When I bought my home in a quiet Westside neighborhood several years ago, I chose it in good part because of its back garden. The garden had been nurtured by its previous owner to a mature green lushness of tall fern trees and giant sago palms, with a nice bed of roses and a few hydrangea bushes. This was much more garden than I have ever had before; I have been trying to live up to it ever since.
Early on, I hired a landscape architect to rearrange the foliage a bit. One sunny morning, he sat on my patio, slowly surveyed my backyard and asked a dumbfounding question: "What's the theme here?"
Theme? My mind raced through the possibilities. Foliage? Photosynthesis? Green? I figured out later that he was referring to the colors of the flowers I had recently planted. Purchased in newfound garden-shop enthusiasm, the red, pink and orange blooms seemed to him to clash. I have since tried to match my colors better.
But his observation and my many hours of gardening since have made me realize that the one color I like best in my garden is plain old green, the kind that looks as if it needs gallons of precious water to manifest, however unwise that is in a city built on a desert.
This thirst for green comes, I think, from nostalgia for my home state of Illinois. I don't miss the bleak subzero winters that rob the trees of leaves and seem to last most of the year. But, in the truncated season I refer to as "spring-summer-fall," the landscape in northeastern Illinois is so effortlessly beautiful and lush that it is as touching and melancholy as a gorgeous sunset you know is about to fade.
I love Los Angeles, but I can never get over how the greenery here seems so forced. It must be tended and watered and generally spoiled or it will show you who's boss by shriveling up and dying in no time flat. In the non-urban Midwest, by contrast, there is a generosity and freedom about the shady trees and overgrown plants and sloping lawns and open meadows that are there for the visual feasting whenever you drive to work or to the grocery store. You don't need a gardener--or even a garden--to have lovely greenery in your everyday life. Here, we must work hard to have the same effect.
In my search for green, I sometimes drift through garden books. Although I should be focusing on how-to books because I need all the advice I can get, I prefer "fantasy" gardening books that show me picture after picture of woodsy grounds and tamed forests on the Eastern Seaboard, England, France or wherever. These are gardens I could never in my lifetime create.
I want from these books the things I can't have in L.A.: lush landscapes with huge bushes of pale lilacs, secret patches of wild hepaticas and green, green, green stands of trees overarching abundantly above my head. I guess what I really want is a dreamy version of the little forest I played in as a child, the one I mythologize now, the one where I walked alone in early spring and discovered delicate white violets and tiny oak saplings poking out from fallen wet leaves.
Meanwhile, my real garden in L.A. awaits--automatic-sprinkled, mowed-and-blowed weekly and otherwise lackadaisically tended by its current owner. It's not the cool barky woods of my childhood. Still, it's lovely, really. And now it's even color-coordinated.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY
GARDENS OF THE NATIONAL TRUST
By Stephen Lacey
(Henry N. Abrams: $45, 319 pp.)
VISIONS OF ARCADIA
European Gardens From
Renaissance to Rococo
By May Woods
(Aurum: $39.95, 224 pp.)
Designing, Creating, Nurturing
By Jacqueline Heriteau
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $50,
WOMEN OF FLOWERS
A Tribute to
Victorian Women Illustrators
By Jack Kramer
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $35,