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Gardens Needn't Be Big to Be Beautiful, Book Says

REBECCA COLE, "Paradise Found: Gardening in Unlikely Places"

November 11, 2000|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rebecca Cole has crafted gardens for urbanites with bathroom-sized balconies as well as country folk whose backyards could accommodate grazing cattle.

Cole says she's learned one thing along the way--any spot, no matter how improbable at first glance, can become an ideal garden with a bit of faith, imagination and detailed planning.

"We have the time and space for only one garden and typically a small one at that," says Cole, author of the "Paradise Found: Gardening in Unlikely Places" ($35, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2000). "Sometimes that little [space] may seem completely inadequate [but] it is possible to create [a lush garden] in the most unlikely places and with very few resources."

Cole, who also wrote "Potted Gardens" in 1997, designs mostly for the rooftops, terraces and balconies of the always-cramped Manhattanites of New York City. But she believes her common-sense strategies fit well in suburban areas such as Orange County.

First, Cole writes, identify the problem. It could be size, too much shade or sun, too much clutter or not enough clutter.

"She makes it sound pretty easy [but] I'm not so sure," says Frederick Moro of Los Alamitos. Moro says he and his wife, Jeri, have "been tinkering with our tiny backyard for months and it still doesn't look right.

"We want fullness and a lot of flowers and color, but it's drab [and seems] more messy and cramped" than anything else.

The Moros are off to a good start just by knowing what they want to improve, Cole says.

"Before you draw a line or order a bush, decide how and where you want to enjoy your green space," she writes. "Every garden should reflect the personality of its owner."

Moro thought about that. "I'm definitely organized," he says. "I don't like the feel of things that aren't orderly."

Cole suggests the Moros (and others facing an overgrown or chaotic garden, big or small) should first relax, then determine what can stay and what should be thrown out. "Do resist the temptation . . . of awakening early one Saturday morning and, with a chain saw, leveling everything in sight by noon," she says. Instead, "start with the things that will give you the most visual satisfaction the quickest."

Do, however, trim back all the wilder shrubs and get rid of the dead or dying. Take a long look at the plants remaining and, if they don't please you, then consider throwing them out. But first decide if adding more of the same or complementary plants and flowers will help build the right environment.

If the garden still looks messy, it may be because there are too many varieties, Cole says. "Now is the time to be ruthless and eliminate some plants because of the jumble of color. This narrowing of the color palette is the single-most important factor in pulling a garden design together."

Find a dominant color and hues that go with it. "many colors fighting for attention add only confusion," Cole writes. Also consider adding a uniform ground-covering plant--lavender or catnip could work--to pull everything together.

Another element to consider is whether the plants are all one size. "If there are no big flowers and you need some height, plant some big clumps of delphinium or hollyhocks," Cole writes.

The Moros are lucky to even have a backyard, no matter how tiny or haphazard. Frances Williams is stuck with a small concrete patio in back of her Brea home, which also has a wooden porch overlooking the yard.

"I have a few [potted plants] but I'm not satisfied," she says. "A fuller [patio or porch] would really add to it all."

Cole, a fan of porch or patio gardens, suggests going with only a few varieties of plants or flowers. "One kind of petunia, verbena or impatiens repeated is a guaranteed hit," she writes. But Cole notes that container-based gardens require a lot of watering, so check for dryness regularly.

Here are a few other pointers for porch or patio gardens:

* Over-plant containers because the more the flowers push out and trail down and over, the better.

* Always water at night so the roots have a long drink before the sun hits.

* Deadhead. The more you pinch dying blossoms, the more your annuals will bloom.

Finally, for either a small or large space, Cole has these suggestions:

* When in the design stage, see plants as a natural border. Create a graceful environment by having taller plants in back and getting smaller as you move to the front.

Start with a tree or architectural element (Cole calls them the garden's "bones"). By putting in, say, a chair, fountain or bushy tree as a focal point, you have something to build from.

* Don't take colors for granted. Besides avoiding clashing hues, study what plants and flowers will look good together, whether it's their leaf or bud coloring. For example, if you have "an old black, cast-iron bucket" as a centerpiece, search for varieties with "rust and chocolate-colored leaves," such as sweet potato vine, heuchera, purple basil and fountain grass.

"The beauty [of your garden] lies as much in the form as in the color choices," Cole writes. "For me, sophistication comes from a simple, focused concept. [For instance] a massive planting of one kind of rose, a wall of birch trees in galvanized tubs or a cozy cluster of iron furniture with chocolate-colored plants.

"When the right elements are chosen, very little [else] is needed to turn it into a little Eden."

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