A Field Day for Fanciers of Flora : Garden Show Crowd Reflects Blooming Passion for Plants Among Boomers


Even for a hard-core trowel-and-compost type, it was pretty esoteric stuff. Gardens based on the native compounds of the Ndebele tribe. Plantings inspired by the works of Proust.

But this is Southern California, the fertile crescent of the Sunset magazine crowd, and when someone says "rosebush," people perk up. So it wasn't too surprising that, an hour into Wednesday's opening of the five-day Los Angeles Garden Show, the grounds of the county arboretum in Arcadia were aswarm with gardeners, more than 2,000 of them, from straw-hatted grandmothers to yuppie couples in sensible shoes.

"Actually, it's a little embarrassing how much I love plants," confided 56-year-old Don Durkee of Hollywood, dragging a seven-foot papyrus down a gravel path. "It's gotten so I have to unload my car at night. My neighbors say, 'What the hell is he gonna do with all those plants?' "

Al De La Cruz, meanwhile, had a ready rationale for his haul of spiky succulents and Mexican sage: "We're replanting the side yard," the 34-year-old South Pasadena lawyer panted, getting a better grip on his knee-high plants while simultaneously trying to corral his 2 1/2-year-old son.

Gardening may be as old as Adam and Eve, but it's never been a bigger industry. According to the Vermont-based National Gardening Assn., sales of lawn and garden supplies hit almost $26 billion last year, up from about $16 billion five years ago.

Industry analysts place the trend squarely on the creaking shoulders of those ubiquitous trendsters, the baby boom generation. Now that the boomers have reached middle age, says gardening association research director Bruce Butterfield, they are proving his theory that people's thumbs go green at about the same time their hair goes gray.

"In their twenties, people are trying to figure out their jobs," said Butterfield. "In their thirties, people get serious about figuring out relationships and starting a family. And in their forties, people become home-based. It's like a biological clock.

"At least that's how it was for me."

This isn't to say that the show failed to draw the usual turnout of retirees and professional horticulturists. Wednesday is, after all, a workday, and many in the crowd said they had come early to avoid the weekend yuppie rush.

"I knew it was going to be big, so I took the day off to come," said Adrienne Dumenigo of Woodland Hills, a trained botanist who was perusing a display of roses named after celebrities. "Still, I had no idea there would be this many people this early in the day."

Judy Rez, an Altadena matron who wore pearls for the event, said she had made the trip especially to buy plants and talk shop with other serious gardeners. Her hope: to spice up the English garden she has tended for 25 years.

"I have a fountain, and a decomposed granite walkway and an incredible Cecile Brunner, it's gotta be 50 years old," she boasted with a modest smile.

"That's a rose," a companion offered helpfully.

"Yes, a climbing rose," said Rez. "Baby pink."

But a substantial number of visitors were like lawyer De La Cruz and his wife, Maureen, who laughed sheepishly when their gardening habit came up.

"We started gardening when we bought our house 3 1/2 years ago," he said, "and we started learning to garden as things in the yard started to die. Also, I was a deputy district attorney at the time, and when you spend all day with people who lie, cheat, steal and kill, you want to do something therapeutic in your spare time."

Gradually, he said, he got hooked on the hobby. "We don't get the Smith & Hawken catalogue yet, but we have a lot of flowerpots," he laughed. "I mean, you think one or two will be enough, and before you know it, you have 40 of the things."

In the display garden titled "Dreams of Provence," Claude and Gloria Gobet of Tarzana (ages 53 and 47, respectively) confessed that they too are "flower addicted."

"We have about a half-acre, more than 200 different flowers," he said. "Dahlias, pansies, birds of paradise, roses. It's pretty extensive."

Their quest, he said, was "to get some new ideas."

"Like maybe how to save some water," his wife said, laughing.

"Our water bill is out of this world."

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