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Few phrases are more magical than "English garden." The words conjure visions at once settled and unconstrained: cool emerald vistas, buxom clumps of lilies and larkspurs, rose petals spilling from a tree-hugging vine. Caught in their spell, desert dwellers yearn for picket fences, while Angelenos who thought they had embraced khaki as the new green suddenly make plans to reseed the lawn.

I know. I'm one of them. In the grip of thyme-scented desire, I've endured the hauteur of modernists who equate dainty blooms with chintz-covered tearooms and wasted years coddling a mildew-prone moss rose. What is it, I wonder, that's so seductive about the idea of an English garden? Why does a style that took shape a continent away still have such a powerful hold on our imaginations?

And how — here we get to the abiding questions of a gardener's heart — do we translate its dewy loveliness to our coastal desert climate?

Southern Californians' romance with the English garden is in no way dimmed by the fact that we don't all agree on what it is. For Riverside's Nan Simonsen, a master gardener and lecturer, whose former rose-scented grounds were frequent subjects of Sunset magazine, the term refers to "a beautiful, lush, colorful environment" characterized by its mix of flowers, herbs, fruits and climbing vines.

Her historical model is the dooryard gardens of England's country cottages. Part larder, part medicine chest, part repository for great-aunt Lucy's prize strain of sweet peas, these crowded village-style plots lure us with an appealing combination of companion-planting wisdom and antique chic.

For Silver Lake landscape architect Mark Beall, on the other hand, classic English gardens are the long, airily textured, flowingly colored borders pioneered by British designer Gertrude Jekyll in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are the gardens that were becoming fashionable when Los Angeles entered its own Craftsman-cottage building boom, and their advocacy of natural materials and carefully edited artlessness echoed the city's emerging image as a suburban Eden.

Happily, these definitions aren't as contradictory as they seem. The hallmark of both the grand perennial border and the cozy cottage patch is an expressive individualism. No wonder Los Angeles, home to a bewildering mix of private architecture from Spanish deco to Japanese ranch house, adores the English garden: It is as exuberant and eclectic as we are.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The stylistic attitudes behind these gardens have their roots in the late 19th century, the same expansive decades in which L.A. was built.

For much of that era, English gardens — like English society — were an arena of vigorous control and pompous display. Growers were experimenting with orchids and other exotic imports in greenhouses, and arranging legions of annuals in symmetrical beds that occupied lawns like uniformed regiments. An artistic rebellion, however, was brewing against Victorian formality.

In the name of naturalism, painters were beginning to experiment with blurred outlines and sketchier brush strokes to give a more imaginative impression of their subjects. Designer William Morris created wallpapers and fabrics that evoked the blowsy flowers and innocently twining vines of antique tapestries. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed old-looking new houses in the Arts and Crafts style with simple lines and mellow stone facades.

Lutyens' designs were frequently accompanied by Jekyll's curving borders, which consciously drew on the cottage garden's profusion of bold leaves and delicate blossoms. Jekyll, born in 1843, trained first as a painter at a time when attending art school was unusual for a woman.

A friend of Morris, she was a stocky figure, habitually photographed in squashed hats and gumboots. But her borders seemed almost to float above the lawns that contained them, their clouds of color worthy of an Impressionist painting. To these artistic innovators, anything sensual, individual and seemingly at home where it grew was a welcome antidote to an increasingly industrial society.

Like many of my fellow gardening fanatics, I trace my own English fixation to another era of romantic back-to-the-land naturalism — the 1970s. While some were inspired by rediscovered British classics such as "The Secret Garden," my stimulus was the equally fanciful Smith & Hawken catalog. There, heirloom trowels and benches modeled on those designed by Lutyens promised to lend a patina of picturesque entitlement to a landscape planted yesterday. Of course, there still remained the problem of what I was going to grow to complete the knee-deep-in-Sussex look.

Opening "Plant Portraits" by nursery owner and London garden columnist Beth Chatto, I expected to find pictures of baby's breath and other graceful plants in watercolor tints. Instead, the book fell open to poke weed — the American native whose poisonous black berries are a familiar feature of our vacant lots.

Chatto claims its coarse leaves and shiny berries added "great character" to gardens and flower arrangements. I suspected my neighbors wouldn't see it that way.

The truth is, British gardens are full of American "weeds." Jekyll often planted Southwestern yuccas, enjoying the vivid geometry of their sunray leaves and towering flower spikes. When native plant specialist Theodore Payne arrived in Southern California from England in the early 1900s, one of the first local wildflowers he learned to propagate was the giant, white Matilija poppy. Soon seeds were being mailed across the Atlantic, and the poppy's crepe-paper-like blooms were making themselves at home in British borders.

Indeed, some historians suggest that the English garden, like the French fry, is at least partly an American invention. Jane Brown, author of "Eminent Gardeners," attributes the dreamy English look to one American in particular — the painter John Singer Sargent. His "Carnation Lily, Lily Rose" has been a British favorite since it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, she notes. In this lushly painted canvas, little girls light their way with Chinese lanterns through what seems a fairy jungle of towering lilies and nodding roses.

Sargent, Brown relates, got the idea for the painting as he emerged from the Thames after a boating accident, still woozy from a knock on the head. On the shore nearby he thought he saw lanterns and lilies glowing among the trees. His idea took further shape as he convalesced with friends in a nearby Cotswold village, whose aging houses had recently been adopted by summering Americans. Their gardens, which he later used as his setting, were full of lilies and other old-fashioned flowers that the newcomers revered as "typically English."

By the time the 20th century was underway, a powerful cross-fertilization — horticultural and social — had taken place. Lusty, working-class blooms from the cottages — sweet William, maltese cross — had infiltrated the borders of aristocratic estates on both sides of the Atlantic. Swaggering American immigrants like goldenrod had become docile citizens of Gloucestershire borders. And Angelenos were using the English garden's magic to turn a raw new city into one that looked like it belonged here.

But what does a California-English garden actually look like? One, on the grounds of a country inn, has such charms as "statuary in niches, silver gazing balls, and carefully trimmed boxwood hedges." Real estate ads tend to equate English with "picket fence," though that detail may have originated on our East Coast. As in all matters of style, it's easy to get carried away by prescriptions, to focus on particular plants or accessories. But that, my informants agreed, would miss the point.

Mark Beall's client specifically requested borders that were "color-blended" like Jekyll's. "Which means that the color is supposed to change through the length of the border as you walk along," he explains. But English plants, like English gardeners, get to rest in the winter. Because of that, says Beall, "There are a lot of plants that we can't use — species roses, a lot of taxus [yews] and good, old hedge material." Hedges are an English trademark because they not only offer privacy but they also form a backdrop against which the colors in the borders can be seen to their fullest advantage.

Although the ficus' luxuriant growth makes it a popular hedge in California, in the design for a Los Angeles English garden, Beall and his partner Sara Fairchild rejected its glossy bright green in favor of a columnar yew, Taxus x media, which can be persuaded to adapt to Southern California soil. It was a wise choice. Against the shrub's dark, rough-textured green, silver-leaved herbs seem almost incandescent.

With cottage gardens too, there are certain design principles to keep in mind. "It's a layered look, not totally symmetrical," says Wendy Katz, whose firm Ruby Begonia creates rose- and herb-filled landscapes in Santa Monica. "It's like an experiment." Nature, in other words, is a partner, not an enemy. Of course, such studied informality takes work.

"Any English gardening that you do is going to be labor intensive," Beall warns. He doesn't just mean deadheading. "Perennials can't really do the job in a long-term way. You have to intersperse annuals. You have to remodel periodically and make adjustments." A rosebush that grows to 3 feet in breeder David Austin's gardens in Britain can easily mount to 6 feet here, crowding its companions. Quick-growing lavenders, meanwhile, often just as quickly die, leaving a gaping hole where a graceful mound used to be.

One myth, quickly dispelled, is that an English garden has to be a water hog. Among the plants that Chatto lists as her favorites are penstemon, zauschneria (California fuchsia) and goldenbush — California natives happy to provide bursts of color over a long dry season. Borders packed with climate-adapted, deep-rooted perennials thrive on water-wise, drip-irrigation systems and an enviromentally friendly layer of mulch. Several such borders in a yard mean far less space is available to devote to a heavily sprinkled lawn.

Savvy gardeners make the climate work for them. Simonson uses Japanese box hedge as opposed to the English box "because it keeps the gorgeous green all year long." Although it requires some water in her grueling Riverside summer, she says, "Once it gets its roots sunk in, it will do fine, just holding on. And I don't want it to grow exuberantly because I don't want to trim it that often."

Perhaps the best guide to English gardening's artful naturalness is to look closely at what we plant, to consider not only its flowers but its leaf structure, its habit of growth and the way it dies. Sometimes that can be easier when the flower is an unfamiliar import.

Simonsen calls attention to the purple potato vine (solanum). "It's so common that sometimes gardeners overlook it," she says. But they shouldn't. "It gives color literally nine to10 months out of the year, and it's a fabulous purple." It has the added advantage in a border of performing well as a gracefully trailing standard or a vigorous mounding vine.

It also helps to change the way we're used to thinking about a plant. Crape myrtle is usually grown in Southern California as a single-trunked lawn tree. Simonsen suggests keeping it low by training it as a multistemmed shrub and using it in a border where its burst of rose, white or mauve flowers comes at the end of summer when most bloomers are winding up.

So what flowers do these experts particularly like for English effects in California gardens? Beall uses "lots of bergenia," an unfussy perennial of Himalayan origin, which, he notes, Jekyll often used at the edges of borders. Its pastel flowers are reminiscent of tall primroses, but its clumps of dark-green, wavy-edged leaves provide interest after the flowers are gone.

Landscaper Katz has been known to plant an artichoke among her perennials, letting its spiky purple flowers play off the rounded shape of the roses. Simonsen points out the virtues of bidens, known as tickseed. Related to asters, several varieties of this wildflower are native to the Southwest. With their mass of 2-inch daisy-like flowers and fine-cut foliage, they suggest a more delicate coreopsis.

Naturally these are only suggestions. Whatever the origins of the English garden, its underlying message is appealingly democratic. Weeds, wildflowers, hybrids and imports — all are worthy of consideration. Every plant can be placed in a way to enhance its growth and set off its particular charms. Of course, the process may involve a lot of trial and error by the gardener. But nobody ever said democracy was easy.


Getting the cottage look

You'll need philosophy, plans, photographs, a look at some actual English gardens in England and, of course, seeds. Here's a selection of resources.

BOOKSThe Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll by Richard Bisgrove (University of California Press, 1992). Jekyll's working designs — all 2,000 of them — were bought by the American landscape architect Beatrice Farrand who then bequeathed them to the school of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. This book draws on that collection and is beautiful and informative.

The Cottage Garden by Christopher Lloyd and Richard Bird (Dorling Kindersley, London, 1991). It traces the development of the cottage garden with photos, advice on plants including herbs, root vegetables, decorative flowers, as well as gardens' structural features.

WEBSITES www.greatdixter.co.ukGreat Dixter is the family home of Christopher Lloyd, the English gardener and writer.

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/places/sissinghurstSissinghurst Castle Garden is one of the world's most famous 20th century gardens. Designed by Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s.

FLOWER SEEDSThe Wildflower Seed Company of Napa Valley. P.O. Box 406, St. Helena, Calif. 94574; (800) 456-3359 www.wildflower-seed.com

English Cottage Garden Mix contains: cornflower, Russell's lupine, Pot marigold, baby's breath, love-in-a-mist, sage, larkspur mix, wallflower, tricolor daisy, dame's rocket, godetia, Shirley poppy mix, black-eyed Susan, tall toadflax, sweet William catchfly. Four-ounce package covers 250 square feet. 4 ounces, $14; 8 ounces, $34; 1 pound, $59.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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