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SPECIAL ISSUE: SPRING GARDENS | BEHIND THE SCENES

A whirlwind before the tour

The primping and pruning start months before finicky strangers step foot inside picket fences, yet the sense of accomplishment draws the most gracious hosts back in year after year. For some, it's not a hobby -- it's an obsession.

March 01, 2007|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

BEFORE Denise Pulley opened her Huntington Beach home for a garden tour, she did what most hosts do. She got ready.

She snipped, she plucked, she swept. She reseeded her lawn and exiled her dog from it. She blew her budget on colorful flora, including two clematis purchased for just the right vertical shoots of purple, lavender and blue. And though she's an organic gardener, Pulley quietly confesses to blasting the landscape with chemicals -- "put the plants on speed," she says -- so they would bud on schedule.

As the tour date drew closer, work grew more frenetic. She missed meals with her family. While weeding in a drenching rain one day, she saw her husband through the family room window, his jaw tight and his head shaking. "It will be over soon," she called out to him, mud streaking down her cheek.

It was over, but not for long. Pulley has opened her white picket gates for garden tours not once but half a dozen times in the last eight years. Like other serial hosts, she allows finicky strangers to tramp over her stone path, judge her gardening acumen and ultimately disrupt life for weeks on end.

"I work my fingers to the bone to get ready," Pulley says. "It's like company's coming, multiplied by a few thousand."

Spring is prime time for Pulley and a growing legion like her. This year's calendar is crowded with more garden tours than ever before. Listen to the tales of those whose landscapes are to be showcased, and it's clear: Gardening may be a hobby, but garden-tour hosting is nothing short of an affliction.

It starts so innocently. Proud homeowners are invited to open photogenic gardens to the public, often to raise money for a worthy cause. Then the madness begins. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars later, one perfectionist admits to crawling around with a flashlight the night before the tour, snipping her Spanish moss into mounds sculpted just so.

The pressure to impress drives some gardeners to put aside vacations and postpone surgeries, to break into nest eggs and bring back burner projects to the fore -- sometimes scaled to Disneyland proportions, tour organizers say.

Novices often need instant upgrades, paying premiums for mature trees and tearing up healthy but ho-hum flower beds in favor of exotics with unpronounceable names. A saleswoman at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar had one client who wanted every flower to have a chartreuse bloom; the woman even bought indoor plants knowing they would die outside a few days after crowds had departed.

Savvier hosts carefully plan their growing schedules and pray that blossoms peak during the right weekend. But even Chris Meyer, who has opened his Sherman Oaks garden of California natives for no fewer than 10 tours, still gets rattled.

"People expect to see a show," says Meyer, who works with his wife, Trish. "So we end up compressing what would be a year of casual maintenance into a week or two of frenzied activity."

During the rush before one event, Meyer stepped on a rake, twisted an ankle and spent a day lying on his side, digging holes for dozens of 1-gallon plants with a hand shovel.

BECAUSE of this winter's freeze and scant rain, homeowners have a lot of work ahead, whether they do the planting themselves or hire professionals. Some start sprucing up their yards a full year ahead of time, resorting to rabid nursery hopping in search of the unexpected.

"I'm jealous of owners who can just point and say to someone else, 'Put it there,' instead of pulling out a shovel," says Kip Smith, whose home will be on the Venice Garden and Home Tour.

There's more to the process than grooming hedges, cajoling buds or, if you're Sheri Henderson of Fountain Valley, replacing an entire bed of delphiniums ravaged by gophers the day before a tour.

Some hosts make hundreds of plant identification tags, each with laminated photographs. Others map out walking routes so visitors don't get jammed or overcrowded. This might mean reconfiguring pathways, and while they're at it, why not replace cracked concrete with Italian granite?

Shae and Alan Gazzaniga spent six months touching up paint, re-covering patio cushions and cleaning up their 2-acre property in the Tustin hills. Shae went so far as to create a tea party scene in the gazebo, with heirloom china, home-baked desserts and cut roses -- from her own garden, of course.

TOUR day arrives, occasionally with surprises -- and not always good ones. Visitors can make snide remarks. At each of the six tours Henderson has hosted, at least one person registered an instant critique by glancing at the garden, turning around and walking out.

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