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The Dry Garden: A tip of the hat to a quiet force of nature named Lili Singer

January 28, 2011 |  8:00 am

Lili-Singer-Theodore-Payne

On March 5, what has amounted to a year-long birthday party will conclude with a gala at Descanso Gardens. Everyone with $75 and a love of native plants is welcome to attend a shindig marking the 50th year of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants.

Celebrating the stoic glory of our native flora is a great cause, but this isn't just about the birthday of an organization affectionately called Teddy Payne by KPCC radio host John Rabe. It's not even about the English seedsman for whom the foundation is named. It's about the foundation's special projects coordinator, the homegrown horticulturist Lili Singer, who turns 61 on Saturday and whose nearly four decades of garden teaching in Southern California has much to do with the rise of not only the Theodore Payne Foundation, but also the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, the Southern California Horticultural Society, the city of Santa Monica's sustainable landscape program and many independent nurseries and private gardens.

Singer has done so much on so many fronts that she has more hats than a Stetson salesman, all western. Some will remember her as a 23-year-old who joined her father's Northridge succulent nursery, Singers’ Growing Things, in the early 1970s, or from the now-gone Merrihews nursery in Santa Monica, where she and a customer started the Southern California Gardener, a newsletter that ran from 1991 to 1999. It had thousands of subscribers and earned her a cabinet full of Quill and Trowel Awards.

For many it wasn't the newsletter that made Singer a familiar name but "The Garden Show," public radio broadcasts on KCRW between 1982 and 1996. That Friday program's heyday ended with the death of her father. At its most popular, Singer would simply chat live with gardeners. "It was live call-in, no producer, no computers," she said recently. "Sometimes I brought a Sunset book in, but it took too long to look things up so I did it all out my head."

She is so good at answering questions out of her head that when the city of Los Angeles launched its watering restrictions years ago and Angelenos were up at arms, insisting that their plants would die, public radio station KPCC asked Singer to field live calls alongside then-water chief H. David Nahai. Burbank and Pasadena water companies have since hired her to speak to their customers.

 
Lili-Singer-seedlingsLike some complicated tribe of plants, Singer's fans come in yet more subsets, including those who took her UCLA extension courses, in which she championed the role of beneficial insects, or those who every month see her selling books for fellow garden writers at meetings of the Southern California Horticultural Society, which in 1997 named her horticulturist of the year. Some have met her working with Susanne Jett and Bob Galbreath on what eventually morphed into a landscape program for the city of Santa Monica, and some have called on her as a consultant to find out, say, why their lavender was dying.

Times readers know her from her articles in the Home section. She started in 2003 and only became less regular after the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden cleverly enlisted her in 2004 for a series of Thursday garden talks. In 2007 the Theodore Payne Foundation put her on staff.

The arboretum talks are notable for spicing up that sleepy institution with an agenda that is cutting edge -- at least 20% of the attendees are professionals, including a UCLA landscape architecture instructor. Asked how she manages to program 24 of these talks a year, she said: "I see what I do a lot as editing. There is always something about edibles, something about natives, something practical like making fences and inspirational design talks."

Lili-Singer-seed-spoons Over at Theodore Payne, where Singer and colleague Lisa Novick run the education program, weekend classes routinely sell out. Here the No. 1 task is drying out water-dependent gardeners, then teaching them how to maintain their landscapes once they stop watering the plants to death.

But it is in the foundation's annual garden tour where Singer's touch is so evident. Garden tours were once blue-rinse territory. The Payne tour attracts an exceptionally young clientele for whom the future of our environment and water supply is not somebody else's problem, but theirs. Many at Payne deserve credit for the steadily rising attendance, but it is Singer who inspects and approves the gardens on show.

I'm sure that Singer has faults. If I knew her better, I'd know what those are. But aside from bumping into her at various events and once participating in her arboretum class, my relationship with her is as a reader. When I moved to Southern California in 1998, I received a set of Singer's newsletters as a housewarming present. Last New Year's Eve, I sent Singer a note thanking her for setting me on a path of ever-drier, ever more strongly native gardening. For those of us lucky enough to experience it, it can offer depth and meaning to beauty, along with unparalleled joy.

I will be speaking at the Payne celebration March 5 to mark that institution's half-century and urge all who have learned or in any way benefited from the foundation to come and enjoy the company of the region's most talented dry gardeners. (Don't be intimidated by the use of the word "gala." It's described as "a night of casual elegance." Shake the mud off your Timberlands and come.)

This column, however, is to mark Singer's birthday. Were Theodore Payne alive today, he would surely recognize her as one of his most capable successors.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays.

Photo, top: Lili Singer outside the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants in Sun Valley. Credit: Emily Green

Photo, middle: Singer in the Theodore Payne nursery. Credit: Emily Green

Photo, bottom: Singer holds seed spoons used by the late plantsman for whom the foundation is named. Credit: Emily Green

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