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In the Garden

The Key to a Dream Vacation: Spring Rain

March 08, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Call me crazy, but I was delighted when it rained on my vacation. I've always thought that every rainy day should be a holiday, at least for gardeners. In Southern California, rain is so special, so important, so fleeting, so seldom.

Rains that last for more than a few hours, like the recent storms, evenly soak the ground, getting those spots that sprinklers can't reach, or where water normally runs off. Even short rains clean the choking dust and grime of the city from leaves, one reason everything suddenly looks better after a downpour.

Soaking rains get deep in the soil where tree roots forage, and they push harmful salts (from our irrigation water) out of the root zone.

And without rain, there would be no flowers. Knowing this, can you blame me for standing by the back door, looking out, enjoying every moment? I know that the slick freeways are a mess, but I'm on vacation--I don't have to be anywhere. The garden--already starting its spring show--looks so different in the stormy light. In the usual sunny glare, the soil--even though it is full of organic matter and other good stuff--is a lifeless gray. Damp and dark, it becomes the perfect background, making everything look much greener, or more brilliant. Many colors positively glow.

Yellow daffodils, which before the rain almost went unnoticed in the bright sunshine--even though they grow in the middle of a path--are suddenly radiant under a stormy sky.

These particular daffodils are small-flowered and only about a foot tall, but they bloom profusely and reliably every year. Regrettably, I lost the name tag, so I can't tell you what variety they are.

They came to be in the middle of a path that we relocated in summer, forgetting that the dormant bulbs lay underground--a happy accident, since they look splendid popping though the wet, earthy leaf litter that doubles as paving.

I do know the name of the other bulb blooming in our garden for the last few weeks. It has the seldom-used common name of cape cowslip, being native to South Africa's Cape Provence, but the few gardeners who grow it call this bulb by its botanical name of Lachenalia, in this case L. aloides, also sold as L. tricolor.

This is not a common fall-planted bulb, and I found mine in a trash can. The local nursery had been trying to sell blooming plants of this bulb with no luck, so it tossed them all in the trash. "You're kidding," I said. "Mind if I fish those out?"

I confess I haven't had much luck convincing people of the merits of this bulb either. I first raved about it nearly two dozen years ago, yet it remains an obscure little plant that is easier to find in a nursery's trash bin than in its autumn bulb display.

Though the plants look like a cross between an orchid, a succulent and a firecracker--with thick spotted leaves and tubular flowers that glow like embers on rainy days--they are tough as nails, at least when grown in containers where they are safe from slugs and snails, and can be kept bone-dry in summer. I tip the pots of bulbs, native to another summer-dry climate, on their sides in summer and let them go completely dormant, then revive them in late fall by watering. They bloom for several weeks in the dead of winter, and rains do not damage the waxy flowers. Even some recent hail did no harm.

Another favorite flower blooming heavily right now is a small-bloomed abutilon that I have trained against a fence. "Trained" is used loosely here, since abutilons are about as easy to train as cats, which means they do what they want or grow where they will--all I can do is keep tying the gangly stems to the fence and then shear them when they lean too far into the garden.

Even with this unsophisticated care, this abutilon--a mauvy pink variety named 'Seashell'--manages to bloom like few other plants in the garden, for months at a time. If I stop pruning it in the fall, it fills out nicely and blooms heavily, the striking flowers hanging like hundreds of little bells.

Though the rainy, overcast skies make lots of colors in my garden seem more vibrant, a few are unaffected. The vibrant deep red cestrum named 'Bacchus' that blooms in winter, for example, is no brighter and actually seems a little calmed by the gray skies.

The fat, tubular flowers from a lavender trumpet tree, a Tabebuia impetiginos, that is blooming overhead look great on the ground and floating in our pond but are nearly invisible against a gray sky. When the sun does break out, the flowers look quite dramatic against the occasional puffy, fleeing cloud.

What isn't already blooming is growing strong. During the last few weeks, I have seen some perennial poppies double in size, their grayish leaves plump and almost lettuce-like, they are so full of moisture. Delphiniums that I just planted are leaping out of the ground.

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