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A BOUNTY of CHOICES : This Spring, a Spectrum of New Plants Is Available to the Adventurous Gardener : ‘New-Old’ Roses

<i> Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine. </i>

OLD ROSES ARE attractive to gardeners for their fragrant flowers and their distinctly old-fashioned look. But in California, truly “old” roses (as opposed to the hybrids) often turn out to be disappointing by modern standards. They typically bloom only once, in the spring, and many are susceptible to all sorts of rose diseases. That’s why the “new-old” roses, created by David Austin in England, are generating great excitement among gardeners. Combining the fragrance and form of lovely old roses with the vigor of modern ones, Austin’s hybridizing program has produced new-old roses that flower more frequently and tend to resist disease.

But the main reason for this recent excitement is that the new-old roses are just plain pretty. Pamela Ingram of Sassafras Nursery in Topanga describes them as “gushy"--many-petaled, ruffled and gently colored (Austin deliberately stayed away from garish colors). Shrubbier in shape than hybrid teas and floribundas, these roses can be placed among other plants as shrubs, rather than kept apart in a traditional rose bed.

These new-old roses, called Austin roses, are a diverse group with a host of ancestors. Garden books and literature have not yet pictured them, with the exception of “The Heritage of the Rose,” by David Austin, published by Antique Collector’s Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. In it, he devotes a chapter to these new-old roses, describing most of the varieties and how to care for them--in England.

Growers in California are still learning about these roses and making some interesting discoveries. The rose garden at Huntington Botanical Gardens, overseen by Clair Martin, has the largest collection in the ground. Martin has discovered that there, many new-old roses grow about twice as large as they do in England. For instance, the Austin catalogue suggests that ‘Charles Austin’ grows to 5 feet, but at the Huntington it became a haystack with arching 12-foot canes. Martin has found that some bloom off and on for almost the entire season, while others bloom less frequently. Most don’t bloom as often as modern floribundas or hybrid teas.

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Because they are so new, and because of California’s strict rules concerning the importation of plants, finding Austin roses is an adventure in itself. Pamela Ingram, of Sassafras Nursery, and Mike and Sharon Morton, of Country Bloomers Nursery in Orange, carry a good assortment in 5-gallon cans. The two nurseries joined together on an order from a grower in Canada, avoiding the problems of direct importation.

Ingram adores ‘The Squire,’ a “pure, beautiful, crimson red” that has a touch of black within the full flower, and ‘Wife of Bath,’ a “perfectly scented, gushy rose with a cabbagey feeling” and blush-pink flowers that stay open for two weeks. Both varieties stay at about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. ‘Wife of Bath’ looks like a floriferous version of an old cabbage rose. Mike Morton favors ‘Windrush,’ a soft-yellow rose much like the old ‘Golden Wings,’ that grows to about 6 feet, and ‘Charmian,’ a deep pink that flowers in great clusters and makes a mounding 6-foot-plus shrub that arches in old-rose fashion.

Sharon van Enoo, among the first to try the Austin roses (and who took the photographs on these pages), found that ‘The Reeve’ (growing to 5 feet) bloomed most frequently in her coastal Torrance garden. ‘Graham Thomas’ (to 6 or 7 feet) flowered the least--six flowers in all by her count--and was the greatest disappointment. “The colors that thrilled me the most were ‘Chaucer’ (growing to 4 feet) and ‘Heritage’ (to 5 feet),” she reports. “ ‘Chaucer’ is a pearlized pink and ‘Heritage’ a pearlized apricot-pink. Both are breathtaking and fragrant.” 'Charles Austin,’ the 12-footer at the Huntington and equally large in Van Enoo’s garden, came in a close third. She also likes ‘Pretty Jessica,’ ‘Wife of Bath’ and ‘Prospero.’ All of these stayed under 3 feet tall. Van Enoo noted that ‘Chaucer’ suffered the most mildew. Though most Austin roses in Van Enoo’s garden have resisted disease, ‘Heritage’ was the most resistant.

Wayside Gardens’ “A Gardener’s Treasury,” its mini-catalogue for spring, 1989 (mailing address: Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001), offers four other Austin roses: ‘Othello,’ ‘English Elegance,’ ‘Swan’ and ‘The Countryman.’ They are, however, listed as being in limited or very limited supply. Sassafras is located at 275 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga (213) 455-1933, and Country Bloomers Nursery is at 20091 E. Chapman Ave., Orange (714) 633-7222. If you should obtain any Austin rose, you could be the first on your block.

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Ornamental Grasses

CONSIDER GRASSES--not the kind you mow but the new ornamental grasses, which bring striking form and foliage to the garden. Most are quite colorful, but one type might require some attitude adjustment on the part of gardeners. To some people, Carex buchanii and C. comans appear almost lifeless. Lew Whitney of Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, who carries a good supply of ornamental grasses and has persuaded a number of clients to give carexes a try, reports mixed success. “One client thought they were dead,” he says. “But we convinced her that they were supposed to look like that. Three months later she called us and said, ‘They still look dead, so please remove them.’ ” Other people see the color of C. buchanii and C. comans as more of a reddish-bronze, and, indeed, that is their coloration on close inspection.

Carex buchanii grows stiffly upright to several feet, and the tips of the blades get delightfully curly, like little pigtails; C. flagellifera , similar in color, is weeping in form, and C. comans grows half as tall in a fountain-like shape. A multitude of carexes with striped or variegated foliage--including Carex morrowii ‘Aurea-variegata’ and ‘Old Gold'--are excellent plants for difficult shady spots. Because they grow in clumps, and do not die down for the winter (they are “evergreen”), carexes make first-class container plants.

Many new ornamental grasses do disappear for the winter, and their positioning in the garden must be taken into account. The several kinds of Miscanthus , some handsomely striped with yellow, die to the ground; they are best used behind something low and permanent. One nice combination is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ (with horizontal bands of yellow) or M.s. ‘Variegatus’ (with vertical stripes of yellow) as accents behind or among plantings of such common ground covering shrubs as Pittosporum ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf.’ Both of these grasses grow to a height of 4 or 5 feet, so they easily stand above low shrubs. They remain in dense clumps and must be cut low to the ground in winter.

Maiden grass ( Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’) is taller, 6 or 8 feet, but this miscanthus has almost reed-like grayish-green blades and handsome plumes of flowers. It would look most natural in a sunny, Mediterranean setting, perhaps in the company of rocks.

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum'--the purple or red fountain grass--was perhaps the first of the ornamental grasses to catch on, making a hit with garden designers, who like its fountain-shape form, color and plume-like flowers. It grows to 4 feet and does not seed about as does the common roadside weed from which it was derived, P. setaceum . P.s. ‘Rubrum’ should be cut to the ground every few years; otherwise, it begins to look ratty as dead leaves accumulate inside the clump. A brand-new dwarf pennisetum, P. alopecuroides ‘Hameln,’ with very narrow, delicate blades and handsome creamy flower spikes, stays under 2 feet tall. It is about the right height for flower beds, where it can be a graceful accent. But it is deciduous in winter.

One of the prettiest of the new grasses, from Japan, is called blood grass ( Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’), named for its foliage. The tips of the blades, which seem to have been dipped in red, contrast with the rest of the plant, which is bright-green. Blood grass is spectacular when placed so that it is backlighted by the sun--the blades glow like splinters of stained glass. Because this grass dies down for the winter, it must be cut close to the ground at that time.

Not all of the ornamental grasses are actually grasses; some technically are perennials, such as the liriopes and ophiopogons, both members of the lily family and both evergreen, permanent plants. These two have been around for many years and are used in Japanese-inspired gardens. One new variety, Liriope spicata ‘Silver Dragon,’ has silvery-white vertical stripes on dark-green leaves. Because its roots slowly spread underground, Whitney gives it high marks as a ground cover for sunny or semi-shady places.

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John Greenlee of Greenlee Nursery in Pomona probably has had more to do with the promulgation and propagation of grasses in Southern California than anyone else. His favorite is Stripa gigantea , the giant feather grass, which he recommends planting in perennial or flower borders. The gray-green foliage grows to about 3 feet, and the striking flower plumes stand at 4 to 5 feet.

Cortaderia selloana --a pampas grass--comes in second, but not the big variety. Greenlee carries C.s. pumilla , which has “all the beauty and toughness of pampas grass but without the huge size,” he says. It grows only 4 feet tall, with plumes to 6 feet, and as yet (after five years) it has not sown any seed, a problem with ordinary pampas grass. Blue oat grass, Helichtotrichon sempervirens , is third for its beautiful blue-gray foliage. Greenlee suggests using it in flower beds. Its effect is similar to that of common blue fescue but “much more exciting,” he says. It is a stronger-growing and more vigorous-looking plant, about 18 to 24 inches tall.

Greenlee’s recommendations are drought- and sun-tolerant, and he is developing some low-growing ornamental grasses that will work as a lawn--at least in small areas--but will need only quarterly mowing, less water and care, and stand shade. His descriptive catalogue is a wealth of information. Newly revised, it contains his observations on how the many grasses grow in Southern California. Send $2.50 to Greenlee Nursery, 301 E. Franklin Ave., Pomona 91766.

Small Shrubs

SHRUBS HAVE A sneaky habit of getting too big. When that happens, one’s immediate response is to get out the hedge clippers and start hacking back. But then the shrubs are not bushy anymore--hardly shrubs at all. All traces of natural grace and elegance are gone. The solution? Smaller shrubs and a little patience. Growers recently have been especially busy seeking dwarf shrubs--elegant, dense little shrubs that grow slowly to a moderate size.

The shrub that probably started it all is a pittosporum named ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf.’ It has been around just long enough to prove that it is, indeed, a dwarf. But what many had hoped would be a 3- to 4-foot shrub has proved to be a 5- to 6-foot shrub. Still, ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ grows no higher than a window ledge, a great improvement over the standard Pittosporum tobira , which grows to tree proportions.

One of the newest dwarf shrubs is Pittosporum tobira ‘Turner’s Variegated Dwarf.’ With medium-green leaves edged in pale yellow, it looks like a compact form of the extremely useful ‘Variegata,’ which grows 15 to 20 feet, but it is actually a sport of ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf.’ Planted in a shady corner, it seems to glow, as if speckled by sunlight. Carla Fuchs of Hines Wholesale Nurseries in Santa Ana, which introduced the shrub, says, “The height of an unpruned, mature plant will probably be about 5 1/2 feet, but that has not been determined as yet.” Compared to the height of a standard ‘Variegata,’ though, it’s a big improvement for small gardens.

Both ‘Turner’s Variegated Dwarf’ and ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ will grow in full sun, but they are most useful in spots that get only partial sun because both tolerate considerable shade. Try them in difficult spots such as under deciduous trees, where they will get sun in winter and shade in summer, or on the west or east side of the house. ‘Creme de Mint’ is another brand-new dwarf pittosporum, but this one is apparently derived from ‘Variegata,’ and its coloring is closer to the parent, green edged in creamy white.

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Hines also has just introduced a dwarf escallonia ‘Newport Dwarf,’ appropriately named because escallonias are champion seaside plants, taking salt-laden, storm-driven winds in stride. Fuchs says that this deep-pink-flowered, glossy-leaved plant will grow to only 2 1/2 x 3 feet. Escallonias are from Chile (which has a Mediterranean climate similar to our own) and can take some drought, but they prefer regular watering. They do best in full sun near the coast, in partial shade in inland areas.

“Turn your back on standard shrubs and they become little trees,” says Lew Whitney of Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar. He calls the new dwarf shrubs “better team players, because they don’t dominate the game"--in other words, they don’t grow too big or too fast, and therefore remain a useful part of your garden design for a longer time. Whitney stocks an arsenal of compact shrubs. One of his favorites, Pittosporum crassifolium , is not new but only now is becoming widely available. It is naturally dwarf (6 feet around after about 20 years and unusually elegant with densely packed, gray-green leaves). Whitney is also a great fan of the dwarf nandinas, of which there are many new varieties, most of them growing to about 1 or 2 feet. Hines has introduced one called ‘Moon Bay’; Monrovia Nursery Co. has two: ‘Harbour Dwarf’ and ‘Gulf Stream.’ ‘Wood’s Dwarf’ is another.

For hot interior climates, Whitney recommends dwarf oleanders and dwarf crape myrtles, and for just about anywhere, a dwarf eugenia named ‘Teenie Genie.’ This eugenia has tiny, dark, bronzy-red leaves and grows as a dense ball, very slowly reaching about 2 feet around, though it can grow to 4 feet. It does not seem susceptible to the new eugenia pest, the eugenia psyllid.

These dwarf shrubs open up new possibilities in the garden landscape. Designers use them not only as shrubs but as ground covers as well, and sometimes even as though they were perennials, mixing them with flowers and the new ornamental grasses. Perhaps these dwarf shrubs are most promising as replacements for lawns and large-scale, low-growing ground covers: They do not need the maintenance of either, nor the water used by a lawn, and, once established, they are much longer-lived. Best of all, despite their diminutive size, they are still shrubs, virtually permanent fixtures in a garden.


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