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The Dry Garden: A preview of the Theodore Payne native garden tour

April 1, 2011 |  8:00 am

Payne-Shields-L-back
The problem with selling native plants in garden centers is that the natives are reluctant seducers. For much of the autumn and winter -- prime planting months in California -- they’re discreet. Their foliage comes in the understated colors of a Craftsman paint palette. Give the plants too much water, and they rot in their pots. Flowers are few. Only in spring, usually far from town, safe distances from our hoses, do native lilacs lead the charge into blossom with a cobalt-blue eruption. After them come the pink and white spires of coral bells and clarkia, masses of orange poppies, along with every color of penstemon, irises and monkeyflowers. Only shoppers who know what a native looks like in spring can envision its potential in the fall, when it’s time to buy and plant.

Payne-Shields-L-cat By comparison, exotic plants are favored by retailers because their leaves often come in leprechaun greens. Impatiens and hibiscus heave with blooms so lurid that a crayon company couldn’t match their pizazz. The joke is on us, because once we get them home, many become pest magnets that demand heavy irrigation and expensive regimens of fertilizer, amendments and pesticides.

The native-plant movement in California needed decades of false starts to overcome the fact that the best-adapted and most consumer-friendly plants were the hardest sell. Then the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley had an idea. If it couldn’t get native plants to strut their stuff effectively in stores, the foundation would bring customers to native gardens. Conventional garden clubs had tours. Why couldn’t Theodore Payne?

Eight years in, the Payne tours -- April 9 and 10 this year -- are doing something that no one imagined possible. They’re rivaling or exceeding conventional tours for attendance while drawing a whole new audience. Crowds aren’t necessarily affluent, just smart: young families, artists, educators -- people who want beautiful gardens but not at the expense of the environment or our wallets.

Other tours might charge $5 a garden, but admission for the Payne tour is a flat $20 for access to 35 gardens over two days. Some fine houses are on the tour, including one by Lloyd Wright Jr., but that’s almost accidental. The tour is not for mansion gawkers. Rather, most of the gardens surround the kinds of cottages, bungalows and houses that so many people occupy.

Payne-Novick-L-wide2
Notable among the new gardens on the tour this year is the one belonging to teacher Lisa Novick and USC physicist Nicholas Warner. What makes their La Cañada Flintridge garden, above, worth a trip to the foothills is the way that it incorporates flowers, food and recreational value in a small space while staunchly limiting the energy and water needed to sustain it.

Payne-Novick-L That, and it’s drop-dead lovely.

Ten years ago, its small, sloped terraces were dominated by Bermuda grass. Now coral bells, sages, buckwheat, a flaming Western redbud, an elderberry and red fescue native lawn serve as a prelude to a salad, citrus and herb garden.

Behind a garage, Novick and Warner have rigged a 660-gallon rain barrel capable of storing enough water to ease the transition from a wet spring to summer dormancy.

There are curiosities, too, such as the kind of California gum plant used by Native Americans.

Novick, left, and Warner worked hard -- hardest at removing the Bermuda grass. But now that the new garden is established, Novick has a message for people considering a switch to natives. “If you’re not good with plants, these are the plants for you,” she said. “Look at how well they do here left to their own devices.”

For educators thinking of taking the tour, it merits noting that Novick, a certified teacher, is the person behind Theodore Payne’s classroom program.

It’s also worth a trip to the Culver City-Mar Vista border to see some of our most glorious chaparral, woodland and desert plants used with strict economy at the home shared by furniture designer J. Shields and his wife, accountant Anne Tannen. Mulch is decomposed granite and gravel. Watering over and above native rainfall is rare. So the burden of weeding is low.

For its sheer style, the garden might be intimidating were Shields not so honest about the mistakes they made to get the garden to this point. He and Tannen are opening their house for the second year to spare others of those same mistakes.

Payne-Shields-L-receipts After producing receipts from his first trip to the Theodore Payne nursery in 1995, he reckoned that only one plant, a manzanita, had survived the many iterations that their front garden has taken.

“I finally understand scale,” he said.

It might seem obvious that the tallest plants should go in the back and shortest ones in the front, but this is a great deal less obvious when all the plants are in 1-gallon pots. Lately he’s been enjoying the challenges of grouping plants and providing continuous flowers for hummingbirds and bees.

Would he have put the surviving manzanita in the same place by the front walk had he the opportunity to do it all over again? “No,” he said. But pruned to display the form of its trunk and striking mahogany bark, the plant has the juju to compensate. Of more than 200 people who visited his garden last year, he said most didn’t just admire it. “They touched it. It’s like they had to feel it.”

Payne-Shields-L-V When Shields and Tannen tackled the yard between the back of their house and his work studio three years ago, they were far more seasoned. This time, they wanted something formal and simple. They achieved it. Ranks of fragrant sages around a palo verde tree could scarcely be more sculptural, filling a small space with just enough shade, scent and color to invite regular traffic of hummingbirds and bees. The surprising note was how fast the desert tree grew from an “8-foot-high stick with two branches” into to a perfectly proportioned patio tree. (It's pictured at the top of the post, along with a second photo of a neighborhood cat strolling by the ceonothus Ray Hartman.)

As Shields, right, and Tannen have run out of space, they have avoided losing the minimalist look by overplanting. Shields has become a penstemon buff, collecting rare seeds, propagating the wildflowers and sharing them with the American Penstemon Society. He thought about planting the strip between the sidewalk and the street but then left it decomposed granite. Better for pedestrians. Easier. Cheaper. Simpler.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future coverage, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

Payne-Novick-L-gum
One interesting oddity in Novick and Warner's garden: a native gum plant.

Photos: Emily Green

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