an eight-foot arbor to handle its considerable weight.

Project by project, we've made over our 50 by 150 lot so that it rivals some of those seen in the garden books.

Time has a way of pointing out your errors and suggesting solutions. I've had my share of missteps: the Australian violets I chose for the front yard ground cover, while lovely in January at the Arboretum, were no match for our summer sun. We won't even discuss the shade cloth we rigged to try and nurse it along (the neighbors were polite but perplexed) before bowing to the practicality of a Marathon lawn.

The Japanese maple I painstakingly chose picturing its burgundy filigree shading the porch, is still only four feet tall at best, while the crepe myrtle planted at the same time is easily 15. Or the King-Kong-proof, industrial strength, hyper-ugly vegetable garden enclosure that was our first foray into woodworking. Creeping fig is stealthily covering its wire fencing, surrounding the snow peas, lettuce and strawberries with a green hedge that will presumably pass for an English mini-maze. I hope.

I never anticipated getting this dedicated to my garden--it just crept up on me. My mother always said my green thumb skipped a generation, which in her case was not entirely true. The Belle of Portugal that spawned the driveway arbor was her favorite rose, while the boysenberries bordering the fence speak to me of my grandmother's Sierra Madre garden.

Although I thought we were finished landscaping, my latest project is building river rock paths and flower beds. The only offense of a perfectly serviceable 20 by 30 foot St. Augustine lawn was dullness--for me a cardinal sin. Most people would probably see a soothing expanse of green, but to me it screamed plantable square footage. Two loads of rock later, we're pricing flagstone and jockeying for days off before the summer heat permanently moves in.

Eventually I figure we'll run out of room or ambition. But you know, the driveway sure would look good if it was redone with pavers and creeping thyme. I wonder how hard it would be to rip up that asphalt. . . .

Gringeri-Brown is a free - lance writer who gardens in the path of the proposed 710 freeway extension.

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