On Native Ground 

Gardening in the asphalt jungle

Thursday, Oct 6 2005
Gardening books must be written on another planet. They have chapters on overwintering your potted lemon tree indoors. Pictures of bare rose branches with the mulch carefully placed below. Instructions on digging up dahlia tubers so they don’t freeze.

Huh? This is Los Angeles. You stick it in the ground and it grows. Get a greenhouse if you want, but you’re just showing off. All you need is a back yard. No, not even that. You just need a place where you can put a pot or one of those half whiskey-barrels that make your car smell like a distillery for a couple days after driving one home from the garden center. A sack of potting soil and you’re set.

Los Angeles is the best place in the world to have a garden. Want to go tropical? L.A. has the heat and the sunlight, you provide the water. You can grow mangoes, pineapples, bananas — pretty much anything you find on your plate in a Thai restaurant. Kaffir lime, lemongrass. Cinnamon trees. You thought lychees grew in green Jell-O in Chinese restaurants, and jujubes came in boxes sold at movie refreshment counters? A couple in Granada Hills sells lychee trees. And jujubes. There’s a guy in Long Beach who sells real pepper vines out of his back yard, the same plants that caused Europeans to battle over secret routes to the Moluccas.

A cactus garden? Brush off those jokers who call Los Angeles a desert and go for it. Some species might give you trouble if you’ve got heavy clay, but loosen up the soil a bit and condition it with gypsum — you don’t want to use organic matter with cactus.

But you like English gardens, too, with their long borders of thirsty perennials, and need inspiration and ideas. Go to the large public gardens that unfold across the foothills separating the Los Angeles basin from the mountains and that are quite simply the best in the world. Descanso Gardens (1418 Descanso Dr., La Cañada–Flintridge). The Los Angeles County Arboretum (301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia). The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Road, San Marino).

There may be more art and more imagination in some of those famous European spreads in Britain and Italy, and more philosophy and spirit in Zen or Chinese gardens, but Los Angeles has the plants.

I once lived in an East Coast city where they emptied the swimming pools the Tuesday after Labor Day and started pulling the tiny potted orange and lemon trees into the greenhouses. Later, there was a certain excitement or vitality in the air as you looked for the first snowflakes of the season. Before long, however, you’d be stepping off the curb not knowing if your foot was going to land on solid snowpack or sink into soggy slush. And if you wanted to see a flower, you’d have to go to a museum, or wait a couple months. People would say, “I like having four seasons.” But they’d say it with an edge of bitterness.

Keep your four seasons. We have our own. There’s October and November, when you plant, and the roots grow long through the cooling soil. There’s December and early January, when you notice that last year’s tomato plants that you forgot to pull out are fruiting again. There’s January and February, when the water often falls for free from the sky. And there’s the rest of the year, when everything is in bloom.

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