Sixteen years ago, as a summer heat wave socked the San Fernando Valley with a week of 115-degree days, Joe Stromei transplanted his favorite 'Gold Heart' ivy from a bonsai pot to a broiling garden bed. "Long story short," as he likes to say, he nursed that ivy like a child, feeding it with ice chips and studying its progress on his hands and knees. "Is that silly?" he asks, before delivering the punch: "In three years, the vine engulfed my garden shed."
A handsome man of self-described "patrician proportions," with a beard that swoops up over his ears to work its way around his balding head, Stromei loves a tale that boils down to a tidy epigram. For example, depending on his mood: "Too much fuss can make you hate a plant." Or, "Without the fuss, where's the fun; without the fun, what's the point?"
After 22 years, Stromei's Sun Valley garden lies somewhere between an artful hodge-podge and a zany masterpiece. Though there's nothing stiff about it, some of its plant pairings might set your teeth on edge while arousing your goggle-eyed admiration. What chutzpah! What go-for-broke panache! In their stone-edged beds, roses from coral-pink to deep violet tangle with variegated cannas, society garlic, orange abutilons and blue palms; hellebores as tall as people jostle more abutilons under variegated box elders. Spotted callas, Peruvian lilies, purple delphiniums, salvias--all are flung together with a fearless style and a genuine curiosity about what fate and nature might produce.
A clothing merchant by trade (he owns 7 Aardvark's Odd Ark stores in San Francisco and Southern California), Stromei is a gardener out of temperament and passion. He planted roses as a toddler in Tucson, where he was born poor in the 1940s as the son of a stonemason and a gardening mother. "In my neighborhood," he recalls, "men raised vegetables, women grew flowers. I had to be different." By the age of 12, he had fallen for oddball spider mums, which he collected, propagated and sold before discovering patterned coleus and begonias. At some point, crested succulents caught his eye, and eventually, when he came to L.A. in the '60s and started law school, he was peddling rare plants--and vintage clothes and collectibles--at flea markets. "I dreamed of opening a nursery," he remembers. "But that took capital I didn't have and required me to sell to people I suspected would kill my plants." Similar moral qualms, he believes, squelched his law career ("I had too much integrity to be a lawyer"). He gravitated to clothes for the same reasons he craves plants: The pattern of a vintage tie grabs him just the way a variegated myrtle does--and both have stories to tell. The tie has traveled from hand to hand, neck to neck, witnessing all kinds of human dramas; the myrtle dates back to ancient Rome and early ornamental gardens. "It's the oldest known variegated plant," he observes. "Pliny the Elder wrote about it."
While he doesn't always know botanical names ("Who cares? We're not handing out pedigrees"), Stromei has crossed the world to glimpse plants in native and exotic settings. In South Africa, he ogled aloes and discovered the blue petrea he now has growing on a garden wall. He visited Holland to drink in tulips at the Keukenhof. And a trip to England convinced him that his prized variegated cordylines, previously pampered in a greenhouse, could survive outside among his succulents. "I paint the garden constantly in my mind," he says. "I think about it all the time. Is that silly?"