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Garden Show and Tell : THE LOS ANGELES GARDEN SHOW : Display gardens, instructional talks and demonstrations highlight five-day event


Designer Mark Bartos has a vision of Provence, that part of southeastern France with a gardening climate so similar to our own. He's imagined walking across fields of sweet lavender, passing through a gap in an ancient stone wall (perhaps from a medieval abbey) to find a grape-covered colonnade with a garden inside.

At its center is an old copper wine-making vat now overflowing with water from some hidden spring. All around it grow shrubby plants with the exquisite foliage--silvers, grays, blues and bronzes--and the soft scents typical of Mediterranean-climate plants.

Under what promises to be a blue Provencal sky, visitors to the Los Angeles Garden Show, co-sponsored by Robinsons-May and the Los Angeles Times, will be able to travel this no-longer imaginary path in "Dreams of Provence," an elaborate display garden created for the show by Pasadena's Hortus Nursery.

The Hortus display is but one of several highly imaginative gardens based on the theme "Gardens of the World" and created in a great flurry of earth-moving and landscaping expertise just days before the show opens Wednesday at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum.

Display gardens are the highlight of any garden show and some at the Los Angeles show are good enough to take home ribbons from London's fabled Chelsea show. Like the Chelsea exhibits, a few could be lifted up and set down in someone's back yard after the show closes, but most are much too fantastical.

Given the opportunity of creating a garden only meant to last a few days, designers prefer to play and experiment, trying out new materials and unusual plants. Garden shows are a hotbed of new ideas, one reason you may see some visitors taking photographs and notes.

For instance, in "Dreams of Provence," Bartos has experimented with humble materials used in elegant and innovative ways. The capitals atop the rough-hewn wood columns are cleverly made of galvanized metal drain pipes crowned with garden tubs, each planted with cascading grape vines. In an anteroom off the main court, he has used ordinary Italian cypress to make extraordinary garden sculpture--a temple of cypress.

The wildly romantic garden by Sassafras Nursery of Topanga called "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is an outdoor bedroom "with a Gothic kick," according to designer Eric Solberg. Although the idea of sleeping in a garden surrounded by roses is tempting, this garden is really a fantasy.

Screened by giant topiaries, a massive Gothic iron bed with matching candelabra sits on a rug of dichondra edged in Irish moss. Giant faux-concrete pillars covered in climbing roses make it a partially enclosed garden room, and there are more roses and other typically lush English plantings at the base of the pillars. One pillar stands in an ornamental lily pond and each has an old Tudor rose sculpted into the cement finish.

Some find new gardens a bit like new shoes--too stiff, not scuffed enough and uncomfortable to be in. There are ideas for instantly aging a garden at Burkard Nurseries' display. In just a few days, this Pasadena nursery has made "An Abandoned Garden," using a mix of antique materials and unusual plants.

You'll have to peek through some overgrown shrubbery to see the garden, but inside is a small patio of old diamond-shaped tiles salvaged from a historic estate. The metal patio furniture, weathered by years of use and missing its cushions, and a rusty garden rake missing a few teeth add to the aged effect.

But what really makes the garden seem forsaken are the small perennials and tiny bulbs sprouting from the gaps between the tiles, like "no one has worked on the garden for a very long time," as Frank Burkard Jr. put it. The flower beds around the patio are happily overgrown, and, as in many old gardens, there are some exciting discoveries to be made among the herbage.

You can't miss two tropical-looking plants that say "Los Angeles"--the bold, red-leaved crinum lily in full flower and the outrageous variegated banana with its cream and green leaves. An impressive variegated lemon (named 'Sunstripe') is a striking tree if there ever was one, and it's anyone's guess where Burkard found these old specimens of a fairly recent plant introduction.

One of the more colorful displays promises to be Jane Adrian's "California Eclectic," which ties all sorts of diverse elements together with the unifying colors found in some Arizona boulders. She brought in 20 tons of this reddish rock, found at a working gold mine and streaked with exotic minerals, such as the opal-like chrysocolla, light blue azurite and bright green malachite.

A Craftsman era-inspired trellis and a gazebo are stained the same color as the mint-green chrysocolla, and Adrian aged an arbor of copper pipe, inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, with the same verdigris color. In the center of the display, one boulder makes a spurting fountain.

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