The Dry Garden: Previewing more stops on the Theodore Payne garden tour this weekend


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You might set out on the Theodore Payne Foundation tour this weekend for righteous reasons -- to save water, or to help birds and butterflies. But the sheer beauty of Wynne Wilson’s Altadena home will have you wondering, why doesn’t everyone garden with natives? Her partnering of indigenous coral bells and lilac with the Mediterranean staples of citrus and lavender is so stupidly beautiful, you want to cry.

Granted, the backdrop of Angeles National Forest is part of the effect. Gardens come big in this slice of foothill country -- in Wilson’s case, with a stand of five-centuries-old cedars. Yet while previewing gardens on the Payne tour, I found that the look of Wilson’s place stems from her ability to tie her woodsy, casually domestic foreground into the wild grandeur of the background.


Wilson is good on the dirt end of gardening; if you have a technical question and you’re on the tour, ask her. But where she departs from most gardeners is in vision. She is an artist and professional photographer who taught at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena for more than a decade. She gets all that axis stuff. The slip into landscape design six years ago came, she said laughing, “When I couldn’t stop making gardens for people, I decided to formalize it.”

According to Wilson, when she took on her own garden in earnest four years ago, the lawn that came with the place was accompanied by her instinct to replace it with native plants. She’s from San Diego County, a San Marcos girl, and she grew up with chaparral just beyond the fence. The challenge in Altadena would be tying her succession of cedars by the entrance, then citrus, herb garden and home into the long view of the mountains.

Or, in reverse, how to work from the house into the cedars.

She explained the choice to use mass plantings of coral bells and lilacs to guide the eye this way: “It’s like music; as you go through something, you need to be carried off to another point.”

Wilson has used coral bells to such dramatic effect that it’s worth going on the tour to learn that plant alone. Starting with 200 nursery plugs, she kept dividing them in the autumn to the point that she reckoned, she has roughly 3,000 making floaty magic around the place.

As fetchingly as their pink flowers waft in spring and summer breezes, Wilson also praises the leaves, which can withstand Altadena summers with watering only every two weeks.

“They’re the most incredible little plants,” she said. “They’ve been pelted by hail, frozen and they keep coming and coming.”


To go on about Wilson’s restoration of a paved-in creek bed would come at the expense of noting another exceptional foothill garden on the tour. Martha Clark and Debe Loxton’s Pasadena house is a typical, cute-as-a-button bungalow. As is often the case from Craftsman-era properties, this small house has a large garden.

From the poppies at the curb to the back fence, where the neighbor’s chickens peck hopefully through the chain-link, the garden is a beautiful model of good horticultural practice. It also has a secret that is not obvious unless you are a kid. Its paths and river bed detour into a cul-de-sac with a garden gate as a purely come-through-me feature amount to a kind of wonderland. It turns out that the home owners are educators.

Whatever age you are, be sure to check out the potting shed.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly.

Photos, from top: Wynne Wilson’s ceanothus Dark Star; her Salvia apiana, or white sage; a coral bell hybrid called Wendy; the flowers lining her path; a detail of the coral bells; Martha Clark and Debe Loxton’s potting shed. Credits: All by Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times, except potting shed by Emily Green.

Click to the jump for more of Orr’s photography or click here for our full photo gallery of three gardens on the tour...

Above: Mahonia aquifolium, commonly called Oregon grape, in Wynne Wilson’s garden.

Above: Heteromeles arbutifolia, otherwise known as toyon, in Wilson’s garden.

Above: Wilson’s Salvia spathacea, or hummingbird sage.

Above: A collage of oak leaves and pine needs in the Altadena garden.

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