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The Dirty Dozen

A Group Of Artistic Gardeners Digs Deep For Personal Expression In Their Urban Backyards

March 05, 2000

They paint, they sculpt, they garden. They're the Germinators, a dozen or so young urbanites who've seized on dirt as a medium for self-expression. A world away from the traditional tea-sipping garden clubs, this group digs near downtown Los Angeles--in such spots as Glassell Park and Eagle Rock. Once a month since June of 1998, the Germinators have met to swap seeds, share plants and talk soil. They take field trips to public gardens; they learn about compost and landscape history. Some have years of experience; some are neophytes. In their own gardens--and they all have them--they experiment wildly, with color palettes, foliage textures and landscape styles, from Japanese to Gothic.

In the fall of 1998, the Germinators turned heads at the annual L.A. Garden Show when their surrealist-inspired installation won Best of Show. "As a club, what we do changes constantly," says Elysian Park member Judy Kameon, a painter and garden designer. "We're both irreverent and serious. We break rules, but we're passionate."

As gardeners, the Germinators are a disparate bunch, "though there's a sensibility that we share," says Kameon, who lives down the road from Dodger Stadium on a sprawling hillside awash in pink oenothera, purple penstemon and red banana. Since she started gardening eight years ago, she has built terraces, designed stairs, laid patios and placed trees. Plotting borders, she chose plants for their hues and forms--the ceruleans of certain salvia, the tossing mane of a golden stipa--and their toughness in a tough place. "It's survival of the fittest here," she explains, "though if I see a new plant, I've got to have it."

Just as driven is fellow Germinator Ivette Soler, an actress and cartoonist who works as an associate designer in Kameon's design studio, Elysian Landscapes. In 1994, Soler began to dig around her house in Eagle Rock, laying out a potager, a tropical bower and an entry court that swirls from her front door to the street in waves of red and chartreuse. "I'm not one for the gentle, soothing monochrome," she jokes, preferring instead the sultry oranges of cannas and the bloody depths of double 'Thundercloud' poppies.

Two more Eagle Rock Germinators, artists Patrick Nickell and Jacci Den Hartog, took a quieter approach on a similar 60-by-100-foot lot, shoehorning in a Chinese-inspired strolling garden, a vegetable patch and a stepped-down hillside complete with a checkerboard-floored seating spot. Their favorite plants include pendulous, heavily scented angel's trumpet and 'Limelight' helichrysum, which crawls invitingly around their porch.

Close by, in Glassell Park, Germinators Laura Cooper and Nick Taggart have a white garden stuffed with cardoons and a red garden full of flax and ruby chard that draws the eye toward their chicken coop. A decade ago, they longed for a wild, naturalistic garden, "not knowing," says Cooper, "that it would be just as much work as something manicured and tight!" They proceeded to dig a pond, construct paths and create lush, romantic rooms with plants from Mediterranean climates like L.A.'s. Now, when they're not busy nurturing love-in-a-mist or Jupiter's beard, they're making garden-inspired art: Taggart's features larger-than-life insects, Cooper's appliques of leaves and vines.

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