GARDENING : Clinging Vines Spread Gentility Over Depressing Condo Walls

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Solid walls drain away our vital energy," insists Jana Ruzicka, a Hungarian-born Laguna Beach landscape architect. "Looking at something that unimaginative all the time is depressing."

Condominiums and townhouses, with their concrete hedges, are spreading across the country like St. Augustine invading dichondra. If Ruzicka is right, all those blank expanses must be sapping lots of spirits.

Fortunately the situation is easily remedied.

There are no shortage of ways to enliven energy-sapping stretches of blank walls, suggest landscape experts, if we learn to look at them as artists would. They're just blank canvases, waiting to be filled with our imagination.

Ruzicka has some fairly radical solutions for breaking up--some times literally--those long stretches of unadorned wall. But the quickest way to obscure a wall is to plant a vine under it. Take the violet trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides) that blankets the fence facing Coast Highway inside Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar.

The vine looks as if it has been there for decades, and, actually, it has, but it grew to its current dimensions within a few seasons, according to Wade Roberts, garden director.

"It's a great vine for beginning gardeners," he says. "It needs a substantial fence or trellis to support it, but that's about it. It's not susceptible to any particular pest and requires no special care. You can't go wrong with it."

Another vine that will yield quick results, according to Charles Kyle, manager of Nurseryland in Fountain Valley, is Lonicera hildebrandiana, giant Burmese honeysuckle. This summer-blooming evergreen has 6- to 7-foot white tubular flowers that turn yellow or soft orange, remain on the vine a long time before dropping and are hummingbird magnets, he says.

Beyond these virtues, L. hildebrandiana will grow one or two feet above a wall or fence without support, according to Huntington Beach landscape architect Shirley Kerins. "If you don't want to see into your neighbor's house from your dining room window, or vice versa, that's a distinct advantage," she says.

While the vine needs to be propped up on guide wires initially, says Kerins, eventually it gets woody enough to provide most of its own support.

Another favorite of Kerins for solving a different problem is Chinese lantern (Abutilon), a viny evergreen shrub with yellow bell-shaped blooms and red calyxes that remain on the stems and provide bright points of color against the green foliage when the flowers fall.

"One of the ugly features of many Orange County homes--including my own--is a garage wall that extends forward past the entrance on one side, creating a bare stucco wall that calls out to be ornamented," she says. "Abutilon is a great plant for the bright shade you typically get in that area."

If you want a vine that provides a tracery rather than a mat of green, consider hardenbergia, a purple-flowering vine in bloom now and readily available at nurseries. Kyle, at Nurseryland, particularly likes it combined with the complementary yellow blooms of Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens).

Solanum jasminoides, the potato vine, is another easily manageable vine favored by many gardeners. Huntington Beach landscape architect Karen Olmsted is one who sings its praises. "It blooms 12 months out of the year, its vines don't get woody, and the bees love it," she says. "It's messy, though--it drops a lot of flowers and leaves--but it's pretty litter."

Other good vines for small gardens are polyanthus jasmine, Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), Mandevilla "Alice du Pont" and Guinea gold vine (Hibbertia volubilis).

Another good way to decorate a bare wall is through espaliering--training a shrub or tree so that its branches grow in a flat plane. It's the perfect way to squeeze in a permanently green foundation plant and seasonal annual or perennial color within narrow borders next to walls.

"Just about any shrub with the potential to grow 6 to 8 feet can be espaliered," says Kyle. "But the ones that tend to grow flat instead of round work best."

Among his favorites are the pink powder puff plant (Calliandra haematocephala) for its gracefully cascading, dark metallic-green foliage and the lavender starflower (Grewia occidentalis).

"Starflower looks kind of rambling and brambly in a container," he says, "but it trains beautifully. If you pinch it back frequently, it gets nice and dense, and it's in flower a good part of the year."

Camellias, both C. japonica and C. sasanqua, are excellent espalier candidates for the shady canyon-like side yards you see in many town home lots, according to Sherman Gardens' Roberts, who uses them often in private landscaping jobs.

For a wall that gets full sun, he says, try pyracantha, holly, bottlebrush or cotoneaster, all of which can take inland heat as well. The last shrub also has the advantage of looking better and producing more red autumn berries if kept on the dry side and planted in poor soil.

Dwarf fruit trees also make good espalier candidates. Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) is one of Olmsted's favorites. While the Feijoa can be trained into almost any shape, she thinks it's prettiest trained to grow like the outstretched fingers of an open hand, which is close to its natural form.

Roberts rather likes it, too.

"It's sun loving and drought tolerant; it has beautiful white flowers with purplish interiors and red stamens; it produces good fruit--the petals are edible, too; and the bees and birds love it," he says.

It's a plant worth searching for, he says.

"If you can't find it in a nursery, try propagating it from a pit."

Dwarf citrus, gardenia, evergreen pear, Hollywood juniper, Xylosma congestum--the bush with the flame-red new spring growth you notice everywhere right now--Ficus benjamina, apricot, pear, Japanese maple--the list goes on. If you can't find something you like from this plethora of possibilities, says Roberts, then you must not like plants much.

To see a large collection of espaliered shrubs and trees in one place, as well as a multitude of vines, pay a visit to Sherman Gardens.

By botanical garden standards, Sherman Gardens is situated on a minuscule piece of property and it faces the same problems confronting any homeowner with limited gardening space--first, how to soften expanses of blank wall and dull fencing with foliage without it intruding into pedestrian walkways and outdoor living space, and second, how to get maximum plant variety out of minimal space.

While there, notice the pyracantha along the Dahlia Street wall. What you see represents six years of growth and grooming. The more free-form shaping of the Crape honeysuckle on this wall is a nice contrast to the formality of the Pyracantha.

Note the pink powder puff plant at the entrance gate, and then compare it with the same species espaliered along the fence on Fernleaf Drive to see how differently the same species can look with different pruning and light.

The Gardens' chief pruner, Ron Bell, does not advise anyone in Southern California to grow wisteria. "It can take over the house, the garage, the kids on the way to school," he warns.

But when you see how beautifully he has contained it in the Tea Garden, you may want to risk it anyway. He has restrained bougainvillea here equally admirably. The potted azaleas, espaliered into an elegant, Oriental-looking shape, are another idea worth copying.

Mature espaliered trees generally have developed enough wood to support themselves and have lots of character to boot. The bronze loquat against the wall of the Gardens' office is a good example. It looks like a giant bonsai plant.

Finally, observe the bougainvillea, looking like no bougainvillea you've ever seen before, on the blank white wall facing the parking lot.

The five leaders you see fanning across this wall will be kept clean of any side growth until they have developed thick, supportive layers of cambium. Only then will Bell allow them to put out their colored bracts that will billow down across the wall in a cascade of color.

There are as many ways to decorate a boring wall as there are plants, as a visit to Sherman Gardens proves. But, if you're open to some more unusual approaches, Ruzicka has other ideas.

She suggests carving a window out of long, dull block walls. If the view from this window is less than ideal, or if you need more privacy, you can always "curtain" it with a vine.

A section of the wall can be replaced with a vertical garden made from tubular steel framing with chicken wire or chain link fencing. Line the structure with sphagnum (peat moss) containing potting soil and create a giant hanging basket, says Ruzicka.

"I planted a wall like this with a variety of succulents for a client in Corona del Mar," she says. "Little ferns would work with this concept, as well. Orchids would be nice, too."

Plants aren't the only way to hide a wall. Ruzicka has had good effect with murals. For a small courtyard garden in Laguna Beach, for instance, she commissioned an artist to paint a forest scene.

The trunks of redwoods with early morning light streaming through them are depicted in soft browns, grays and misty white. The scene directs the eye downward to the woodland floor Ruzicka has imitated by planting ferns, grasses, coral bells and even a few rotting logs.

"I had the soil covered with pine needles, too," she says, "but apparently the gardener hasn't realized that was deliberate and removed them."

The two-story building next door, which overlooks this courtyard, has not disappeared. But the mural and the charming scene under it direct the eye away from it as if it had.

MARCH GARDENING SPECIFICS . . .

Even though the severe drought forces us to conserve water, it's still possible to have a colorful flower garden this year. Try drought-tolerant plants producing very showy flowers and/or foliage. Just make sure the varieties you select will thrive in full sun with infrequent watering. Here is a list of ground covers, small bushes and a few tough annuals for a water-wise border: GROUND COVERS

Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskiana) : Trailing plant with tiny soft pink daisy-like flowers 10-20 inches high.

Ground morning glory (Convolvulus mauritanicus) : Shiny green foliage with spreading and mounding growth habit. Many small blue morning glory-type flowers one-two feet high.

Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri) : Profuse rose-pink flowers with a low trailing growth habit 10-12 inches high.

Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) : Common herb. Both the fragrant leaves and flowers will last a long time, and are attractive in miniature bouquets. Grows up to 12 inches tall.

Golden thyme (Thymus citriodorus) : Attractive yellow-green foliage with a strong scent of thyme when crushed. Tiny lavender-pink flowers four to 12 inches tall.

Verbena rigida: Widespreading plant 10-20 inches tall. Many clusters of lilac-purple flowers.

Veronica (Prostrata) : Eight-inch flower stems carry many clusters of pale blue flowers. SMALL BUSHES

French lavender (Lavendula dentata) : Up to three feet tall. Gray-green to blue-gray foliage with lavender-purple flowers. Fragrant scent.

Sweet lavender (Heterophylla) : Purple flowers on very long stems. A much more graceful variety than French lavender.

Salvia (Many varieties, all with long flowering season):

(S. clevelandii) : Up to four feet tall; beautiful blue flower spikes.

(S. elegans) : Two to three feet high; brilliant scarlet flowers.

(S. greggii) : Three to four feet tall; rose-pink or salmon-colored flowers.

(S. leucantha) : Three to four feet tall; becomes very full with velvety purple flowers. By far the hardiest of all the salvias.

(S. leucophylla) : Two to six feet tall; interesting white-gray stems with lavender flowers.

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) : Grows up to three feet tall; willowy growth habit, lavender-blue flowers. Excellent for bouquets.

Lavender cotton (Santolina) : Common herb; grows to two feet tall. White-gray or deep green leaves with yellow button-like flowers. Tends to keep cats out of your garden.

Silver king artemisia (Artemisia ludoviciana albula) : Two to three feet tall; very beautiful silver-gray and white aromatic foliage.

Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos flavidus) : Up to five feet tall. Sharp blade-like foliage with slender curving flower spikes; topped with tiny fuzzy blossoms in red, purple, green or yellow. Gives an effect similar to curly willow when used in flower arrangements, especially with roses or other elegant blossoms.

Society garlic (Tulbaghai violacea) : Common herb that grows one to two feet high with slender stocks with lavender flowers. Smells like sweet garlic. Long blooming season.

Coreopsis: Grows to two feet tall. Dark green mounding foliage producing long stems of golden yellow; many daisy-like flowers. Great for arrangements. HARDY HEAT- AND SUN-TOLERANT ANNUALS

Gaillardia grandiflora: Reaches two to four feet high. Very long blooming. Although drought tolerant, it requires good drainage. Blossoms in red, yellow with orange or maroon bands.

Golden fleece or Dahlberg daisy (Dyssodia teuiloba) : Summer annual that may winter over like a perennial in mild climates. Grows to 12 inches high. Tiny, golden daisy-like flowers on attractive feathery foliage.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) : Bright golden orange poppy flowers on fern-like foliage. Grows eight to 12 inches high. Flowers will go to seed quickly, so pick off spent blooms as soon as possible to encourage more flowers.

Cosmos bipinnatus: Very tall, can reach three to six feet high. Has feathery foliage producing light pink, deep rose or white daisy-like flowers. Excellent in arrangements. Allow lots of room for growth.

Some of the plants listed above may need average watering to become established, but afterwards will thrive on very little water.

Source: Cristin Fusano, color specialist/horticulturist, Sherman Library and Gardens

. . . AND GENERAL MARCH CARE TIPS

Drought has forced many people to reconsider planting a full-sized vegetable garden this year. A water-saving compromise would be to plant a few of your favorites in large containers. Place them in full-sun locations. To keep them from drying out quickly in hot weather, be sure to mix in some water-retaining polymers at planting time. Grow your vegetables from seed, or pick up some plants at the nursery.

Check your sprinkler system. If you have a mix of heads, replace them with those that are the same type and gallon usage. See if there are any portions of your system that can be closed. Water instead with a soaker hose that seeps water at the base of plants instead of spraying it where it isn't needed. If you really want to protect your landscaping investment, consider installing a drip system. They provide slow watering that reaches deeply to the roots , with little evaporation.

A lack of rain leads to a lack of nitrogen and other plant nutrients in the soil. Now is a good time to begin light feedings on a regular basis. Liquid fertilizers or dry fertilizers that are mostly ammoniated forms of nitrogen will release immediately into the plant, but leach past the roots in a hurry. Other forms will release slowly, but the results won't be as visible.

Wisely selected, a tree can add to the value of your home and help keep energy bills down. Start the tree off right by watering it with a root watering rod. By forcing the water down deep, roots are encouraged to grow deeply, and will require less-frequent watering than trees with roots spread near the surface.

Source: California Assn. of Nurserymen.

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