Eastern Plants Come to California


You can grow anything in Southern California, right?

Laurie Olin, the Philadelphia landscape architect for the Getty Center and downtown’s Pershing Square, told me that one of his biggest problems with those gardens was deciding how to narrow the planting field.

“You can grow just about anything out there,” he said.

Though we can grow all sorts of exotic and wonderful things, I’ve never been totally convinced that we can grow those back-East plants such as hostas, peonies or even lilacs, the kinds of plants that need an acid soil and winters colder than even our mountains can provide.

But there are those who disagree.

They would point to things like the lilacs that were developed for Southern California, and a nice stand of them do grow at Descanso Gardens in La Can~ada Flintridge.


However, even these lilacs act confused when planted somewhere other than in that chilly Descanso canyon or in the high desert.

A friend, for instance, tried growing several ‘Lavender Lady’ in the flats of Beverly Hills. These Descanso lilacs would leaf out, try to bloom, then give up and go back into some kind of dormancy, only to try again.

They would do this several times a year, never really growing, never really flowering. He eventually took them out and returned to growing camellias.

I hear stories about people growing great lilacs in typical gardens. Perhaps someone will send me a snapshot of his or her lilacs, and I’ll become a believer, but until then, I’ll continue to think that lilacs look great beside a granite doorstep in New Hampshire but are a poor choice next to a “d.g.” (decomposed granite) path in Southern California.

I did find hostas growing happily in Cindy McNatt’s Tustin garden, where Valencia orange groves once prospered.

McNatt lives in a typical California ranch house with a pool and palm trees in back and a dog named Dusty. Her husband’s a Santa Ana vice investigator, and she has two almost-grown kids.

She also writes and illustrates Orange County’s Garden Notebook, a useful newsletter and sourcebook (call [714] 731-1697 to find where copies are available).

And she grows hostas in her frontyard.

You can see for yourself today, when her garden is on Mary Lou Heard’s Country Gardens spring tour (see accompanying box).


Most people trying to grow these back-East plants come from the East, but McNatt was born in San Diego. So why the fascination?

She enjoys the challenge of growing plants that shouldn’t grow here, but she’s also trying to duplicate a scene from the eastern Sierra.

“I love that cool, woodland look you find back in the canyons where the quaking aspens and conifers grow.” So in a shaded corner of her north-facing frontyard, she’s growing plants with that woodland look.

She pores over catalogs from places such as Shady Oak Nursery in Waseca, Minn., and orders such things as hostas, astilbes, Solomon’s seal, Oriental lilies, lady’s-mantle and fairy bells--all of which now grow in a corner of her frontyard.

Some struggle; some thrive. The astilbes she grows (they came with no name) do so well that she can divide them and give extras away.

There are even woodsy, wild gingers, though the one she grows is the native Asarum caudatum, which grows beneath the redwoods.

She grows Eastern dogwoods too, which happened to be in full flower on my visit (technically, they’re bracts--modified leaves--not flowers).

Although she did not get a name tag along with the dogwoods, I suspect they are ‘Cloud Nine’ or one of the other Eastern dogwoods that are supposed to need little winter cold and aren’t as bothered by our summer heat.

Frank Burkard, at Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, says white ‘Cloud Nine’ and pinkish ‘Welchii Junior Miss’ do well all over Southern California, even though their leaves may burn a little in late summer. In his own South Pasadena garden, they’re having a particularly glorious spring thanks to all the rain.

I once tried the dogwoods that grow beside the Merced in Yosemite Valley, but I found that our native Western dogwood--C. nuttallii--didn’t like my garden one bit.

It’s not easy to grow these woodland plants in McNatt’s garden either. She didn’t just plop them into her heavy clay soil. She has deeply dug and tilled the soil three times in the last 10 years, adding copious amounts of organic amendment each time, and each spring she adds a 2-inch-thick mulch of more organic amendment.

Each time she worked the soil, she added soil sulfur (found at nurseries) to increase the acidity, and she sprinkles more sulfur on the soil each year. She started with an alkaline pH of 8 or 9, but in this corner of the garden, she now has an acidic pH of about 6. She also points out that Tustin gets its water from wells, not from the alkaline Colorado River.

The plants don’t always cooperate. They tend to leaf out late, as if they have forgotten to set their calendars back to West Coast time. The hostas are only inches across right now, though they get 2 feet wide by summer. A few plants aren’t even out of the ground.

Her garden is also full of plants that do really well here, including California natives. Two huge dragon trees stand guard over the pool, a ceanothus is almost hidden inside a pride of Madeira. Iceland poppies and ranunculus grow near, or in, the parkway, and there are abutilons, camellias, native monkey flowers and salvias--all carefully fitted into a normal-sized Orange County lot.

But she seems to be having the most fun with the challenging back-East plants.


Heard, whose Westminster nursery always has a smattering of back-East plants, told me that McNatt’s not the only one experimenting. Heard is from Ohio and also enjoys a good back-East challenge. “That’s the fun of gardening, trying to find out what a plant needs,” she said.

“I don’t believe it when someone tells me it won’t grow here,” Heard said. “Like a difficult child, you just have to discover what it likes and needs.

“A nurseryman once told me, ‘If you haven’t tried growing it five times, you don’t know if it grows here or not.’ ”

Although I have tried several times to grow the chocolate-scented cosmos, which grows fine for a season but never returns from its dormancy, I confess that once is usually enough for me.


Orange County Garden Tour

Heard’s Country Gardens sponsors an annual tour, held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this weekend, that benefits the Sheepfold, a support organization for young mothers.

Eighteen gardens are open today, most in southern Orange County, including Cindy McNatt’s in Tustin.

There is no admission fee, but you can make donations to the Sheepfold at various gardens.

To take the tour, you’ll need to pick up the list of gardens at Heard’s, 14931 Edwards St., Westminster, (714) 894-2444. It’s near the Westminster Mall. You’ll need a good map to guide you to the gardens. Thomas Guide numbers are given for each.