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Lemon Aid

It's a fruit, a color and a scent. And in the garden, it's a theme designed to let the sunshine in.


Everyone loves lemon. Its smell enlivens and rejuvenates us, suggesting summer and the warmth of sunshine. The taste of lemon reminds us of iced tea with citrus slices and mile-high lemon meringue pies. It also makes our mouths pucker, creating that unmistakable twinge at the back of the jaws.

A lemon garden not only lends to these sensory pleasures but also becomes a joyous burst of light in the summer landscape. In overcast and rainy weather, it beckons with an atmosphere of luminosity, infusing the air with golden rays that remain into fall and right through winter.

Defining Boundaries

The first step in creating a lemon garden is to define its structure. With a backdrop of leafy plants, climbing vines and trees, your placement of lemon-hued plants will take on a more aesthetic and cohesive form.

Bea Grow, a member of the San Diego Horticulture Society, has filled her San Clemente gardens with lemony accents.

"It's important when developing a good working structure, or what is referred to as the 'bones of the garden,' to first consider the permanency of trees, large evergreen shrubs, luxuriant perennials and hardscape elements like walls, fences and trellises," Grow says.

"It is very difficult to have a garden that looks good without something definitive in the background, even tall, stately or rambling plants. You have to have something that marks the periphery, that says, 'This is the edge of the garden; this is where the eye ends.' "

Easily managed evergreen shrubs can serve as a garden's backbone. Use plants such as phontinia (P. fraseri) with dark green foliage as a screen or background and xylosma (X. senticosum) for its loose, graceful growing habit and yellowish-green leaves. A more compact shrub is pittosporum (mock orange) 'Wheeler's dwarf.'

Next, introduce classic climbers such as clematis, rose and wisteria, Grow suggests.

"Use variegated lime and dark green ivies, or ivies with gold-yellow markings, allowing them to intertwine with other leaves. Or put ivy on a trellis, and train it as an upright plant."

Tall plants such as dahlias and gladiolas, which have yellow varieties, introduce sturdiness to beds (plants need to be well-staked early on). Lemon-colored cannas are spectacular in masses and, like dahlias and gladiolas, increase in number each year, adding maturity to the garden.

Sunflowers, hollyhocks (single and double), hibiscus and spiky lime-yellow blooms of euphorbia are other good choices; perennial yellow chrysanthemums give beds a late-season golden glow.

In planning your lemon garden, remember to focus on the size of each plant, its form and spreading habits and the color balance it will provide next to its neighbors when blossoming.

The Fragrant Herbs

Herbs are so versatile and easy to grow that, for the lover of lemon, they form an essential part of the lemon garden.

"People think of herbs as little plants that stay small," says Ron Vanderhoff, president of the California Assn. of Nurserymen in Orange County and manager of Flowerdale Nursery in Santa Ana. "Some herbs actually grow to a mid-sized shrub, like lemon verbena, reaching 4 to 6 feet." (The perennial does tend to look shabby in winter and needs to be cut back to 12 or 18 inches.)

"One of our most spectacular new herbs is a lemon variety of basil, 'Sweet Dani,' " says Jeanne Dunn, owner of Herban Garden, an herb farm in Fallbrook, Calif. The annual "is a vigorous, large-leafed basil with a strong lemon scent that can reach 2 1/2 to 3 feet."

Voted an All-American Selection for 1998, this basil is easy to grow from seed or nursery starts.

The leaves of pelargoniums, commonly referred to as scented-leaf geraniums, release volatile oils and pleasant aromas when rubbed.

"Mabel Grey is the most outstanding pelargonium for lemon scent," says Grow, who is also a member of the Orange County Geranium Society. Reaching a height of 3 to 4 feet, it has bold palmate leaves, purple flowers and a lovely lemon verbena scent. "Last year, Ann Folkard, a hardy true geranium with light lime-colored leaves and magenta flowers, intertwined with Mabel Grey, and together they made the most fantastic sight."

Adds Grow: "You can tell your pelargoniums from your regular geraniums very easily. Pelargoniums have five slightly asymmetrical petals that make up their flower blossoms. Geraniums, on the other hand, have round blossoms with five petals, all evenly spaced with uniform shape."

A Gallery of Lemons

Any lemon garden worth its pucker boasts at least one lemon tree, whether grown in-ground or in a container. one idea is to flank the garden's entrance with two terra-cotta pots planted with dwarf or semi-dwarf lemon trees. Or plant one glossy-leafed tree at the heart of the garden.

"Standard lemon trees will reach a height of 15 to 20 feet and are too large for most home gardens," Vanderhoff says, and such trees are hard to harvest. "Semi-dwarf trees are better choices, reaching a height of 10 to 12 feet, as are true dwarf varieties, which top out at about 4 to 6 feet."

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