“How could I leave all this?” he asks rhetorically. Like certain farmers who will not sell their land to the highest bidder (yes, there are still a few left) – or any bidder – because their land has value that cannot be measured in dollars, Zeldin, it appears, would not leave this garden no matter what. Perhaps farms and gardens make it possible to cling to a notion that has all but vanished from our lean, mean world – an anachronistic concept known as “lifetime commitment.”
Standing next to an 8-foot-tall Beaucarnea recurvata – alternately known as ponytail plant, elephant-foot tree and bottle palm – Zeldin informs me that “this tree was planted 18 years ago from a 4-inch pot. It was given to me by a Japanese gardener.” You conjure up a scene in which a gardener with a sun-wrinkled face hands a tiny plant to a young man. Where is that gardener of 18 summers ago? Wherever he might be, his legacy lives on in this quizzical plant, now grown large.
The jungle of plants created by Zeldin could be seen by some as a forbidding disarray of flora gone wild. For Zeldin, though, there is method to the apparent madness, as he has carefully considered the juxtaposition of his plants. He is fond of planting a vine or arching shrub at the base of a tree and watching the results. The two plants are chosen for the harmony or contrast they will create when in bloom or in leaf. Among the combinations to be found are: baby blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) in vermillion bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus); violet hardenbergia (Hardenbergia violaceae) in lilac chinaberry (Melia azederach); and, for leaf contrast, pinnately compound, serrated cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) in simple, heart-shaped catalpa or cigar tree (Catalpa bignonioides). He also has vines growing up vines: pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) is enmeshed in bougainvillea, and mauve snail vine (Vigna caracalla) has wound its way around a climbing rose. Banana-leaved cannas deftly cover up the broad, woody base of a yucca tree.
Zeldin has many plants seldom seen in Los Angeles gardens that deserve wider use. He has a shrubby tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba) which sports clusters of white flowers. Dogwoods are renowned for their shiny red bark, which glows brightest on a gloomy winter’s day. In order to flower, most dogwoods need more cold than L.A.’s winter brings, but there are still several species that bloom in our area. Other unusual plants in his garden are: lochroma cyaneum, with its purple floral tubes; white plumbago; the corkscrew willow (Salix Matsudana “Tortuosa”); an ornamental allium with its tennis ball-size flower heads; the paintbrush plant (Combretum fruticosum) that has orange flower combs; summersweet (Clethra sp.) and its white, veronicalike blooms.
Zeldin takes delight in his self-sowing flowers: valerian, scabiosa, feverfew, larkspur, hollyhock and four o’clock. On the day I visited, he was collecting larkspur (Delphinium grandiflorum) seed, to be dispersed for the purpose of bringing up spikes of royal blue flowers next spring; lucky for me, I walked away with a packet of seeds. His “Hawaiian” hollyhocks were a cultivar I had never seen before; their flowers are less than half the size of the typical hollyhock. Although I registered the common complaint about the weedy, ineradicability of four o’clocks, Zeldin could not understand my angst. Four o’clocks are one of his favorite plants, but not because of their neon flowers; it is their fragrance that especially delights him.
One fragrance he doesn’t care for is that of David Austin roses, which are strongly redolent of myrrh. Word is slowly getting around that, odor aside, these much-ballyhooed plants are an inferior rose for the Valley – you get lots of stems and leaves but few flowers. The one David Austin he compliments is “Gertrude Jekyll,” a pink rose named in honor of the woman who brought the English-style garden into prominence a hundred years ago. Our desire for informal gardens with many different plants mixed together may be traced to her influence.