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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

The show does go on

With successive gardening, nearly every day is a planting day here, and your landscape can be a blooming spectacle throughout the year. The trick? Flout convention and buy plants in bloom.

January 26, 2006|Tony Kienitz | Special to The Times

HOW are those New Year's resolutions coming along? Drink your daily oh-so-healthful goji berry smoothie? Have you counted those calories, hit the gym, hugged the kids or curbed your cussing -- yet?

Good. Then you won't mind adding something to your to-do list.

Act now and enroll yourself in a 12-step program that lets you put flowers -- lots of them -- into your garden every blessed day of the year. Start now and plant a few blooming perennials every month of this year, and you'll have succeeded at successive gardening.

"Plant that way and you can be the designer and not have to hire one," says Wendy Proud of the San Gabriel Valley landscape design and maintenance firm Proud Murphy Inc.

It doesn't matter if your garden is the size of an estate or a stamp. You can begin a habit that, in time, will produce a wondrously personal and perpetually beautiful garden. Successive gardening begins quite simply. On the way to your new Yoga for Aspiring Screenwriters class, note the plants blooming in the neighborhood. Really start to pay attention and you'll be astonished at the number of plants that are in full flower, here, in the dead of winter.

So pick your favorites. Accrue a list. Follow your tastes, and your tastes alone. Conventions be damned.

Once you've made a cursory selection of favored flowers, find your way to a nursery and buy a plant or two from your list. Buy them in bloom. Now, this advice strikes at the heart of an old saw that commanded home gardeners never to buy plants with flowers on them. The traditional, East Coast-centric way of thinking was that a bush with flowers would be dead-head ready far too soon after you plopped it into the ground. You weren't getting your money's worth.

That's a reasonable recommendation when you're shopping for annual flowers such as pansies or snaps or plants that would die under a few feet of snow. Yes, avoid transplants in bloom when your flower season is only a few months long.

But when you live in a clime where nearly every day of the year is a gardening day, then purchasing perennials in all their glory, covered with flashy gobs of color, makes plenty of sense. This technique also encourages you to improve the soil of your masterpiece. You'll bed your new flowering plants into fluffy, compost-filled holes, of course, and then you'll spread your leftover planting mix as a thin, nutritious mulch.

Next, make sure that your new additions receive their regimented dose of water. If you're counting on sprinklers to do the work for you, check to see that plants don't block the spray and that water can reach the right spots. Make necessary adjustments, and you're done for the month. Apply this technique month after month, year after year, and you'll have created a spectacle likely to attract a tour bus and a churro cart.

Interior designer Lauren Elia of the Elia Design Group has a trained eye for color and a fierce appreciation for how integral a garden can be in making a home remarkable, yet she has had to reinvent her frontyard several times. Her Pasadena garden faces north and has been a hard nut to crack. The light is spotty and short. Spring and summer have brought enough bright petals to sate Elia's yen for flowers, but fall and winter often have been bleak. Each January she finds herself spending hundreds of dollars on annual flowers in an attempt to brighten up the place -- a costly Band-Aid at best, like putting a diamond tiara on Jimmy Kimmel.

Eventually she turned to Mark Bartos Landscape Design, known for creating beautiful, moody gardens with lots of pastels, an almost sepia-tone plant palette. "Lauren's was an unusual garden for me. For one thing it's not mauve," Mark Bartos quips, adding that he usually designs low-maintenance year-round gardens that emphasize foliage over bright blooms. "But I knew Lauren wanted her flowers too. So she got them. Something for every season."

Bartos painted a backdrop of shade-tolerant plants that contrast and accentuate the flowering plants. This month, red cestrum blooms blaze in front of limelight green pittosporums and dark-leafed camellias, whose soft-tissue pink buds await their turn. The electric Kool-Aid purple flowers of Tibouchina urvilleana (princess flower) splay gaudily beside silver junipers. The leptospermums have just locked, loaded and fired off blasts of pink. The lavenders, westringias and roses have fistfuls of flowers -- and will really jump into action in springtime, as will the abutilons and Teucrium fruticans (bush germander).

"I love all the ins and outs," Elia says. "There's always something beautiful to look at." Because Bartos has used foliage colors to give the garden visual bones, the limited number of flowers are nicely emphasized.

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