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The backyard, in a different light

Some gardeners are convinced climate change is here to stay, and they're joining the movement toward plants that can tolerate the extremes.

March 01, 2007|Nan Sterman | Special to The Times

MARCH can be a gardener's favorite time of year. The air warms, the rains pass, and green sprouts push up from the earth. Besides, who wouldn't welcome spring after the winter we've had?

In Van Nuys, Palos Verdes, Upland and Oxnard, temperatures dropped to the mid-20s. Burbank and San Juan Capistrano fell into the teens. Snow fell in Malibu, Santa Clarita and parts of the west San Fernando Valley.

In some communities, the only evidence of hard times were a few crunchy bougainvillea leaves. But in others, the record cold combined with limited rainfall and strong winds to far-reaching effect, especially on subtropical plants. King palms, pink melaleuca, birds of paradise, banana, plumbago and other oft-used landscape plants turned unnatural shades of brown as their cells burst from the cold. Eugenia hedges turned the color of rust.

Will the extreme temperatures return? Will dry conditions continue? Many gardeners and professional landscapers throughout the region aren't waiting for an answer. They're rethinking their plant choices now, shifting away from flowery perennials and lush subtropicals and instead looking to plants -- California natives as well as species from South Africa, the Mediterranean basin and parts of Australia -- that survived not only the intense heat of last summer but also the bitter cold of winter.

This spring Culver City-based designer Mayita Dinos is reconsidering the plants she uses for structure, especially screens and hedges. Dinos designs residential and commercial gardens from Pasadena to Malibu, and privacy screening is a high priority.

For instant hedges, Dinos has relied on mature specimens of Indian laurel fig, a tall, dense-leaved Asian evergreen that was among the hardest hit by the cold. Specialty grower John Schoustra of Greenwood Daylily Gardens in Somis reports acres and acres of dead Indian laurel fig near his growing grounds, leaving Dinos and her colleagues with a dilemma. These plants are expensive under normal circumstances, and with the supply reduced they will cost even more. Should she switch to plants that are more cold-tolerant?

Says Dinos: "I'm considering some of the native hedge materials, such as toyons and wax myrtle."

BUENA Creek Gardens in the north San Diego County city of San Marcos rarely drops below 38, but this year temperatures plummeted into the low 20s, causing significant damage. Once the frost was past, owner Steve Brigham pruned the dead parts off his subtropical evergreens, then planted perennials in the empty spots until the subtropicals fill back in.

For gardeners who don't have that kind of patience, Brigham suggests California native and Mediterranean climate evergreens such as California lilac (Ceanothus), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), bottlebrush (Callistemon) from Australia and tough-leafed bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) from the Mediterranean. Tall, evergreen and drought tolerant, bay laurel is handsome and extremely adaptable to pruning.

When it comes to alternative hedges, screens and structural plantings, Schoustra favors blood oranges and kumquats. These evergreen citrus trees grow fast and have a nice structure. The leaves of blood oranges are intensely green, whereas the small but bright orange fruits of kumquats look beautiful hanging on the tree. Though citrus suffered in areas that dipped into the low 20s, they did fine in most other regions.

But when temperatures dropped to 22 degrees at Schoustra's growing grounds in Bellflower, old standards such as Martha Washington geraniums and fortnight lilies died. Clivia froze, even under protective cover.

Because of the cold, many traditional ornamentals won't be widely available for six months to a year, Schoustra says. Even some pros can't get their hands on plants such as bougainvillea, society garlic or star jasmine. "Agapanthus look horrible," he says, "and the prices of other plants increased 30% two days after the freeze."

On the flip side, Schoustra says it should be a good year for deciduous plants that thrive in cold winters: irises, daylilies, lilacs, saucer magnolias, apples and stone fruits such as peaches and nectarines.

Shelley Jennings of World Wide Exotics nursery in Lake View Terrace specializes in droughttolerant plants and designs gardens as far north as Santa Clarita, where temperatures have hit both extremes in the last nine months. Among her favorite tough plants: coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) and varieties of a pink-flowering sage from Arizona and Mexico called Salvia microphylla.

When it comes to cold and drought, Jennings says, structure is as important as plant choice.

"It is all about layering," she says, "If a garden bed has plants at different heights, then the taller ones form a canopy to protect the smaller ones. They all help each other out."

Farther east, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden horticulture director Bart O'Brien suggests that gardeners take cues from our wild weather as they think about what to plant.

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