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SO CAL GARDENING | In the Garden

The Plot Thickens Spectacularly

May 27, 1999|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

I can't ever recall apologizing for having too many flowers, but this spring, I've had to on several occasions.

I've felt compelled to explain to visitors that normally the garden doesn't look like this--that I really do understand the concept of restraint--but this spring the garden is just so, well, exuberant.

I've pointed out that other gardens look equally over the top. I've received dozens of calls from gardeners who are thrilled, even a little surprised, with their plots this spring and really want me to have a look.

It has obviously been a very good spring for flowers, roses in particular.

In my own somewhat coastal garden, where problems with roses often abound, I had forgotten that roses could look this good. No bugs, no diseases, at least not yet. Bushes are so covered with blooms that foliage disappears and branches drag on the ground.

Both the shrubby 'Lavender Dream' and 'Lady of the Dawn' are so covered with blooms that they look more like lavender pink and pale pink haystacks.

Some of this is our doing. After seeing how happy plants were with 30 inches of El Nino rain the previous year, we made sure to water during this dry winter. The calendar said it was December or January--the middle of the "rainy" season--but my wife was out dragging half-frozen hoses around the garden nearly every week.

We also tried an experiment on several of the bigger and bushier roses that paid off big time. For instance, 'Lady of the Dawn,' which is considered a floribunda of sorts, was sending out 6-foot-long arching canes with flowers at the very end. We had been cutting the bush back to the typical height of 3 feet or so in winter, but in January we only cut off the very tip of the arching canes and shortened side branches, as you would on a climber.

As a result, masses of flowers formed all along the 6-foot canes--instead of only at the end. And when they all came into bloom about two weeks ago, it was an unbelievable sight.

This technique won't work on most roses, but on those that tend toward shrubbiness or that make those long arching canes, it's worth a try. The approach works on many English roses; we tried it on an older Austin named 'Mary Rose' with similar results--you couldn't have fit another frilly petal onto that rose bush, it was so loaded down.

While winter irrigation and pruning played their parts, it's obvious that this is simply a very good rose year. And it's not just the roses that are having a good run--so are the perennials planted between them.

Our backyard, recently redone after a remodel, has finally filled in the way we hoped it might: No bare earth shows, and plants seem woven together in a complex and colorful tapestry.

To get this look, we used a lot of perennials that are what some gardeners call weavers or spillers. These plants don't grow as a clump of flowers and foliage but are much more relaxed, with a tendency to wander.

Let me give you an example.

Growing next to the shrubby 'Lavender Dream' rose is an elegant, magenta-flowered Salvia puberula. The stiff, grayish leaves of bearded iris grow to the other side. In between is a clump of Sisyrinchium striatum with its dainty, cream-yellow blooms. It's a stunning group of plants, but what ties it all together are those weavers and spillers.

Several true geraniums, including one named 'Biokovo,' have spread under the roses and through the salvia. A new, soft yellow form of Santa Barbara daisy spills between the bearded iris leaves, like sand between your fingers.

Pushing up between the angular stalks of the sisyrinchium are the dusty plum, swept-back petals of Geranium phaeum, a neat contrast in color and texture. A couple of yarrows--a deep burgundy and a soft yellow--were also let loose in this area to spread where they might, covering all bare ground in the process and popping up in unexpected places, as they do in the wild.

Now, thanks to this unusually exuberant spring, our meadow-like border of perennials and roses looks great--although I confess, I won't mind a bit when some of spring's flowers begin to fade and a little calm returns. Some spots of green might be nice here and there in this embarrassment of riches.

In the Garden is published Thursdays. Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail robert.smaus@latimes.com.

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