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Organized Chaos

Climbing Blooms and Twisting Paths Lend an Air of Wild Abandon to a Venice Garden

March 16, 2003|Susan Heeger

Maureen Eisner grew up gardening in upstate New York, raised strawberries and vegetables on Martha's Vineyard and even gardened in a Manhattan loft, growing window-box herbs and flowers in the '80s for her catering business.

But nothing prepared her for gardening in California. When she came west in 1990 with her husband, John, and their two teenage sons, Coleman and Wardell, she had to rethink her ideas about garden scale, winter hardiness and, most important, seasons.

On the Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, she had to dig up dahlias every fall for winter storage. Her rosemary went into a cold frame. Lavender was a summer annual that became compost in September. In Venice, on the other hand, where she and John bought a house in 1997, plants never seem to rest at all. Lavender not only sails through the winter, it overflows its beds and constricts her front paths. Clematis climbs four times as fast as it did in her East Coast garden.

Not that Maureen is complaining. A sculptor who also works with her husband renovating and selling homes, she watched her Venice garden fully mature from dirt in just five years. The house that she and John transformed from a 1,200-square-foot beach shack to a Cape Cod-style cottage now seems as if it has always nestled amid roses and wisteria. ''Old Venice with a lot of wood and light,'' was the theme they aimed for inside, where they added new walls, floors, ceilings, recycled French doors and vintage windows. Outside, Maureen says, the ''organized chaos'' of a cottage patch was the design inspiration. ''I wanted a trellis in front, with the clematis and climbing roses of New England.''

First she moved a window-blocking heap of bougainvillea and arched it above the front gate. She trained white clematis to climb on the house's exterior along with an 'Eden' rose. Traditional cottage blooms--foxgloves, irises, alliums--gather in beds nearby, along with those feisty lavenders.

A wisteria-covered terrace provides an ideal place for summer breakfasts and dinner parties. Comfortable upholstered furniture inhabits the area. ''In a small house, the outdoors becomes crucial living space,'' Maureen says.

In the garden, the spectrum of greens ranges from the very dark to almost silver, and the plant list reflects Maureen's experiments. For a while she grew hollyhocks and potato vines, until whitefly foiled her efforts. Since no chemicals are used, a severe pest problem generally dooms a plant, but others, such as delphiniums and maroon clematis, soon take their place.

The soil is fed with worm castings, alfalfa meal and peat moss. The result, she says, is ''a huge effort to keep up with. In Southern California, if you plant something right, it takes off.'' Hence, editing is critical, as is documenting whatever is planted to keep tabs on how fast it is growing. "Gardening isn't 'work' for me," she says. "I've always loved having my hands in the soil. It's very grounding."

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