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In the Garden

Glorious Window on the World of Tulips

One woman's floral legacy in Covina is tended, and expanded, by another.

April 04, 2002|ROBERT SMAUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly half a century, tulips have bloomed in front of this modest Covina home. The first 19 years, they were planted by the home's owner, a schoolteacher named Rea Viney, who put in a lovely bed beside the house. The home's next owner, Helen Crawford, has continued and expanded the tradition for 30 years.

This is no small feat, considering how difficult it is to grow tulips well in a climate that is better suited to citrus. But Crawford, who has thoughtfully planned the garden, gets help from her friends. For the past 25 years, each day after Thanksgiving, friends and family plant an amazing 2,300 tulip bulbs. Children who helped when they were young now have children who help plant, and they are joined by Crawford's children and grandchildren. It only takes a few hours, and by 10 a.m., the garden is planted and ready for another spring. Through the years, this small but spectacular garden has been featured in The Times, Sunset magazine "and in the local paper about 15 times," Crawford said. Her story has also been included in "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul," a compilation of inspiring gardening tales. Flower fever has spread from her garden into many of the neighbor's frontyards, which are filled this time of the year with all sorts of colorful annuals and bulbs that bloom in spring, though only hers depends mostly on tulips, a plant that is not comfortably at home in Southern California. Getting the display she does takes a lot of work. You can't simply poke a hole in the ground and plant a tulip.

Crawford, 79, first spotted the French-Norman house with its tulip display years ago while driving through the neighborhood with her daughter. While she was parked on the side of the road admiring the flowers, "a little old lady came out the door waving her cane at us," recalls Crawford. "She wanted us to get out of the car, scolding, 'Do you think I'd plant all these tulips, if I didn't want people to enjoy them?'" They did get out of the car, and she can still remember how pretty the tulips looked. Ten years later, Crawford leaned on her sofa against a newspaper that she normally never reads and saw a headline noting that the "tulip lady" had died. She contacted the heirs and a short while later bought the house in 1972.

Although she's lived on Palm Drive for 30 years, many still call her home the Viney house. "I keep wondering when they'll start calling it the Crawford place," she said with mock chagrin.

Each fall, back when orange-packing houses lined the railroad tracks in Covina, Viney, the daughter of a citrus-growing family, planted about 800 tulip bulbs imported from the Netherlands, under the north-facing front window, where they were lightly shaded by the house. This bed of tulips still exists, but the big show now comes from a border put in by Crawford that parallels the front walk.

Crawford had observed that in fine English gardens, plants aren't simply placed around the foundation, but also along paths so you can walk beside them. Beds of flowers are much more dramatic when viewed from the ends rather than from the front or sides. Viewed lengthwise, you can't see the bare dirt between plants. The tulips telescope and appear tightly packed, a trick that works with any plant but particularly with those that are spiky or upright.

It was in England that she also saw the prototype for her boxwood hedge, with its steeply angled sides that are not only dramatic and focusing, but also guarantee that all the leaves get sunshine. And she saw how the English backed up their plantings with deep green shrubs and trees, not the fence or walls of a house. So behind her tulips, along the property line, several shrubs and a spectacular dogwood grow under a huge ginkgo. The deciduous trees lightly shade the tulips from the hot, bleaching sun in spring, then completely shade the beds in summer. The dogwood is a seedling from an old-timer that came with the 1932 house and still grows in the yard.

In the big 10-by-60-foot bed that parallels the front walk, she never plants fewer than 25 tulip bulbs in a group, which partially accounts for the spectacle. Plantings of less than 25 tend "to gray out," as Crawford puts it. In total, she plants 100 bulbs for each of 23 kinds each year, but some of these are planted in the narrow beds on either side of the walk, two weeks after the big bed is planted. The paving warms the immediate soil just enough to make those bulbs bloom about two weeks earlier, so she must plant them two weeks later if all the tulips are to bloom at once.

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