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Leaving a memorable landscape

I never thought it would happen, but here we were, driving away from our house and garden for the last time, leaving our beloved California, moving to a new state. After friends and neighbors, I suppose what I’ll most miss is the dirt. Gardeners will understand.

Good soil is hard to come by, and this neighborhood had good soil to begin with -- what’s called sandy loam, easy to dig in yet rich enough to make plants grow big and fast. Weeding and watering were a snap, and we grew a wonderful garden, or actually several, because the landscape changed as our kids grew, and I evolved as a gardener during our 26 years there.

It had been a lima bean field -- the whole of Rancho Park was. I like to think the good soil also had something to do with the pleasant neighborhood that sprouted there. Surrounded by Century City, Westwood, Cheviot Hills and Santa Monica, little Rancho Park was like a small town in the middle of a very big city when we first discovered it. We noticed how many children were outside playing, a very good sign, we thought.

The modest homes, built in 1944 during World War II when copper and steel were rationed, may have been short on wiring and plumbing, but they had handsome oak floors. We like to brag that we raised three kids in that 900-square-foot house with one tiny bathroom and a kitchen smaller than many closets.

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Because the houses were small, the lots seemed huge, which left plenty of room for lawns and gardens. I’m sure that’s why so many kids were outside playing. Our front lawn was always covered with Star Wars figures and wood blocks, Barbies and plastic ponies.

The back was where we often ate, because the inside dining area was so small. It was also where I gardened. The kids got the front, I got the back. I tacked an office onto the garage, so I could even work in the garden.

And because writing about gardening was my work, I was constantly experimenting and playing. That very good soil made it easy to ruthlessly tear out the old and try the new. I planted one border of fascinating flowers and shrubs, only to take it out a few years later and plant another. I even planted trees and then took them out after they got too big, or I found one I liked better. Because of the soil, lots of things grew much bigger than expected.

At first, while the children were young, we grew mostly edibles. We tried a delicious little dessert banana named ‘Ladyfinger,’ a ‘Shanghai’ peach that was so sweet and juicy that we had to hose down the kids after they ate even one, and an apricot that greatly disappointed this boy who grew up in a Northern California apricot orchard.

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We grew citrus, of course, because they are so useful and hang on the tree ripe and ready for months. We had a lemon, a juice orange, a blood orange (also for juice) plus a delicious tangerine (technically not mine because it hung over the fence, but we secretly watered it) and an avocado (also not mine).

I gave up on the apricot, and the peach was sadly short-lived, so I replaced them with more ornamental trees, which in turn, were replaced after a few years with several powerfully fragrant sweetshades (Hymenosporum). Who could resist their siren call?

Bob’s avocado next door never produced much and it really was too big, so he took it out. Hidden behind it was a huge power pole that now loomed over the garden like some gangly monster. It took several tries to find just the right tree, but the willowy Pittosporum phillyreoides was the perfect pole-hider and a good neighbor tree because it did not cast too dense a shadow.

With that big avocado gone, we suddenly had a lot more sun, so we planted more and more flowers and small decorative shrubs. Nothing stayed for long, of course. Once I’d learned how to grow a plant and what care it needed, out it would come, headed for a friend or neighbor’s garden, and I’d try something new. Giving plants to friends and neighbors is a good idea because if you ever want one of them back, you know where to get it.

We’d put a useful and decorative path from the back door to the back fence, a “rail for the eye to travel on,” as garden writer Hugh Johnson put it. We added interest to each side of the path, a lily pond and a fountain along one side and a little area for sitting in the sun: We used the driveway as our patio and it was nicely shaded by a gorgeous lavender trumpet tree.

That tabebuia was actually the first thing we planted, a week after moving in, and it grew to become one of the largest in L.A., literally burying the house and patio in lavender-pink blossoms each spring. Neighbors told us they could see it from several houses away. I even bought a snow shovel to keep up with the fallen flowers. I’m not kidding you. I’ve got photos.

Eventually we did make the house a little bit larger, being careful to wrap the small addition around the trumpet tree, and we put in a clear skylight so we could look up at all those blossoms.

Color schemes also changed as years slid by. There was my pink and blue stage, then my lavender and yellow, and finally my bright red and purple shocker. The garden in back changed so much through the years that when I look at old photos, it’s hard to believe they were all taken in the same place. One shows the huge barbecue and outdoor fireplace structure that came with the place. The kids and I knocked it down one weekend because it never was much good for anything other than raising spiders.

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The street is lined with handsome magnolias, but we also planted a big, pink-flowered floss silk tree in front, heavily armed with big black thorns. It didn’t scare any of the kids though. They easily snapped off the thorns and glued them to their fingernails, then walked around making monster sounds.

That tree also got way too big (I should have known), so we took it out and, while we were at it, redid the whole frontyard, moving the vegetables into two tidy raised beds surrounded by a picket fence, set back three feet from the sidewalk and with the pointed tops cut off so it was neighborly. To sweeten the deal, we planted blackberries along the fence and encouraged neighbors to help themselves. By now our kids and their friends were grown and gone.

Children need lawns, but as our kids grew and turned to other pursuits, I began gleefully pulling out more and more grass to make room for flowers and handsome foliage, though I had to put some back when my daughter got married in the backyard last spring.

The neighborhood seemed to change along with our garden, or maybe it was vice versa. Kids grew up, houses got bigger, kids moved out. Then suddenly a few years ago, the neighborhood began filling with small children. Once again there were little kids in my frontyard, their faces and hands stained with blackberry juice. They would ask to feed the fish in back and I’d explain how my kids won these goldfish by tossing pennies into little bowls at the school carnival and how both had grown so big.

When it became clear that our kids had left the state for good, we decided to follow, even though it meant leaving a lovely garden and friendly neighborhood. But now our children are again nearby, and I get to try gardening in another climate, one with four distinct seasons and a whole new palette of plants. I can hardly wait.

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Robert Smaus is the retired garden editor of The Times and author of four gardening books. He recently moved to the Pacific Northwest.

home@latimes.com

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