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Garden Visit

In Full Bloom --Even When the Heat Is On

Sharon Lowe's inland garden proves that plants (including flowers) can love sizzling summers.

August 24, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

When it's nearly 90 degrees outside at barely 8 a.m., "you know you live in a hot climate," said Sharon Lowe, on a splendid but rapidly warming day this past spring. She was standing in her flowery garden in La Verne, which is just the other side of the low, oak-dotted hills that separate the San Gabriel Valley from the very beginnings of the toasty Inland Empire.

"We don't know 70 degrees," she said. "It's either a lot hotter or a lot colder. There are no in-betweens." Many of the more common plants that do so well on the mild coastal plain perish here in the 95-degree heat that can last for weeks. Yet Lowe's garden is full of colorful flowers in the middle of August.

This would not be so surprising if this garden were near the cooling influence of the coast, but it is quite a remarkable sight this far inland. Many, if not most, California gardens pictured in magazines and books are coastal, in places like Santa Barbara, Malibu, Palos Verdes and Corona del Mar.

Lowe, 53, has been gardening in the heat for years. She grew up in Covina and Glendora and worked as a California Certified nursery person at the Glendora Armstrong Nurseries for 20 years. She has two grown children who garden (one near the coast!) and her husband, Dean, has a railroad in one corner of the garden.

She has consulted, taught, and gardened for other people as well, developing some strong opinions on what works and what doesn't in hot, interior areas.

A local newspaper once called her the "Inland Garden Queen," and her 25-year-old garden is living proof that many plants--flowers in particular--love the heat. She even has a Web site for her garden, http://sharonsgarden.n3.net, and has recently begun a newsletter of inland gardening advice. She grows mostly flowers--"I want color"--and is partial to those that bloom all the time and do not require much work. Lowe has no shrubs in the conventional sense, and her few shade trees, such as the bright gold Cassia leptophylla and the crepe myrtle, all bloom heavily.

But she most values plants such as the white heliotrope that is "the backbone of my garden right now," because the hotter it gets, the more it blooms. She points out that white-colored flowers really sparkle in the heat.

She treasures the pink Flower Carpet roses, whose long low canes she fastens to the ground with pegs so they can flow between other plants and their flower clusters can pop up unexpectedly.

She's crazy about plain old pentas and the Blizzard strain of geraniums, which bloom all the time, and the red-flowered angel wing begonias. Lantana is another favorite. "It likes me," she said, her way of saying that plants should be chosen for their ability to grow well in a particular climate or area--not because you like some particular plant. Though she loves ranunculus, Lowe no longer plants them, because they don't come back the following year.

"I learned long ago not to tolerate prima donnas in my garden--they've got to hold their own" she said. Either they perform or they're replaced--"They all know fear," she said.

Lowe looks for plants that "cycle." She cuts them back after they finish blooming, and they start all over again. She calls them perennials, but they are not the traditional herbaceous perennials of England and the East Coast.

Her perennials--like the pentas, heliotrope, geraniums and begonias--bloom for a much longer time than traditional perennials and are often somewhat shrubby. None die completely to the ground in winter, like a herbaceous perennial, but most slow way down. Some actually need protecting from the inland cold, which she does by keeping them against a south-facing wall, or by covering them with spun Reemay horticultural fabric.

Many of her plants grow in containers so they can be moved around or have special needs met. Lowe is a can't-help-myself collector of old garden things. Her favorites are on shelves in the house or on the patio (some are even tucked into the eaves). But those in less-than-perfect shape often end up as planters, especially galvanized pots and buckets. "I've cornered the market on galvanized!"

Because her so-called perennials do so much flowering and growing, they need more frequent pruning and tidying up than do traditional kinds. Right now, she is in the process of trimming many so they can come back into full bloom in the fall. She's cutting back things such as the heliotrope, the Santa Barbara daisies and the daisy-like euryops.

She is also cutting off about a third of the growth on her roses and even the bushy bougainvilleas growing in pots get cut back severely in late August. Lowe has found that--if she properly prepares the garden in August by pruning and then fertilizing--the fall bloom will be nearly as nice as the spring.

She likes plants open and airy and works to keep the insides free of dead stems and leaves. If she has to sacrifice a few weeks of flowers in the name of neatness, she is quick to do so.

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