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A wild vision, a wild tour

Theodore Payne Foundation's 30-garden tour accents natives.

March 30, 2006|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

FOR most of the 46 years that the Theodore Payne Foundation has worked to educate Angelenos about the splendor of native flora, the group has been largely dismissed as weed huggers. Payne was an obscure English seedsman who championed wildflowers. The California dream was supposed to be about roses in January, not sagebrush. Yet three years ago, the foundation finally discovered its secret weapon: beauty. It would let the plants do the talking. It would stage a garden tour.

Spring garden tours aren't something that any rose society from here to Connecticut hasn't been doing since Victorian times. Yet for this group, coming around to the idea has involved a four-decade learning curve.

Three years in, with 30 gardens on show over two days (for the giveaway price of $10), they are not only getting the swing of it, but they might have mastered the art.

The secret weapon is the plants. California lilac, blue-eyed grass, poppies, monkeyflowers -- all start blooming a full month before the conventional flush of roses pinks up the city in May, so the Payne tour opens the season.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Native plants: An article in Thursday's Home section about the Theodore Payne Foundation's garden tour incorrectly referred to tansies (\o7Phacelia tanacetifolia) as pansies.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 06, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 7 Features Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Native plants: An article in last week's Home section about the Theodore Payne Foundation incorrectly referred to tansies (\o7Phacelia tanacetifolia) as pansies.

Weather permitting, it will be a hard act to follow. Visit even one garden and it becomes a task to control the amazement.

The question becomes: How has the spirit of wild California somehow resurfaced, even in inner cities? Each yard is so right for its place, so filled with flowers, so buzzing with bees, clicking with hummingbirds, even jumping with quail, that they make conventional gardens look as happy as a hothouse violet. These yards are so much more than gardens. They're distillations of springtime -- Los Angeles as it must have always happened before we paved paradise.

The only thing that the foundation might have overdone is choice. The tour covers the length and breadth of the county. The geographic spread is so daunting that to get the best of the tour, the secret is to head straight to the Theodore Payne website and chart a map. And as you start previewing the picture, histories and plant lists, here are six gardens chosen for geographical spread, size and climate zone.

Whichever you choose, give yourself time -- you'll need it.

THE pre-tour buzz among native gardeners concerns the garden of sculptors Andreas Hessing and Karen Bonfigli. Since buying a tumbledown 1918 cottage in Altadena seven years ago, they have transformed its large, long lot into what Hessing calls a "site-specific installation."

"That's art speak," he explains, "for transforming space."

Hessing, an Angeleno born and bred, is transforming an artificial suburban environment back into a California one.

Typical of many of these modest foothill homes, the yard is up front, tiny house at the rear. Because the property is on a hill, with the home at the foot of the incline, they could easily open their front door to a wall of mud after a storm. So, they started by putting in a wall.

"I wanted rock, but not mortar," says Hessing. He decided to adapt the gabion into a domestic garden fence. (Gabions are retaining walls made of basketed rocks, even rubble and have been beloved of civil engineers since the Egyptians first started farming around the Nile.) A domesticated gabion would be easier to install and cheaper than a mortared structure and leave room for those invaluable friends of the organic gardener: spiders and lizards.

Along the street, Hessing and Bonfigli massed native wildflowers -- pansies and poppies were the first to bloom. To protect this ephemeral meadow from the tires of a parked car, they laid a telephone pole as curb guard.

The gabion is broken by a gate. Pass through it, and as the garden slopes downhill to an old live oak and the cottage, earth has been mounded and packed to create a winding walk. During dry season, this curving path lends mystery to a meandering walk. When it's wet, it channels storm water.

Along the edge of the low channel, they planted canyon dudleyas. Many of us have admired these neatly tucked up in pots in Martha Stewart-style succulent gardens. Here, set in a scaled-down version of how they might occur in a canyon, they have wild grace.

Halfway into the garden, the channel opens into a sculpture in which a series of granite polishing wheels have been set upright in earth to look like a plow. In its wake is a stand of tufted native grass, and behind that a sea of concrete blocks shaped like houses. "It's the history of the West," says Hessing. "Agriculture, field, housing development."

If there is a future vision, it is that this garden -- their patch of recovered California -- becomes restored chaparral. There are sages, buckwheat, verbena, California lilac, all kinds of crack for bees.

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