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The Fall Garden / SEASON PREVIEW

Plotting the future

Dry, hot weather has done its damage. Now's the time to repair and replant.

September 27, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

SHE has mulched, watered, weeded, plucked and pruned. Jan Smithen even did a little rain dance in her Upland garden earlier this year when it seemed the hot, dry weather might never end. Maybe that's what finally did the trick.

The recent storm notwithstanding, a combination of too much sun this summer and too little rain last winter -- along with a killer frost -- have conspired to weaken or kill some plants in Smithen's Mediterranean-style garden, which is crammed with drought-tolerant species that she believed could tolerate such climatic affronts.

She's not alone. All over Southern California, gardeners are taking stock, counting casualties, wondering what to do next, now that fall planting season is here.

Smithen, whose gardening classes at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden were packed for nearly two decades until she retired a few years ago, ought to have some answers. After all, she did write a definitive book on Mediterranean-style landscapes, "Sun-Drenched Gardens," published by Abrams in 2002.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Gardening preview: In a Sept. 27 Home story previewing the fall planting season, a quote from garden expert Jan Smithen misspelled Salvia guaranitica as Salvia granitica.

Her own sun-drenched garden, shown here before summer's sizzle, was meant to survive Southern California's extended dry season. "That's what nature intended for these plants," she says. "They adapted over centuries to the Mediterranean climate of parched summers and relatively mild winters with decent amounts of rain. They conserve moisture by going into a kind of dormancy in summer, and then they bloom gloriously in fall, winter and early spring."

But there wasn't enough rain last winter, and then it was too hot for too long a time, she says. She watered and watered -- far more than her usual every-other-week routine. But for certain plants, the extra attention was too little and too late.

A first-time visitor might not notice the difference, because even in a state of distress, the garden is an exotic gem of classic Moorish design: a small, walled sanctuary with straight, intersecting paths and rectangular areas of planting. An arbor bisects the garden, dividing ornamentals from food producers such as figs, pomegranates and tomatoes; pear trees are espaliered on the sides. Terra-cotta pots are massed on the patio, which fronts the garden and is shaded above by wisteria on the pergola.

"Wisteria isn't native; it's from Asia," she says. "But it's great for summer shade. And it's deciduous, so it lets sun flood in during winter."

There isn't a cactus in the place. Smithen likes them, she says, but not in her backyard, which has no connection with the desert.

"Novices think drought tolerance means cactus, that it means spiny and leafless plants," she says. "That's not true."

Her preference is for plants that are more lush and aromatic, redolent of gardens in Italy, Greece, Spain or France, with delicate leaves in shades of gray-blue and pale green.

Scents of dry pine and olive, cistus and sage, citrus and cedar waft as you walk through. Smithen says at least 175 species are growing here. Aloe, euphorbia, santolina, acacia and lantana mix with geraniums, roses and lemon-scented thyme. Many plants are native to the Mediterranean climate zones found along that sea, in California, on the south and west coasts of Australia, at the tip of South Africa and along central Chile.

Smithen has led tours to these regions, knows them inside out. Yet here she is, sitting in Upland, surveying what she calls the death and destruction of plants she could not protect.

"Those that suffered most were young ones of all kinds," she says. Planted last fall, they didn't have enough time to establish themselves before climate stresses took their toll.

"A good example are the new lavenders, which are a mainstay of any Mediterranean garden," she says. "I have so many kinds, and my new ones should have made it -- would have made it in any other year. Look: This one is half-alive, half-dead. I have to decide: Do I leave the part that's alive? A garden isn't a plant hospital. It's meant to be pretty. You have to just grit your teeth and pull it out."

Smithen points to another plant well-suited to our climate: Euphorbia characias. "I have a charming new cultivar called 'Tasmanian Tiger,' " she says. "Some of those made it, some didn't."

What gardeners must do right now is organize, she says. Clean up and assess damage. Learn the characteristics of your flora.

"Some plants, like this Salvia granitica, need to be cut back," she says. "Salvia forms a tuft of foliage at the base. If you cut it clear back to that tuft, the whole plant will rejuvenate by itself."

Remove what's dead or unlikely to survive.

"You're creating space for something wonderful and new," she says. "Gardeners always have something they'd like to try. I'd like some new hesperaloes. And I want to try urginia, a big Mediterranean bulb with nice foliage and the most gorgeous, soft yellow flower that blooms in spring. In summer it retreats back down to its bulb."

After deciding what new plants to try, decide how many of each to buy.

"A basic tenet of gardening is repetition of plant material," she says. "Not just one of everything, but multiples of three or five of each thing. It's really important because groups of the same plant add visual cohesiveness and serenity."

Another basic tenet: contrast. Juxtapose different forms, textures and colors. Dramatic aloes go next to delicate lavenders for contrast.

"When you have something with a fine, delicate leaf, put something more bold next to it," she says.

"That geranium, with its sturdy, lime-green leaf, is next to a wispy, delicate Australian mint. That's done purposely."

After new plants are in the ground, spread organic mulch. Then pray for rain. This last year has reminded Smithen that if plants can survive that first year, their chances are good for long life.

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bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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