The Dry Garden: Previewing Theodore Payne’s annual native garden tour


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Yes, yes, yes. We all know that native gardens save water, curb greenhouse gas pollution, save homeowners thousands a year on mow and blow fees and entitle their owners to eco-sainthood. But what do they look like? Are they beautiful? If so, are they hard to plant and maintain? Where can you put down the baby? Will those who might want one still be allowed a patch of lawn?

To help Los Angeles homeowners see the almost endless possibilities open after they start incorporating local flora into their gardens, the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants calls upon its members every spring to open their homes to the public. The upshot is a tour in which the smartest, most experienced native gardeners in Southern California get down with whoever shows up asking for help.


If you want lives of the rich and famous, this is not your tour (go on the Garden Conservancy one). The Payne tour is by gardeners, for gardeners. Its host run a gamut -- from a Latina born in East Los Angeles to an Englishwoman from London, from single young hipsters to retired grandparents, from sculptors to aerospace engineers. There are bankers, dentists, photographers, office workers and the newly unemployed.

All find joy, accomplishment and, above all, meaning in their gardens.

So, for the next three weeks, this column will dedicate itself to visiting a selection of the 50 homes participating on the foundation tour on April 10 and 11, starting with two coastal properties this week and then moving inland to the valley, and finally to the foothills.

Mature sycamores attracted Tracey Robinson and Craig Peterson to the Westchester home that they bought in 1999. So the couple (he’s a dentist, she works in television) bought Bob Perry’s book “Landscape Plants for Western Regions” to see what might work under the trees. This was no easy feat. It was not just shade and root competition that limited their choices, but also very likely a natural chemical defense against competition emitting from the sycamores themselves.

“Rather than watching TV, we were looking at that book all night long,” recalls Peterson. After poring over plant combinations suggested by Perry, they began making trips to the Theodore Payne Foundation, then to the Tree of Life, Matilija and Las Pilitas nurseries, where they met manzanitas, coffeeberries, fluttering grasses and gooseberries in person.
The physical result is a tousled and loosely planted woodland garden with sun-lovers around the edges and poppies spilling over the perimeter through a rustic wooden fence. The personal result for Robinson and Peterson is a shared passion. Gardening.

“When the weekend comes, I don’t want to go with everyone else to the beach,” Peterson says. “I want to stay home and work in the yard.”

Bill and Fran Arrowsmith moved into their Torrance home in 1980 and in 2006 decided to put in a native garden. The only thing they regret, Bill says with a laugh, a retired aerospace engineer, is “what took us so long?”

They knew that they wanted to keep a dense belt of marathon sod around the patio for their grandchildren, but they had also decided that they wanted something wilder to complete the vista. They called in a designer who created a meandering path around a gentle berm, then planted the beds and berm with natives. The Arrowsmith’s new view became a destination, their own instantly navigable slice of the wild where elderberry, buckwheat and flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) grow. As animation, the butterflies moved in, including red admirals, morning cloaks, swallowtails and monarchs.

On a technical note, one thing that makes the Arrowsmith home a must-stop for beach gardeners is the soil. While over in Westchester, less than 15 miles north and no further inland, Robinson and Peterson enjoy clay loam, the Arrowsmiths in Torrance have sand.

After 26 years battling the fast drainage while trying to grow a conventional garden, in turning to the likes of Cleveland sage, the Arrowsmith befriended it. “The very thing that made it so hard to keep the grass looking good became a boon with natives,” Bill says.

To learn how the Arrowsmiths fared when they decided to take on their front garden without a designer, you’ll have to go on the tour. Keep in mind that they must have done well for their garden to qualify.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly.

Photo credits: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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