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Get creative with natives

Sixth annual Native Plant Garden Tour showcases designer gardens with native plant species

Posted: April 4, 2009 12:55 a.m.
Updated: April 4, 2009 12:19 a.m.

This home in Woodland Hills will also be one of the stops on the tour. It has a terraced front garden, which favors desert plants, such as ocotillo (the tree-like plant in the gravel patch).

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If you thought fescue grass was a native Southern California plant species, you could be forgiven. I mean, it's everywhere you turn.

And, in the case of my lawn, it looks bad enough to be growing wild. However, compared to most truly native species, lawn grass requires a lot of water to look good - and with the California drought worsening, informed homeowners are searching for ways to reduce their water usage. (You see, I'm not lazy or cheap, just conservation-minded.)

So, if you're tired of watering the gutter and would like to learn more about native-plant landscaping, you have a great opportunity this weekend via the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour.

"Spring has sprung with Southern California's annual wildflowers," said Lili Singer, the garden tour coordinator for the Theodore Payne Foundation. "It's all so colorful right now." And with that, she added a little more incentive for folks to join the sixth annual tour, which will be held Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

The self-guided tour will feature 45 home gardens spread across the Los Angeles basin.

"We have gardens from Monrovia through Echo Park and the San Fernando Valley," Singer said. "We have two in L.A. and a whole bunch on the West Side, a cluster in Torrance and one in Long Beach."

For $20 you get admission into as many gardens as you can visit in the two-day period, and the Garden Tour program you receive is your "ticket." It contains the addresses of the gardens and much more.

"The 16 page booklet is the official ticket," Singer said. "And it has descriptive icons to help people choose which garden to go to."

For example, she said there is a "slope" icon, which indicates gardens featuring plants that stabilize hillsides and help control erosion. And there is a "clay" icon for gardens with plants suitable to heavy clay soils.

Singer explained that most native California plants are draught tolerant, but not all. Some native species grow best near rivers and streams, and people who have such habitats in their yards may want to seek out tour gardens featuring such plants. These plants include mugwort, which has a fragrant foliage, and the western sycamore tree.

"People have a wide assortment of gardens to choose from," Singer said. "Not only will the homeowners be there during the tour, but their designers will also. And there will be experts from the Theodore Payne Foundation."

Singer said in addition to all this "experience" available to those on the tour, it is a very social event. "People have fun and learn from each other. It's an adventure and an experience, and it's fun to see what you can do with native plants."

Singer explained the gardens were intentionally clustered where possible so that visitors could see a lot without having to travel a lot.

"Every garden has its own style," she said. "They (the gardens) don't all look like hillsides."

"It's all so colorful right now, with the wildflowers, the flowering shrubs and perennials, and the California lilacs (not true lilacs)," she said. "You get the last flowering of the manzanita and the first of the sages. The gardens are full of fragrance."

Many of the plants will have labels, and in addition to the plants, Singer said there will be hummingbirds and butterflies. "Just come with a ticket. The guide offers really great directions."

The foundation's Web site offers a breakdown of each garden on the tour (but not the address), which includes a slide show and a plant list. It also includes information on handicap accessibility and whether or not bathrooms are available to the public.

Singer said the tour will go on "rain or shine," and that you should bring a hat and some water.

The Theodore Payne Foundation is a nonprofit organization and the garden tour is its biggest fundraiser of the year. However, the foundation's biggest source of income and information dissemination is its 22-acre native plant nursery, which is open in Sun Valley year-round. "There will be 400 to 500 types of plants available at any time," Singer said. And there is a professional staff to advise you on purchase and care of native plants.

The nursery also conducts classes on native plants and hosts field trips for school children. On April 18 it will conduct a huge spring sale and open house, where everyone (not just members) gets discounts.

So, whether it's for aesthetic reasons, financial reasons or conservation reasons, if you are considering using native plants in your landscaping, the Native Plant Garden Tour could be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with the Theodore Payne Foundation. Visit www.theodorepayne.org/tour/index.html and click on the "Get Tickets Now" bar.

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