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Gardening | IN THE GARDEN

In the Frontyard, a Growing Sense of Adventure

April 05, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Have I mentioned in the last few weeks how much I enjoy our new front garden? Good, I don't want to run it into the ground, but I'm really having fun out there.

If you missed previous columns on this revamped garden, let me explain that it was a lawn and now it's a delightful mix of drought-resistant flowers, including many natives; herbs; fruits; and vegetables.

The garden is enclosed by an unpainted picket fence set back about four feet from the street, so there is room to plant in front of it as well as inside.

Recently, I was away from it for only a week, but I missed it the way a father misses his children, wondering how they've grown or changed.

I got home when it was dark, but early the next morning I was out there with a steaming cup of coffee to see what had bloomed in my brief absence. Lots had. A gardener really shouldn't go away for more than a couple of days in the spring. He's likely to miss too much.

I also had work to do--lettuce to plant, leaves to clean up--but working in this cozy garden is fun and, unlike mowing the lawn, I actually look forward to it. It's what I was thinking about on the flight back.

Should I take out the last of the tasty little golf ball-sized turnips my wife planted and put the lettuce there or take out the parsley that wasn't looking that good and plant it in that row? With the warm sun on my back, it was pleasant work, cultivating the soil while kneeling on the broad edge of the raised beds.

Some fierce winds had wedged leaves from the street trees into every gap between plants, so the next job was to dig them out and put them in the compost. Normally I encourage leaf litter, but these were the hard, indestructible leaves of magnolias that take forever to decay and are bigger than some of the plants in the frontyard.

While cleaning up, I got to see all the things that had bloomed while I was away.

It's not that I don't enjoy the backyard. It's actually quite pretty this spring, despite (or maybe because of) the unseasonable cold and the continuing rain.

There's a bed of old-fashioned cinerarias coming into full bloom in vibrant shades of magenta and purple, many of the flowers ringed with white at their centers. Mixed in with them are the strikingly marked leaves of several kinds of lamium, some white native irises and orange clivias.

The cinerarias, incidentally, are the old-fashioned tall kind, standing about 24 inches on their tiptoes, not those squat, short ones that nurseries often sell but that belong only in a florist's pot.

There are yellow homerias blooming gaily. Surrounded by a seething mass of pink geranium 'Biokovo,' some blue irises are in bloom. There is a sun rose named Belgrave Rose that's a mass of pink, paper-like petals.

There are even little violet orchids, Dendrobium kingianum, blooming in pots on the patio table, in the shade of the market umbrella.

Several other sweet little geraniums whose plant tags I long ago lost, some Santa Barbara daisies, several early alstroemerias, 'Butterfly Blue' scabiosas and a heliotrope that never stops blooming, or growing, round out the early spring show in back.

But my heart's out front. I suspect it has to do with the layout. The back garden is built around a lawn, and even though I have shrunk the lawn to the size of an area rug, there is little sense of adventure when exploring the garden. Standing in the middle of the lawn still feels about as cozy as standing in a baseball field with the flowers all arranged as if they were sitting in the bleachers.

The front is quite different, arranged around narrow, winding paths covered in shredded bark. Plants are tucked all along these trails, so discovering things in bloom becomes more of an adventure.

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Walking the paths is more like a hike in the mountains, except here you can stop and pick the flowers, eat the plants or do a little weeding, which is frowned on in a state park.

Since it's a still developing, newer garden, it's naturally full of new plants, which adds to the fun. I never know what bulb will pop up or what the flowers on this or that will look like.

Next to a rockrose named Cistus corbariensis, which has crinkly pink flowers sometimes marked with white, a new bulb was blooming. Named Watsonia aletroides, it was sent by a bulb company as a coming attraction. It won't be available at nurseries until next fall. It's a pretty thing, about 18 inches tall with neatly stacked, slightly tubular flowers, the same shade of pink as the rockrose.

The first flowers were opening on a plant I had seen only the year before, Cerinthe major purpurascens.

I was up visiting my son in Santa Cruz, and he showed me a great nursery named Sierra Azul, which is plunked down between broccoli fields in Watsonville. It specializes in unusual Mediterranean climate plants and grows many of them in long demonstration beds so you can see what you're buying.

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