Malibu Garden Column

Bold garden design adds bold dividing wall in small private garden. Peggy Harris / TMT

What are we looking for when we open garden magazines, visit nurseries, travel and look at other gardens for inspirational ideas? Something new, a surprise around the corner, something we can use in our backyards and something to stretch our knowledge of growing plants.

Admittedly, we need a combination of inspiration and reality. All the great ideas we glean from outside sources need to be brought home and applied where they fit in our own backyards. The plants themselves are sometimes our best sources of feedback-when they are in the right settings and given the right nutrients, when they are property pruned and disease free, then we enjoy the healthy, rewarding gardens. In addition to the health of and appropriateness of the plants, the overall design of each garden gives it the backbone and structure.

This year I enjoyed a second visit to the Chelsea Flower Show in London along with thousands of British gardeners seeking the pieces of garden advice and design inspiration to carry home to their private plots. Hearing the chatter of passionate gardeners, critically reviewing the overwhelming number of display gardens with new ideas and floral exhibits is an experience in itself. The British are fervent gardeners often very opinionated about the exhibits. The crowds would indicate that this national event rivals Wimbledon. The press is filled with features on the show. Each night during “show week,” a special broadcast on the BBC television features different gardens and displays. The competition among designers for the coveted awards is intense. Large corporations or charities sponsor many of the garden plots.

Each garden space is designated almost a year in advance (plans must be submitted by Oct. 7 to compete for next year’s show). More than 150 designs are submitted for 25 spaces for just the small garden plots. Entries come from amateurs and professionals. Usually gardens are reconstructed at other sites after leaving Chelsea. Plots are tended by knowledgeable staff who answer endless questions from the thousands of show visitors, one reason I like to visit Chelsea.

One design plot I was fortunate to spend some time at could have worked in a California beach home. Taking a bold design with a small space, creative design director David Macqueen (see angled a dividing white concrete wall through a small space. Macqueen explained how he envisioned the space framed by sliding glass doors at right angles to each other. From the house one sees the white wall and bench perched against the angled wall. The plant materials range from a birch tree (Betula nigra,) a black bamboo (phyllostachys nigra,) New Zealand flax (Phormium “Rubrum”), a sedge grass (Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls,’) and then coral bells (Heuchera “Silver Scrolls’), Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) and blooming iris. The plant choices complement the strong structural design.

Macqueen explained how he and his partner planned and carried out the design of a small space divided by a large, diagonal concrete wall. “We feel quite vindicated in our belief that we could achieve what we set out to,” Macqueen said, “that is to take such a strong, monumental element and site it in a small garden without oppressing the inhabitant.”

This is clearly a case where the details and balancing the elements on two sides were important. The water elements and plantings one encounters add up to a pleasing element of contrast.

The exhibit, called “Room to be Free,” achieved a great surprise element around the corner of the small display garden, from either direction-the two triangular areas are related yet different.

The whole Chelsea show is filled with surprises and design ideas. The show included one space inspired by the Roald Dahl book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” While chocolate colored water streamed from a fountain, the design incorporated browns, creams and white colors swirled into chocolaty mixed patterns. This one was sponsored by the Roald Dahl Foundation, which supports charitable causes from literacy to medical needs for children.

Some designers come back every year with fresh ideas. Julian Dowle holds 10 Chelsea gold medals, 10 silver gilt and 10 silver. Last year I was able to speak to him and enjoyed his dark to light garden. With a pleasant curving path his garden displayed the progression from dark to light in plant materials. He explained that the garden showed a religious awakening. This year, Dowle created an old pub set in a field of scarlet poppies, commemorating the end of World War II. He included a small “Dig for Victory” garden and used heirloom seeds when possible. He describes this year’s creation for the Royal Hospital as welcoming and relaxing.

The easiest way to get to the Chelsea Flower Show is using the Royal Horticultural Society Web site. Buying early in 2006 would be best if planning to go to the late May event next year. From the Sloan Square Tube station it’s an easy walk following the crowds on show days. As this goes to press, the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, July 5-10 this year, will be in full gear. The Tatton Park Flower Show is July 20-24.This is also noted on the RHS Web site.

Getting inspired is one thing, actually applying new ideas to your garden is another. Always keep in mind your garden type-are you keeping a cottage garden feel with flowers and many varieties of plants? If so, indulge in warm season loving perennials like Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susans, which will peak in summer and offer bright hot yellow accents in a large Malibu garden. The brighter colors look best in high overhead summer sunshine. The asteraceae family has flowering perennials in many tones -purples, whites-as well as many sizes. They are continual flower producers through summer and fall. Keep deadheading for showiest flowers. After blooming, Asters can be divided in late fall or early spring. There are more than 600 varieties. Local nurseries are the best place to find varieties that do well in Malibu gardens.

Is your garden well planted with natives and are you just trying to enrich the look through the hottest months? Treat yourself to a visit to the Rancho Santa Fe Botanic Garden in Claremont or to the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens this summer. Both gardens have regular plant sales. Web sites with good information on natives include the Theodore Payne Foundation site and High Country Gardens. Try adding sturdy drought tolerant wild buckwheat, Eriogonum, massed in an area of your native garden. The oyster white St. Catherine’s lace is probably the best known of these natives, but there are red buckwheats and cinereum varieties bearing pink flowers. The range of natives available now is astounding. I recommend Marjorie G. Schmidt’s book, “Growing California Native Plants,” as a good guide to great variety available.

There is a new development on the 13-acre grounds of the Adamson House in Malibu. Tours of the gardens have started and are available without reservations on the first Friday of every month. Special tours can be arranged for Tuesdays by calling the museum at 456.8432.

Peggy Harris can be reached at P.M. Harris Landscape Design, or 805.986.6965.