For years, I found nothing redeeming about them. Sure, it was the only palm species native to Southern California, but this fact was, if anything, an embarrassment, since there were more elegant palms from other places that grow just as well in our area.
All this changed one day when I saw a cluster of Washingtonias – 11, to be exact – growing on the north side of the Ventura Freeway, just west of the Winnetka Avenue off-ramp, in Woodland Hills. I don’t know how these palms got there, but they add considerable interest to a freeway landscape that, in the Valley, is quite unremarkable. Perhaps this is by design; if the roadways were beautifully planted, horticultural distractions might lead us to crash into each other.
The lesson these palms teach is that the appearance of virtually any tree is enhanced, if not transformed, when it is mass-planted. When many trees of the same kind are grown together, the synergistic effect may not only be aesthetic, but otherorldly as well.
Just think of the emotions evoked by the words “a grove of trees.” No one would object to living in close proximity to a grove of trees. A grove is not a forest; it is an orchard or small woods, often planted by human hands. Local examples would be the 150-year-old grove of oaks (Quercus agrifolia) at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, the grove of king palms (Archontophoenix Cunninghamii) at the Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills, or the grove of trees in the Australia section of the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia.
Visit any of these groves on some weekday morning when, absent crowds of people, a different kind of world presents itself. Or perhaps I should say worlds. You may be taken back to a childhood world, to some picnic spot – for me, it would be the forest preserves in Chicago – where you wandered off into a copse of trees, far from everyone, to make your own private investigations of the earth. Those were the days when parents allowed their children to wander a little on their own; how lucky we middle-age people are to have grown up in that carefree ancient world.
Best of all, to enter a grove of trees is to delve into a world of silence, interrupted only by the scurrying of squirrels and the miscellaneous chirpings of birds. How remarkable that cities, when they were far less noisy than today, had the audacity to purchase enormous acreages of land that included groves of trees. Then, it was a reminder of rural life that prompted the new city dwellers to cherish trees. Today, mass plantings of trees are a godsend, without which life in cities would be unbearable. It’s not that you go to the arboretum every day, of course, but it’s important to know that these arboreal treasures exist and that they can be used for a hasty retreat at any time.
Trees are not the only plants that look better in groups than planted as individuals. The same could certainly be said of virtually any shrub, herbaceous (bulb-type) perennial or annual flowering plant. If you’re about to plant scarlet sage (Salvia spendens), for example, don’t just put one in the ground; plant at least a dozen.
Most gardens fail to leave a lasting impression because the designer was not bold enough to do mass planting. When it comes to plant selection, there’s one of these, one of those, a few of this and a few more of that; the eye is too distracted to focus on any one particular species or planting scheme. As a result, nothing is remembered. Of course, if you don’t care if anyone remembers your garden, or if you’re just planting for your own experimentation and diversion, don’t heed this advice. My own tendency is to plant “one of each” since there are so many plants out there that are worthy of garden space.
Let’s say, though, that you really like petunias, but can only afford to buy a few of them. Rather than plant these in a thin line running up the side of your driveway, better to mass them in a splash of color adjacent to your front steps. In this location, you’ll see them every time you go out or come in; more important, you will definitely and unmistakably appreciate them – en masse – for what they are.
Tip: If you’re about to plant petunias or any other annual flowers, dig and cultivate the soil to a depth of two shovel blades (about 20 inches) to ensure fast and healthy growth. Mix bone meal and blood meal into the soil, according to quantities recommended on the package or bag.