FOR most of the 46 years that the Theodore Payne Foundation has worked to educate Angelenos about the splendor of native flora, the group has been largely dismissed as weed huggers. Payne was an obscure English seedsman who championed wildflowers. The California dream was supposed to be about roses in January, not sagebrush. Yet three years ago, the foundation finally discovered its secret weapon: beauty. It would let the plants do the talking. It would stage a garden tour.
Spring garden tours aren't something that any rose society from here to Connecticut hasn't been doing since Victorian times. Yet for this group, coming around to the idea has involved a four-decade learning curve.
Three years in, with 30 gardens on show over two days (for the giveaway price of $10), they are not only getting the swing of it, but they might have mastered the art.
The secret weapon is the plants. California lilac, blue-eyed grass, poppies, monkeyflowers -- all start blooming a full month before the conventional flush of roses pinks up the city in May, so the Payne tour opens the season.
Weather permitting, it will be a hard act to follow. Visit even one garden and it becomes a task to control the amazement.
The question becomes: How has the spirit of wild California somehow resurfaced, even in inner cities? Each yard is so right for its place, so filled with flowers, so buzzing with bees, clicking with hummingbirds, even jumping with quail, that they make conventional gardens look as happy as a hothouse violet. These yards are so much more than gardens. They're distillations of springtime -- Los Angeles as it must have always happened before we paved paradise.
The only thing that the foundation might have overdone is choice. The tour covers the length and breadth of the county. The geographic spread is so daunting that to get the best of the tour, the secret is to head straight to the Theodore Payne website and chart a map. And as you start previewing the picture, histories and plant lists, here are six gardens chosen for geographical spread, size and climate zone.
Whichever you choose, give yourself time -- you'll need it.
THE pre-tour buzz among native gardeners concerns the garden of sculptors Andreas Hessing and Karen Bonfigli. Since buying a tumbledown 1918 cottage in Altadena seven years ago, they have transformed its large, long lot into what Hessing calls a "site-specific installation."
"That's art speak," he explains, "for transforming space."
Hessing, an Angeleno born and bred, is transforming an artificial suburban environment back into a California one.
Typical of many of these modest foothill homes, the yard is up front, tiny house at the rear. Because the property is on a hill, with the home at the foot of the incline, they could easily open their front door to a wall of mud after a storm. So, they started by putting in a wall.
"I wanted rock, but not mortar," says Hessing. He decided to adapt the gabion into a domestic garden fence. (Gabions are retaining walls made of basketed rocks, even rubble and have been beloved of civil engineers since the Egyptians first started farming around the Nile.) A domesticated gabion would be easier to install and cheaper than a mortared structure and leave room for those invaluable friends of the organic gardener: spiders and lizards.
Along the street, Hessing and Bonfigli massed native wildflowers -- pansies and poppies were the first to bloom. To protect this ephemeral meadow from the tires of a parked car, they laid a telephone pole as curb guard.
The gabion is broken by a gate. Pass through it, and as the garden slopes downhill to an old live oak and the cottage, earth has been mounded and packed to create a winding walk. During dry season, this curving path lends mystery to a meandering walk. When it's wet, it channels storm water.
Along the edge of the low channel, they planted canyon dudleyas. Many of us have admired these neatly tucked up in pots in Martha Stewart-style succulent gardens. Here, set in a scaled-down version of how they might occur in a canyon, they have wild grace.
Halfway into the garden, the channel opens into a sculpture in which a series of granite polishing wheels have been set upright in earth to look like a plow. In its wake is a stand of tufted native grass, and behind that a sea of concrete blocks shaped like houses. "It's the history of the West," says Hessing. "Agriculture, field, housing development."
If there is a future vision, it is that this garden -- their patch of recovered California -- becomes restored chaparral. There are sages, buckwheat, verbena, California lilac, all kinds of crack for bees.
WHEN Eric Callow moved into the midcentury house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., five years ago, he had already converted to native gardening, yet the setting was a challenge. It begged for sculptural landscaping. So he planted geometric shows of native grass to echo the lines of the cantilevered eaves. Yet as the garden extends away from the house, Callow allowed it to melt into meadow.
Much the same seems to happen to Callow himself. When he dashes home from work midday to offer a preview of the place, he looks every inch the financial advisor that he is. But as the man from Merrill Lynch descends into his meadow, he reflexively rolls up the sleeves of his starched shirt and begins yanking weeds.
In this lower garden, there is a blushing succession of the plants one might see growing wild around Southern California -- hummingbird sage, manzanita ground cover -- except that Callow has given them subtle order by the way he has massed and repeated them.
The only constraint posed by natives, he says, is that you must use the plants in similar situations as they would occur in nature, or they will die. Lawn can survive desert heat with enough water. California natives need California conditions. Outside of riparian plants, too much water kills them. Every gardener on the tour repeats the message.
AS the tour progresses, marvel at the beauty of the plants gives way to wonder at how adaptable they are to gardens for our many architectural styles.
For the Zinner family's Spanish-style house in Santa Monica, a meadow would be a mess. The home called for a treatment as geometrical as a Moorish tile. When garden designer Stephanie Blanc replaced lawn with a native garden, she created a classical, angled garden around a fountain. Where she let her hair down was in plant choices: bush anenome, silk tassel bush and native mallow. The upshot is correct but sensuous, and profoundly gracious.
Blanc has been designing in California for 30 years, and 15 years ago switched to natives. It came as a kind of hallelujah moment when she realized that only natives brought the poetry of a perfect match of plant and pollinator. "It came at once that I needed to change the way I was working," she says.
ACROSS in Culver City, another designer, Katja Perrey, has created yet a different garden, this time suitable for one of our most common house types: the 1940 tract house. It is the home of Glenna Citron, a community activist and church volunteer who admits she is no gardener. Her husband had promised to redo the front garden, but when he died three years ago, it was still on a to-do list. Citron decided to use one of his life insurance policies to create it for him, but she needed help. She wanted it to be environmentally friendly, and as she told Perrey, "I wanted high and low, and I wanted curves, and I wanted interesting spaces, and I wanted mystery and magic."
Perrey responded by rethinking the English cottage garden to use natives, including white sage, canyon prince grass, toyon, Douglas irises, creeping manzanita.
FOR Ken and Rhonda Gilliland, the goal was different again. This couple lives at the base of the Verdugo Hills in the countrified lanes of Tujunga. She works in town, he at home as an animator. "My wife works in an accounting firm," says Ken, "so to get out in the garden on weekends, that's what life's about." Together, they have spent their weekends creating a bird sanctuary.
To attract the birds, they needed to re-create a natural habitat. Fittingly enough for a garden filled with meeping and rustling shrubs, they have named it Quail Hollow. According to organizers, this home has the most extensive collection of plants on the tour -- hundreds including mariposa lilies, yerba buena, bush mallow and native onions. It also attracts more than 80 species of birds, including the rare band-tailed pigeon.
THE motivation for artist Tony Beauvy and his wife Anne Traynor to open their home to the tour wasn't to proselytize, but a way of thanking the foundation. Beauvy is a private man who not by accident chose to live far up a nearly impassable lane atop one of central L.A.'s steepest hills. (If you go, park low and hike up.) But he has achieved a precarious seclusion. The midcentury house perches no more than 20 feet from the edge of a hillside. Another El Nino and it could end up on Glendale Boulevard.
Only by studying plants recommended for erosion control did he discover natives. He removed invasive reed, Chinese sumac and castor beans and systematically replanted with California lilac, live oaks, sycamores, wax myrtle and sage. From his living room window, a sycamore planted years earlier set the tone for what is now a lyrical California vista.
If conventional garden tours convey how convincingly a Californian can pretend to live somewhere else, the Payne Foundation tour is a celebration of what it is to live here. Like greater Los Angeles, it has it all. There are properties on foothills, in valleys, the basin, the beach. There are gardens tailored around every predominant architectural style, from Victorian to Spanish to modern to remodeled eco-home.
Speaking as a convert, Citron thinks that it's time for the image of the foundation to be updated.
"You need activists in the beginning to dissent and proselytize," she says. "But then there are people like me who come along and catch the vision. They can be regular people who lead regular lives and still do things that were at one time radical."
As she gestures around her Culver City flower garden, she says, "I mean, who couldn't feel comfortable here?"
Emily Green can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Payne tour: The gardens are open this Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $10 a person. To review tour stops and buy tickets, contact the Theodore Payne Foundation, 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802, or go to www.theodorepayne.org.