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In the Garden

Their Passion Flowers at This Sale

May 13, 1999|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

It's marked in red on their calendars--I know it is on mine--and zealous gardeners will put on those freeway miles to attend the annual plant sale Sunday at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Some of the knowledgeable sale volunteers fly in from as far away as Phoenix. It's that special.

Visitors and volunteers agree that the event somehow transcends being a mere sale of unusual plants.

"It's more like a reunion," said organizer Shirley Kerins, or a merry convention of the plant-obsessed. "We put it on because we have a passion for plants and want to make them available."

Kerins didn't begin the Huntington's plant sale--which is celebrating its silver anniversary this weekend by featuring silver-foliaged plants such as the new pink-flowered lavender from China named 'Guizo'--but she has overseen it for 20 years and become nearly synonymous with the sale.

Nevertheless, Kerins insists on giving credit to the volunteers, who grow many of the plants, organize and label them, and then answer shoppers' questions.

It is a knowledgeable and dedicated group of people.

People like herb expert Glenn Walker, who comes from Long Beach to work as the herb chairman and who brings some rare herbs to boot. This year the herb section will feature dye plants, such as madder and woad, but will also have a new bronze chervil that has Kerins excited.

Or, Gary and Mary Irish, who fly in from Phoenix to work the perennials area--one of the prettiest and most popular--or Corey Hayes, who takes time off from the Tustin parks department. Randy Shulman started the "will hold" area when just a teenager and still participates now that he's a city planner.

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Everyone involved, however, is quick to credit Kerins and her enthusiasm.

The former director of the gardens, Myron Kimnach, along with other Huntington plant people such as Fred Boutin and John MacGregor, began the sale in 1974, when plant sales were still a novel idea and consisted of a few excess but exciting plants displayed in the parking lot.

Kerins took over in 1979, and she and her crew now have the process so down pat that they advise other institutions on how to hold a sale. It's that well organized.

The event, still held in the parking lot, has grown into one of the largest sales in the country, bulging with rare and unusual plants, but also the not so rare.

"We don't want to be plant snobs," Kerins said. "We also have plants that are simply pretty, that call to us."

During the preview sale for members of Huntington support groups (traditionally busier than the public day), people stand in line for hours and cart plants off in everything from red Radio Flyer wagons to wheelchairs.

It's not just the shoppers who come from far and wide. This year some interesting heliotrope cultivars are coming from England. And the Huntington grew seed from the English company Chiltern of the distinct and beautiful Campanula vidalii, native to the Azores.

Kerins is always on the lookout for unusual plants. She said she only works on the sale part time as a Huntington employee, but she takes her assignment with her even on vacations. Every speaking engagement, whether to Seattle or San Diego, is another excuse to search for unusual plants.

"Finding them is getting harder now that there are so many good nurseries," she said. "It was easy back in 1978 when all you saw at nurseries were juniper, pittosporum and nandina. Now, we have to go farther and farther afield."

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Not only does Kerins orchestrate the Huntington sale, she is a landscape architect--and a proud grandmother.

She came to California in 1968--as an elementary school teacher and a young mother of three sons--from Rhode Island via Maryland, where she first began gardening. Her husband worked in aerospace and they settled in Huntington Beach. Like most newcomers, she was bowled over by all "the great stuff" we can grow in California.

Along with other members of the American Assn. of University Women, she soon became involved in developing a list of historical plants (she had taught history) for the new Huntington Beach Central Library heritage garden.

This led, she joked, to the "happiest four years of my life, taking the two-year certificate program in ornamental horticulture at Orange Coast College." Mothering was still her day job. She also founded the Orange County Herb Society, herbs--with their historical connotations--being her first love in plants.

She was soon hired at the Huntington Library, but she also enrolled in the UC Irvine program in landscape architecture, earning the certificate after interning for landscape architect Fred Lang, who had designed the Central Library gardens.

"This is what happens when you don't watch television," she explained. "I was constantly reinventing myself." By this time her sons were grown and she had moved to Pasadena, where she maintains her office and can keep close tabs on the sale.

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