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Style : Gardens : Growing Fonder

November 05, 1995|BY Judith Sims

I miss Los Angeles.

In the eight months since I moved to Oregon, the sky has drizzled, sleeted, showered and dumped on me. It warmed up, of course, but only briefly. In late spring and again this fall, the nighttime temperature dropped below freezing, and mud has become a new dimension in my life.

I will adjust, I'm sure. I really do like rain, and I will learn to cope with mud. But when I think of all I've had to do up here to begin a garden from scratch--clearing land!--I feel pangs of loss. My Echo Park garden, my lovely, mature, sunny garden with all those familiar plants I'd lived with for 20 years, now belongs to someone else. I can't help remembering how, at almost any time of year in L.A., I could pick a lemon for ice tea or grate its rind for muffins. In winter, I made lime marmalade because there were so many glorious green gems on the lime bush. I squeezed blood oranges for beautiful juice. My young guava tree bore a bushel of fragrant fruit about three months before I left, as if to say: You'll be sorry.

If I were still in my L.A. garden, a few tomatoes and peppers would still be growing now. The marigolds, zinnias and cosmos that I started from seed every summer would be parading their last burst of color. And the nasturtiums, alyssum and Italian parsley, which reseeded themselves profligately every year, would no doubt be thriving without me.

I remember sun and how it nurtures year-round oregano, thyme, lavender and, especially, rosemary. My rosemary hedge was about five feet tall and 10 feet long. I brought two rosemary cuttings to Oregon; they probably won't survive outdoors this winter, so I will have to start cuttings every year. Difficult to achieve my L.A. hedge proportions under these conditions.

Echo Park is one of the few sections of Los Angeles that looks pretty much as it did 50 or more years ago. Bungalows built early in this century still survive--as have certain plants growing around them. Crinum, naked ladies, calla lilies and chasmanthe, all venerable mild-climate bulbs, are tough, self-sufficient and beautiful remnants of long-ago landscaping fads. Naked ladies, or Amaryllis belladonna , bloom in June and July, as do Crinum powellii. Both are fragrant pink trumpets, but the crinum is a bigger, bolder, taller plant. The Chasmanthe floribunda and callas ( Zantedeschia aethiopica ) bloom in January and February, the former sending up feathery orange spikes almost five feet tall, the latter unfolding chaste white spathes. These bulbs were all in my garden when I bought the house in 1973. I never fed them, rarely even watered them. Still they flourished, and I like to think they will be there 20 years from now, a kind of gardening legacy, one generation after another.

But it's not just the gorgeous flowers, the profusion of herbs and fruits, the (almost) predictably sunny climate that have me waxing nostalgic. I now yearn for L.A. weeds. My soil in Echo Park was sandy and loose, and I cursed it often because water washed through it without so much as a polite pause. But when it came to weeding, all I had to do was tug--with one hand!--at pigweed, crab grass or purslane, and the hapless interloper was headed for the compost bin. Ah, the easy life.

In Oregon, my first attempt at weeding--a two-handed, braced-foot, gritted-teeth maneuver--didn't budge the innocent-looking green leaf. Yes, leaf. Singular. Grimly, I fetched a spade. I dug. Dug some more. Dug all around the damned thing, only to have it break off about a foot underground. So, of course, the root still in the soil returned in a few weeks to taunt me.

OK, so why am I in Oregon? What possessed me to embark on a life without back-yard lemons, rosemary hedges and weeds of easy virtue?

First, my husband hates L.A. even more than I love it. Second, I have plants that won't grow in Echo Park, such as peonies and lilacs, pears and cherries. Third, a vegetable garden the size of my entire property in L.A., in which I've harvested a veritable rainbow of potatoes (white, yellow, pink and purple), rows of asparagus, a border of rhubarb. Sixteen varieties of tomatoes. Twenty-four kinds of beans.

So, yes, guava, I am a little sorry. But as soon as the mud dries, I'll be fine. SIMS

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If you aren't fortunate enough to live in an old house surrounded by vintage bulbs, you can find them through the following outlets: Burkard Nurseries, 690 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 796-4355; Encinitas Gardens, 1452 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas, (619) 753-2852; and Louisiana Nursery, Route 7, Box 43, Opelousas, LA 70570 (318) 948-3696.

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