Scrub Jay Studios

urban garden tour presents best l.a. nativescapers


Sage filled the air. Hummingbirds darted around trees. Water trickled down rocks. Orange, red, yellow, maroon, purple, lavender, and white flowers sprinkled the landscape. A natural escape beyond the mountains? No.

These were the sights, sounds, and smells of California's native plant gardens featured on a tour organized by the Theodore Payne Foundation and held on April 1-2.

The Native Plant Garden Tour, co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, showcased 30 native plant gardens throughout the L. A. basin. More than 1, 200 people participated in the self-guided tour of private homes and public gardens, according to tour organizer Keith Malone.

"There are gardens from Monrovia to Torrance and Granada Hills. In order to be a part of the tour, 50 percent or more of your garden has to be native," Malone said.

Malone dashed around the garden of Garry George to assist incoming visitors, sell tickets, and answer calls on his cell phone from the Sun Valley headquarters.

"This is not a typical garden tour. This is interactive," he paused to explain." You talk with gardeners and docents. They open up their homes and gardens. People believe in this."

Then a rush of eager visiting explorers swept him away.

The tour, now in its third year, was a fun, inexpensive ($10) opportunity to share in a moment of tranquility and passion with other gardeners and native plant enthusiasts.

Tour participants came from Ventura, Orange County, Palos Verdes and Pomona to explore these natural urban enclaves.

These are not the native plants of a parched ghost-town circa 1889.

Thriving gardens, explosions of color, and the hum of bees enliven the surrounding cityscape. With plants called "baja fairy duster," "monkeyflower," and "hummingbird sage," these urban escapes are as surreal as the names of their flora suggest. Their vibrance emerges from a buzz of texture, form, color, and activity.

Birds in paradise

Each garden captures a slice of its owner's identity. Some are mature and tranquil, while others are young and hip or sophisticated and cultured.

Garry George's home is a miniature wildland embedded in the urban jungle of the mid-Wilshire region.

A cool breeze drifted through the bare branches of a 70-year-old jacaranda sprawling over the garden, as its creators proudly explained: "My garden is a place for birds. "

George flitted from guest to guest, answering questions and describing his garden's avian inhabitants.

"Seventy-five species of bird visit the garden.” We have a wintering flock of six species including warblers and thrushes," George said.

George explained he planted several layers of shrub and trees to craft a multi-story canopy replicating that of a natural forest. A cacophony of bird songs soar far above the distant car horns and airplanes of Los Angeles.

West beats the rest

Just around the corner is the home of Nate West.

A splash of color accents the white facade of his quaint, two-story home, one block north of the crowded storefronts of Pico Boulevard. Drivers on this busy street slowed to a crawl to gawk at the California poppies that outshine the $1000 landscaping of the homes on either side of West's.

"We spend a lot more time out here. We have hummingbirds and scrubjays. We actually had dragonflies last year," West told visitors, gesturing to blue flowers surrounding a willow tree next to a rock swale.

On a small lot, West created a dry streambed, a field of California poppies, and a water fountain surrounding a patio complete with barbecue.

Striking roots

A hillside cascades to the edge of Susan Gottlieb’s Beverly Hills home and continues down a deep ravine.

"Many drought-tolerant plants are good for hill stabilizing because they put down such deep roots in search of water, " Gottleib explained over the whir of hummingbirds zipping around her garden.

Gottleib's mini-desertscape explodes with red and yellow from baja fairy dusters and monkeyflower, accented by bushy darkstar California lilac. All this surrounds a spotless patio and swimming pool.

An uneven stairway of railroad ties leads down the hill, past weeping trees and crowded shrubbery. Surrounded by small trees and shrubs that display a multi-hued palette of green, a chain-link fence is the only reminder that one has not traveled back in time to early California.

Plants, grow where water flows

The yard surrounding Amy Nettleson's South Pasadena home is a greenhouse experiment for her work as a landscape architect. Lemons hang off trees next to native sages and California lilac.

"Water activates a garden, gives it a spot that offers reflection," Nettleson said, gesturing to one of several fountains around the yard. "Moving water attracts birds."

The chattering response from unseen nests and perches marked the affirmation of her avian guests.

The art of nature

While Nettleson uses her garden as a laboratory, Andreas Hessing and Karen Bonfigli use theirs as a canvas.

These Altadena sculptors crafted a sprawling field of poppies that draws visitors down a decomposed granite pathway past art fixtures and cacti. A low rock wall enmeshed in wire complements the natural surroundings and defines the front of the property.

A narrow ledge after modest grading exposes layers of river rock and resembles the side of a desert wash, complete with stunted cacti clinging to the slope.

Here, sculptures, rocks, and plants paint an artistic compilation of the many faces of nature and our contact with it.

Create an Eden of your own

According to the gardeners and docents on the tour, starting a native plant garden is easy and brings its own rewards.

When West started his garden, several friends helped him remove the crispy brown remnants of his lawn killed by herbicide. Las Pilitas Nursery in Palos Verdes helped him find small plants to start his garden.

"I started with buckwheat and ceanothus. I did a lot of weed pulling that first spring. Now it's almost no maintenance, " West said.

With no prior experience in landscaping, West gave birth to a living nature preserve with a winding path and bursts of color.

"It wasn't especially well-planned, but it turned out well, " West said. Several gardeners indicated that -great start-up species include sages, salvias, ceanothus, and monkeyflower, and that experimenting with different plants and locations around the yard is part of the joy of gardening.

Established native plant gardens can serve as founts of inspiration for aspiring gardeners. The Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, and Descanso Gardens in La Canada are open to the public and staffed with knowledgeable experts.

Most of these locations offer seedlings, workshops, books, videos, and other resources. A day trip with the family to enjoy an afternoon among the birds, flowers, and butterflies is a delight.

Matilija Nursery- in Moorpark. Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, and Las Pilitas Nursery in Santa Margarita also sell_ native plants for landscapers.

The California Native Plant Society. has compiled a comprehensive website (www. cnps. org) and hosts frequent workshops and outings.

Local Sierra Club chapters provide easy access to expert gardeners in almost every neighborhood. The Family Of southern California water Districts maintains another website caned Be Water Wise (www. bewaterwise. com), which includes the Heritage Gardening Guide.

An endless source of inspiration, the Native Plant Garden Tour exhibits the beauty of gardening with native plants and the joy it provides for gardeners, visitors, and wildlife.