If you want to see something new – which, at least where horticulture is concerned, is to learn something new — I urge you to pay a visit to the Sepulveda Garden Center on the corner of Hayvenhurst Avenue and Magnolia Boulevard in Encino. 800 garden plots, on either side of Magnolia Boulevard, parallel to the Ventura Freeway, offer a glimpse into the minds and hearts of local gardeners. You can browse around the gardens seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Should you want a 10’ x 20’ garden plot of your own, you will need to contact management at 818-784-5180 or visit the office on site in order to place your name on a waiting list.
As if to serve as a mellifluous antidote to the vehicular fumes wafting down from the freeway above, two lemon-scented species have been planted throughout the Sepulveda Garden plots.
One of these is lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora/triphylla), appearing in the form of billowy shrubs, several of them taller than 5 feet, bigger than any I had ever seen. Lemon verbena, native to Chile and Peru, is famous because of its leaves, which are universally embraced as the most powerfully lemon-scented plant appendages under the sun. Their fragrance is not at all acidic, like that of lemon fruit, but utterly sweet.
Next to my own front door, a lemon verbena has been growing for close to two decades and I imagine that the Sepulveda Garden specimens are at least that age, too. Each winter I have an internal debate as to whether I should dispose of this plant since no plant is less attractive in the winter than lemon verbena. When the weather cools in the fall, lemon verbena foliage turns yellow and then, as soon as temperatures dip below 40 degrees, the foliage may disappear altogether. At this point, the plant looks absolutely dead.
That’s where patience comes into play. In an age where “quicker is better” in almost all things, the garden remains the last venue where the virtue of patience may be practiced without apology, whether you are building a compost pile or waiting for your dormant plants to leaf out again. Although lemon verbena looks like nothing more than a hodgepodge of dead sticks from late fall into early spring, you remember the pungent perfume of its foliage and are willing to wait for it to grow again. Lemon verbena is the best example of why, if you move into a house with a garden, you should never tamper with the flora – or with the soil, too, for that matter – for one year. What looks dead may suddenly come to life and you never know what hidden bulbs the soil may contain.
This is the time of year that lemon verbena blooms in white, but it is not a floral display that leaves a lasting impression. Clearly, this is a plant created for the sake of its leaves’ lemon essence, which will immeasurably benefit your tea or the recipe for lemon icing on your cake. It is easily propagated from detached terminal portions of shoots, ranging from four to six inches in length.
Although I was surprised by the size of lemon verbena shrubs at the Sepulveda Gardens, I was utterly amazed by two enormous rectangular planters, enclosed by wood on all four sides, overflowing with the healthiest lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) I had ever seen. Lemongrass, to the uninitiated, is highly prized as a spice in Asian cuisine.
I had never seen lemongrass growing in full sun that looked nearly so good and that’s what peaked my astonishment. From years of observation of this plant, I had always assumed that lemongrass required protection from hot summer Valley sun or it would fry, especially since it is native to tropical Southeast Asia.
Little did I know! Here we have just gone through a summer of record breaking temperatures of more than 110 degrees and, in an extensive full-sun lemongrass planting, barely a leaf was burnt. I have no idea how the soil under the lemongrass was prepared, but I would bet that it was of superior quality, with a large quantity of compost mixed in. Excellent soil quality can help mitigate against environmental stress that would otherwise be significantly detrimental to plant growth.
Tip of the Week: Where plants are concerned, health begins and ends with the soil, which may be completely hidden beneath robust vegetation. In such cases, the life lesson enunciated by Saint-Exupery’s legendary little prince may be heard: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”