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A Little Bit of Britain

There’s a long tradition of what we think of as the English garden, with its rustic cottage-swathed-in-flowers charm. In the late 1800s, British gardeners had rebelled against the formal patterns of Victorian beds in favor of looser, more romantic shapes. Leading the charge were English writer William Robinson, author of “The Wild Garden,” and Gertrude Jekyll, an influential designer and veritable artist with perennials. Smitten by humble flower plots in farms and villages, Jekyll incorporated their casual mounds and swaths into her gardens for large estates. She thus popularized the naturalistic border, packed with perennials and shrubs, that is now synonymous with English style.

Despite its oh-so-British roots, Angelenos love this flowery look, which seems to capture the informality of our lives. Los Angeles has its share of picket-fenced cottages and even Tudor-style mansions, where English plant borders look smashing. Yet we’re also a city of Spanish, French and Modern housing styles, to name a few. Depending on the house, says L.A. garden designer Paul Robbins, himself a British export who moved here in 1996, a flower-filled English garden can look fussy and wrong. Not to mention that plants that thrive in Britain, such as delphiniums and foxgloves, may falter here unless flooded with drink and treated royally.

“Parts of England get 80 to 90 inches of annual rain, so they can grow thirsty gunnera, while we, who get about 15, must plant drier things like sea lavender,” Robbins says. “And English summers are extremely short. People expect gardens to go dormant in winter.”

Although the English lavish a lot of time on their plants, clipping, weeding and feeding to achieve an artless, natural look, Angelenos generally don’t. Still, we want gardens that bloom year-round, not just in May and June. Though gardens grow through the winter here, they become much less showy unless you stuff them periodically with flowering annuals. This laborious, expensive practice, which uses pansies, impatiens and other bedding plants, is frowned on by perennial gardeners, including Robbins, who grew up in Sussex and Somerset counties tending his family’s landscape.

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Robbins doesn’t expect to duplicate the gardens he grew up with, but he draws inspiration from some elements such as Jekyll’s borders, which can be adapted to various garden styles using plants suitable for California. In fact, Robbins notes, some of the best choices for English-style gardens--rosemary from the Mediterranean and westringia from Australia--hail from climates similar to ours.

One example of the modified English look is a garden he designed for a 1920s Tudor house near Hollywood. The borders that bloom around the front lawn demonstrate that even casual-looking planting schemes show best against a strong organizing structure of boxwood hedges, ivy-covered fences and brick paths. As Jekyll did, Robbins uses masses of each plant in different spots along the borders to simplify and unify the scene.

The main bed, which unfolds against a very L.A. backdrop of street palms, alternates cool sweeps of various greens--fortnight lily, loropetalum, breath of heaven and abelia--and splashes in penstemon and geranium. All of these California-happy plants are paired for either harmony (the purple penstemon and geranium) or contrast (the green, sword-like lily and the coppery softness of abelia).

Though they look fluffy and full beside a backdrop of Boston ivy, Robbins’ plantings are less complex than many British borders and less difficult to maintain because they have similar water and cultivation needs. Along a path to the front door, Robbins uses a warmer, wilder palette--yellow daylilies and kangaroo paws with stipa grass, rust-red carex and lion’s tail. All vividly colored, these hold their own in especially bright locations. “The soft pastels that look wonderful in English gloom can really wash out here,” he explains. But in the shade under a window, he tucked in creamy summer-blooming oakleaf hydrangeas--less thirsty than other hydrangea types--and white Japanese anemones, which flower in the fall.

“Wherever possible,” he says, “I plant for successive blooming to extend the whole flowering season. But I also pick plants that look shapely and attractive when they’re not blooming.” Given our climate, he adds, pruning after flowering can encourage new blooms. But he points out that a seasonal ebb and flow is part of any garden’s life: “We in L.A. could use a bit more of one quality the English have--a tolerance for imperfection.”

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Building an English-style California border

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Choose plants from regions with climates similar to ours (the Mediterranean, South Africa) in a range of heights, textures and related colors. Lion’s tail, with its tall orange spires, works well near the back of a border. The wide green leaves of Jerusalem sage are a good foil for finer foliage. Ornamental grasses add softness (but beware of invasive types such as pennisetum). Instead of delphiniums or foxgloves, try penstemon. In place of broad-leafed lady’s mantle, opt for sea lavender. Where you might plant hybrid lilies, substitute Peruvian lilies. For Oriental poppies, try pincushion (leucospermum). California lilac (ceanothus) is a good stand-in for common lilac, and creeping sedum does nicely instead of ground-covering, water-loving moss.

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Resource Guide

Paul Robbins Garden Design Inc., Los Angeles, (323) 933-3490, www.robbinsgardens.com.

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