STYLE : GARDENS : California Canvas

When artist Robert Conner took up gardening, the results were nothing like his neighbors' hedged plots and domesticated flower beds. Instead, his once-ivied slope in Mt. Washington came to look like one of his paintings--lush, highly colored, full of exotic vignettes.

In Conner's garden--as in his artwork--there's a lively tension between the wild and the civilized. In the course of an uphill climb, rangy California natives meet the elegance of old roses, bearded iris and broken concrete columns. While the combinations are unexpected, they make sense in the context of an artist's tableau, suggesting chaparral augmented by a paintbrush.

Back in 1985, when he and his wife, painter Pamela Mower-Conner, left Downtown L.A. for the hills, Conner was captivated by the natural landscape they found. Rejecting a structured plan, he relied entirely on his sense of composition and color. He treated the slope as one canvas--omitting terraces and steps--and planted natives for their shaggy forms and subtle shadings. California sagebrush ( Artemisia californica ), he recalls, brought him "relief from the oppressiveness of green" and ceanothus, "a full range of the good blues."

But it wasn't until he found roses, in a catalog of modern and old varieties, that his garden palette began to gel. Enthralled by the vibrant reds of favorites such as 'Prince Camille de Rohan,' he was also intrigued that he could grow plants dating back to Napoleon. His affection for Georgia O'Keeffe added irises to the mix, and to set off the eclectic show, he brought in ornaments that smack of bygone civilizations.

Far from suffering from all the company, his unlikely plant pairings have thrived. Roses crawl over laurel sumac; iris pops up amid toyon, fremontia and sage. The secret, Conner believes, is that except for some necessary hand-watering, he does little in the way of garden maintenance--no fertilizing, no pest control and almost no cutting back. "Basically," he concedes, "I just let the plants be."

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