Repetition Makes Memorable Gardens

golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) edged with blue chalk sticks (Senecio sp.)

golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) edged with blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens)

The number of memorable gardens encountered in the course of one’s life is small. The gardens you remember will most likely be public ones, such as the Getty Center garden in Los Angeles or the Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. As a rule, homeowners are abject failures when it comes to creating a garden or a landscape of lasting interest.
Yet the key to successful garden design, illustrated at both the Getty and Descanso, is so basic that it escapes notice. I am talking about repetition. The last time I was at the Getty, I saw an azalea maze that was nothing but azaleas surrounded by large swaths of gray-leafed, ground-hugging Kalanchoe pumila, variegated society garlic and dwarf New Zealand flax, a combination I have not yet forgotten. The Getty also had a mesmerizing stand of barrel cactus that I have seen imitated in side yards and parkway strips around town ever since. And the many containers going up the steps of the Getty Center made a strong impression through use of the same simple, repetitive and compelling combination of plants – lavender, rosemary and alyssum.
After visiting Descanso Gardens, you will forever remember the camellia forest there, an experience without parallel in the botanical world. Yes, there are 40,000 camellias and you cannot grow that many at home. But if you have an older garden, where light has gradually been reduced by mature trees, you could find a solution to all of your partial-light to shady spots by planting camellias throughout. Similarly, a glimpse at the lilac display garden at Descanso will keep those first flowers of spring – or late winter – in your mind forever after.
When people say they want to create a garden for a minimal amount of money that also adds value to their property, I think of these memorable public gardens, whose design message is clear: If there is a single plant that strikes your fancy, stick to it. In the course of planting and caring for it, you will become an expert on the subject and your garden will prosper accordingly.
Expense is not only dependent on product selection, but also on time. If you are only looking for lavenders (of which there are more than a dozen varieties), sages or salvias (which number more than 50 ornamental species), or roses (of which there are hundreds of varieties), you can clear your mind of other design options and focus on your plant of choice. Also, you will become aware of nurseries that specialize in your plant of choice.
Camellia lovers, for example, will want to patronize Nuccio’s Nursery in Altadena, where more than 600 camellia varieties are on sale. Fans of New Zealand flax will want to browse the Web site of San Marcos Growers (, whose 41 flax varieties may be ordered through retail nurseries throughout Los Angeles. Sooner or later, aficionados of ornamental grasses will find their way to Pomona, where John Greenlee’s Nursery ( offers hundreds of grasses and sedges of every imaginable size, color and texture.
Repetition of one color, or staying with a certain color combination or limited color spectrum, can also be used to advantage in garden or landscape design. Let’s say you have a passion for blue. If you have lots of sun, you would want to plant rosemary, lobelia, blue butterfly (Clerodendron ugadense) and bog sage (Salvia uglinosa).
You could also opt for yellows and oranges. In the sun, plant orange and yellow floribunda roses. In the shade, plant orange and yellow Kafir lilies (Clivia), regular orange or salmon impatiens and yellow “Fusion” impatiens.

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