GARDENS : Going Native : Drought-Tolerant Wildflowers Join Southern California Spa Culture

Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

PERHAPS THE MOST unlikely place in the world to find wildflowers, or any native plant, for that matter, is beside a spa. Imagine: drought-toughened California plants, valued because they need so little water, growing right next to a conspicuous consumer of the stuff. Nor does one expect to find a meadow of delicate wildflowers growing in the confines of an ordinary suburban backyard.

In Janet Dyer's garden in LaVerne, the spa, except perhaps for the vivid color of its water, could be a puddle or a pool left behind at the end of the rainy season, for it has been linked to a natural-looking stream bed that runs diagonally across the garden. That was the inspired idea of her late husband, Steven Dyer; the design was drawn up and installed by Richard Borkovetz of the Claremont Environmental Design Group.

The stream is no babbling brook, though. For most of its length, it merely suggests water--the only water to be found is in the spa. Refreshingly subtle, content with being a simple, small stream bed gone dry for the summer, it doubles as a path across the garden, augmented near the patio's edge by a few concrete pavers. Following the natural slope of the land, it seeks low ground as a stream naturally would. Its origins are hidden behind the garage and by shrubbery; its destination is also out of sight, in the side yard.

The rocks that define the bed--small enough to have been pushed down a mountainside by a stream this size--were gathered in the Claremont area. The bed is lined with still smaller rock and loose gravel.

The plantings, including the wildflowers, are the work of Janet Dyer, a regular visitor to nearby Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the premier native-plant garden in the state. The influences of that magnificent garden can be seen in this much smaller one. She is also quick to acknowledge the influence and help of Raymond C. Walsh, ASLA, of Wildwood Nursery in Claremont, a part-time nurseryman who specializes in California natives and is Dyer's source of plants and wildflower seed.

Because many of the plants are California natives and all are drought-resistant, the garden gets by on natural rainfall with only a little supplemental irrigation in summer. Most of the wildflowers are planted near the house where they can be best appreciated. Around the spa are other flowers from other similar climates--the orange ice plant and annual African daisy being the most conspicuous. But the flowers that make up the meadow are the genuine article--California poppy, bird's eyes gilia, blue thimble flower, tidy tips--wildflowers that could very easily have grown on this gentle slope before it was reshaped into a tract.

Though growing wildflowers can be one of the most challenging of garden adventures, Dyer has been blessed by good fortune and an appropriate soil. After the original lawn was removed, wildflower seed was sown and simply raked into the soil. Nothing was done to the soil in preparation for planting. Fall and winter rains brought the plants up and nourished them. The next year the wildflowers came back from seed that had been scattered by the plants themselves and then germinated by the rain.

The thing that wildflowers and most other native plants need most is a well-drained soil, a soil that does not become too wet or soggy but is porous and quickly passes excess water. These soils are usually found on hillsides or mountains. In the wild, most native plants are found on sloping ground (valley floors tend to be grasslands). Dyer's garden has an advantage in being hilly: It would be far more difficult to keep up if it was on completely flat land or had clay soil. Her natural soil is a decomposed granite, "d.g." for short. Gardeners trying to grow more conventional fare complain endlessly about d.g., but wildflowers thrive in it.

What most people trying to grow wildflowers end up with is a good crop of weeds (see box on Page 30). On most disturbed soils, in most neighborhoods, weeds quickly get the upper hand. Janet Dyer combats the weeds by avoiding them in the first place. The land was cleared of them at the beginning, and it is never watered, which tends to discourage weeds.

The wildflower show typically begins in February and ends about mid-May, when the last of them dry for the summer. What does the garden look like in summer? Pretty much the same. Planted between the patches of wildflowers are many native ground covers, shrubs and perennials that keep the garden green, though there are bare patches of earth. The expired wildflowers are removed with a stirrup hoe. Any of the permanent plantings that need water in summer are individually soaked. No water is applied overall, or from over head (there are no sprinklers), because that would encourage summer's weeds.

The Dyer garden is very much a natural garden, except perhaps for the spa. But even its existence is understandable--what could be more natural than wanting a good soak after a hard day's work in the garden?

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