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STYLE & CULTURE | GARDEN VISIT

The hardy native returns

Patience, a pickax, a few seeds and very little water turn a drab strip of dirt into glorious winter and spring color.

November 06, 2002|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

Looking at the parched, bare dirt between the sidewalk and the street, Timothy Stirton wondered what would grow there. He had just purchased a house in Silver Lake that had been vacant for years and was surveying his new garden. While sun-scorched ivy covered the gentle slope between sidewalk and house, nothing grew in the trampled and baked strip by the street, not even weeds. "It was not very promising," he remembers.

Then it hit him: Why not plant wildflowers, the next toughest thing to weeds. The research assistant at USC's School of Medicine had experimented with wildflowers before, so he knew how hardscrabble tough they were. He gathered some California poppy seeds and scattered them on the bare dirt in the fall, then waited for winter's rains to bring them up. Five years later, several kinds of wildflowers fill the parkway each spring. Poppies, arroyo lupin, mountain garland, phacelia and other California wildflowers have taken back the street, so to speak, at least in front of Stirton's house.

Meanwhile, the sorry-looking ivy on the hill has given way to colorful native plants from the chaparral -- shrubs and perennials like rosy buckwheat, ceanothus, matilija poppies, penstemon and wooly blue-curls -- and a sprinkling of wildflowers to temporarily fill the spaces between young plants.

To get real California wildflowers, Stirton, 50, had to buy seed packets from suppliers like Larner Seeds in Bolinas and the Theodore Payne Foundation in the San Fernando Valley. Now he lets the plants dry until they're "brittle and crisp," then he pulls or cuts them and shakes the plants over the garden so the seeds fall out. "Where I shake them, they grow," he says. The kinds that thrive in his garden are tough and foolproof, "as long as they get sun and a little rain."

First to bloom each spring are the bright orange poppies, quickly followed by two other shades of poppy, a cream-colored one named Moonglow and a strain named Mahogany Red. Then the purplish-blue arroyo lupin and fiddle neck phacelia join in. The last to the party are the pink and lavender clarkia, appropriately called farewell-to-spring. His favorite is a tall species, Clarkia unguiculata, or mountain garland, that blooms for a long time.

These native wildflowers make a colorful spectacle for at least part of the year, flowering from early March until July. Then they die and dry up. "No amount of water will keep them going," says Stirton. When they're done, they're done.

A few things bloom in the parkway in summer and fall, including some towering wild sunflowers and a few bold datura, with their huge white flowers and stinky leaves, plus some California fuchsia that he transplanted from another part of the garden.

He also gets some summer color from the California poppies, which behave like short-lived perennials. He cuts them back to stubs three times during the growing season and they come back each time, a little less vigorous than before, perhaps, but enough to keep the parkway from becoming too dusty.

But mostly the parkway lies bare in late summer and fall, until watering or winter rains bring up the wildflowers again. This rather abrupt seasonal change puzzles neighbors. "Everybody loves it when the front is in bloom, but in summer and fall, they think I'm raising a bunch of weeds. They call them flowers while they're in bloom, weeds the rest of the year," he says.

"I don't think a lot of people get it. They like what I've done enough to ask for help and information, but then they go out and buy impatiens at Home Depot." Water-loving impatiens are a far cry from droughty wildflowers.

Even a lot of so-called wildflowers are not. Things like annual African daisies or corn poppies are native to other climates similar to ours. True wildflowers have a special cachet. They were here before we built our homes, so native insects and birds are attracted to them. Conversely, they don't tend to attract the pests like giant whitefly that plague exotic plants. Stirton never uses chemical sprays, if for no other reason than that he does not want to kill any of fascinating native bugs and butterflies attracted to the natives, like the pretty little butterfly appropriately called a Blue, whose larva eats the leaves of certain native plants.

Coaxing the blooms

Stirton says growing wildflowers isn't hard -- that's one of the reasons he grows them -- but getting seeds to germinate and take hold the first couple of years can be difficult. When he was establishing the plants, he would wait until after the first substantial rain, usually after Thanksgiving but sometimes in October or early November. He would sow a few days later, in moist soil, even though it might not rain again for a month or more. He often sows more seed in February to lengthen the bloom season.

He does not prepare or improve the soil, though he says getting rid of weeds is a good idea (you will have to weed wildflowers, especially during a rainy winter). He roughens the soil first, with a pickax.

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