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Finicky foliage

For 15 years Nancy Borun has been growing gold-and-green abutilon, green-and-white beech, spattered geranium, splashed ivy, striped bamboo. It hasn’t always been easy. Variegated plants, which have less chlorophyll in their leaves, don’t get along with just any greens, or in just any old setting. They’re temperamental: too much sun, their fetching two-toned leaves may burn; too little, they might revert to all-green. A cold snap? Some can’t take it. Their patterned stripes and spots can be hard to match, not only with other stripers but with solid hues that aren’t warm enough or dark enough to show them off.

Yet while other gardeners are just making these discoveries, Borun is a veteran at moving fussy plants around, changing their food, their watering schedules, potting them up, unpotting them--anything to keep them alive. For her, these very challenges make variegated plants fun. First, she says, there is the novelty: “Wow, a striped iris. A ficus with a creamy edge. I didn’t know they came that way!” Then there is the question: “Can I get that thing to grow?”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 24, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 24, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo caption on Page 27 of “Finicky Foliage” (Gardens, Nov. 3) misidentified a maidenhair fern as an asparagus fern.

In most cases, she can. Festively colored foliages drift through beds, climb fences and loll from pots on her Brentwood lot, where every spare inch around her house is dedicated to garden. She gave up her driveway for plants in 1994, and before that, she claimed her neighbor’s garage wall, covered it with lattice and planted ivy, the variegated kind, of course. Elsewhere, she grows variegated kumquats, nasturtiums and columbines. Most of her ferns and two of her redbuds are etched with white. On close inspection, even the leaves of her wisteria are gold-flecked. “It hasn’t bloomed,” she admits. “After four years I just feel lucky it’s still here. I’m not that interested in blooms.”

Foliages are what intrigue her, their shapes and tones, their smooth or fuzzy textures, the way they spark each other, weaving a scene much richer than its parts.

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Borun comes from a gardening family and attributes her leaf obsession to her mother, Ruth, who has a Brentwood garden too, though much larger and more elaborate than her daughter’s. It was back in 1987 that Borun, staying temporarily with her parents, first became aware of what she calls “the nuances of variegation. I’d never seen the plants my mother had, plants I recognized but knew in their ordinary green forms.” Her mother had the first striped iris she’d ever seen, along with Japanese painted ferns, pelargoniums and pittosporums, plants that shone, particularly, in shade.

Borun eventually bought her own house and soon afterward began gardening in the patchy shade of a giant sycamore. Chris Rosmini, the L.A. garden designer who had laid out her mother’s landscape, laid out Borun’s too, creating an English-style front garden and a rear courtyard with a fountain and beds where any plant that could take the sycamore’s root competition made the cut. Oakleaf hydrangea, white azalea, red Japanese maple and hellebores survived. Two years ago, when Borun worked up the nerve to yank the sycamore, she was finally able to add more tender variegated favorites such as the columbine and a strap-leafed sisyrinchium. Venice garden designer Barry Campion created a separate fountain garden to replace the driveway. Borun then added some favorites of her own, most notably, a few variegated ficus that form a backdrop for burgundy heucheras and bronze astilbes in the rear garden.

In general, says Borun, variegated greens, which may have pink or yellow-green edges, combine beautifully with maroon and chartreuse plants in either complementary or contrasting schemes. To head off clashes, she avoids placing patterned plants too close together, unless their shapes create a striking blend, as in the case of the sisyrinchium that sprays beside a round-leafed, white-rimmed pelargonium. She makes liberal use of containers too, so she can coddle touchy types, like the variegated redbud, and mix plants into small vignettes that would otherwise be too busy for beds. Pots are also the place for plants, such as variegated ajuga, that might otherwise invade each other’s space.

To ensure the well-being of her collection, Borun, the mother of two teenage girls, gardens daily, patrolling for bugs, rubbing aphids off tender leaves and mixing worm castings into the soil to banish whitefly. When a plant flags in one spot, as in the case of a variegated dogwood Ruth gave her, she tries it in another. And she still goes plant-hunting with her mother, often to Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, a prime source for splashy greens. “True, I have no room,” Borun concedes. “My lot is 50 by 100 feet. But then I look around and think, do I really need that garage?”

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Resource Guide

GARDENS, Pages 24-28: Chris Rosmini, Garden Design, Los Angeles, (323) 258-1195; Campion Walker Design, Venice, (310) 392-3535. Variegated plant sources: Sperling Nursery, Calabasas, (818) 591-9111; Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar, (949) 640-5800; M & M Nursery, Orange, (714) 538-8042; Upland Nursery, Orange, (714) 538-4500; Plant Delights Nursery (mail order), Raleigh, N.C., (919) 772-4794.


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