Loren Zeldin’s Exotic Garden

Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora)On the surface, Loren Zeldin would seem to be an outstanding example of predictability.
Fifty-five years old, he has lived in the same house in Reseda his entire life. He has held but one job since graduating from college 33 years ago, working as a substitute teacher.
But when you enter his half-acre garden, all semblance of predictability vanishes. Under his mild-mannered exterior, Zeldin reveals an adventurous persona, a swashbuckling horticulturist who has intrepidly assembled flora from the four corners of the globe. He has many exotic plants that you likely have never seen before and probably will never see again.
When you walk around Zeldin’s garden, you are quickly convinced of his passion for plants. Taking care of the roses alone, which number more than 400 varieties, would seem to be an all-consuming enterprise.
Indeed, it takes the entire weekend to water his garden. Yet, as in all great gardens, the principle of “less is more” holds sway. Other than the roses, which require an extra weekly soaking during the summer, his plants are watered only once a week, including the Abutilons.
I always considered Abutilons, also known as flowering maples because of their leaf shape, to be somewhat needy where watering was concerned. Not so. “Abutilons will die from too much water,” Zeldin informed me.
This observation about extending a plant’s longevity through a parsimonious water regime is not idle talk. When I visited Zeldin’s garden nine years ago, he had several magnificent, seldom-seen mature Abutilon hybrids — lemon yellow, deep salmon, and giant-flowered varieties. Those same plants are still flowering heavily today.
Another case in point is Cestrum elegans. This arching shrub produces masses of tubular flowers in red, pink, purple, orange or yellow but it, too, is not known for longevity. Yet Zeldin’s aging Cestrums are more than 8 feet tall with many stout branches.
Normally, Abutilons and Cestrums do not last more than a few years in the garden. Zeldin’s success with these and many other typically short-lived plants may be explained by three cultural practices: a single weekly watering, an annual early spring application of slow-release fertilizer (Osmocote), and allowing plants to grow in close proximity to each other. Don’t get me wrong. Zeldin gives his plants plenty of room to develop. It’s just that they grow so large, they end up touching each other.
It is well-known that the health of a plant starts with the condition of its roots. When roots are unstressed, plants flourish. During our long, hot summers, roots stay unstressed if they are minimally watered and shaded by mulch or by the growth of surrounding plants. Roots can be stressed from either too much sun and heat or too much water. Roots that are always wet as a result of daily sprinkler application leak chemicals that attract pathogenic soil fungi. In the Valley, the untimely death of garden plants is nearly always the result of excessive irrigation.
A caveat here: When Zeldin waters, his plants get soaked. He does this either with a hose or with hose-end sprinklers that he moves around the garden. No underground or automatic sprinklers are used. Roses do receive extra attention early in the morning, but only for disease prevention, when their foliage is doused with a hose.
“Early morning hosing rinses off dust, dew and fungal spores,” Zeldin says. “Unless they are knocked off the leaves of roses, the combination of these three brings on powdery mildew.”
Ninety-eight percent of his roses are mildew free. Only a variety or two, due to strong genetic proclivity for mildew attraction, show the cloudy white foliage that characterizes this disease.
None of his roses, however, has aphids. Aphids or plant lice are ubiquitous this time of year in Los Angeles rose gardens. The reason Zeldin has no aphids is due to the presence of birds in his garden. Abutilons and Cestrums, for example, attract hummingbirds that are ravenous consumers of insect pests.
There are patches of grass between Zeldin’s massive aggregations of roses, woody perennials and bearded irises but, due to his ongoing planting projects, he confesses to being a victim of what he calls “vanishing lawn syndrome.”
He never directly waters his lawn, which consists of Bermuda and Kikuyu grass, but it does receive some overspray when water is applied to the surrounding flora. He also is reluctant to mow his lawn in places where feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), violet-blue annual larkspur (Consolida ajacis), and plum-colored Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) have sprouted as volunteers.
One of Zeldin’s special garden treasures is a canary bird bush (Crotalaria agatiflora).
If you like bright buttery yellow, this is your plant, since it blooms 10 months out of the year with canary-plumed flowers. Its status as a legume means it does not require fertilization.
Other noteworthy plants in Zeldin’s garden include a fiery-flowered Mexican flame vine (Senecio confusus), which has clambered up a `Seven Sisters’ rose bush; a `Milestone’ rose whose flowers smell like crushed raspberries; a Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora), which is a blue version of the more widely seen orange Thunbergia vine; and a `Cornelius’ musk rose, mildew-resistant and called “the most fragrant climbing rose” by Zeldin.
He also has a red Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria); `Witches Wand,’ a dark-purple bearded iris with an orange spot at the base of each petal; a Clematis jackmanii’ vining up into a scarlet-flowered, bark-exfoliating Melaleuca elliptica; an exotic Aloysia species whose plethora of white flowers smell like baby powder; and a 40-year-old, double-flowered yellow Rosa banksiae `Lutea’ that has grown 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide and has completely inundated a western red bud tree (Cercis occidentalis).
Zeldin’s favorite nurseries, from which he has procured most of his plants, are West Valley Nursery (Tarzana), Sperling (Calabasas) and Worldwide Exotics (Lakeview Terrace).

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