During a trip to sunny Los Angeles, this Boston-based rosarian was delighted to be invited to visit the home garden of Tom Carruth and his partner, John Furman. Carruth, director of research at Weeks Roses in Upland, California, is the cream of this country's very small crop of young professional rose hybridizers, with a number of popular new varieties to his credit. His red-and-white-striped floribunda, 'Scentimental', is an All-America Rose Selection for 1997, and last spring, gardeners snapped up every available plant of this unique, fragrant rose.
So one would think that his home garden -- in Altadena, just north of Pasadena -- would be rose heaven. But surprisingly, roses are in the minority in their small but exquisite garden (less than a quarter acre in all), with only Carruth and Furman's favorite varieties of roses. But they are, of course, grown to California perfection.
Both Carruth and Furman are expert horticulturists who have an interest in nearly all types of plants. They specialize in searching out the unusual, and their extensive travels throughout the United States have allowed them to find some rare specimens. Every inch of space is used, creating a cozy enclosure for their Spanish-Mediterranean house. The gardens in front and in back of the house, and on both sides as well, are densely planted, but with a wonderful feeling of organization and a natural flow from one area to another.
One inescapable truth about avid gardeners is that they fall in love with plants that won't grow in their local climate. True to form, not only did I fall in love with nearly every tender-in-my-climate plant I observed, but I also envied the architecture and artistic blending of form, color, and texture in the gardens. Furman, who teaches drama at the California State University at Northridge, is largely responsible for the artistry. He has an enviable ability to create moods and feelings in the garden, especially a sense of humor. For instance, instead of a gazing globe, his garden features a "gouging globe," a barbed wire sphere by a prominent western artist.
Shades of burgundy, in both flowers and foliage, are used throughout the gardens to make transitions that blend the predominantly pastel colors in the front garden, as well as the more vivid colors found in the back garden.
In the front yard, curving beds repeat the forms of the arched windows and doorways of the house and are partially shaded by a deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) and a large crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). Succulents thrive in the shallow soil over tree roots where deeper-rooted plants won't grow. Many varieties of coleus, which grow to be very large in California, replace the daffodils that fade in April.
Other annuals, such as 'Peach Melba' and 'Salmon Beauty' nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), are interplanted with perennials in shades that set off the corals and yellows of 'Rock Star', 'Pink Attraction' and 'Eternal Bliss' bearded iris; 'Prima Ballerina' and 'Nuccio's Pearl' camellias; lovely Homeria collina; bright yellow New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax); 'Fairy Tale Pink', 'Pandora's Box', and 'Sovereign Queen' daylilies (Hemerocallis); and evergreen azaleas. Several varieties of ivy, and other plants with bronze, silver, gray, and yellow foliage, add texture and depth to the plantings. The large, single raspberry-pink blooms of the floribunda rose 'Playgirl' blend with the lighter pinks, mauves, and whites of 'Crystal Palace', 'Lilac Charm', 'Brandy', 'Great Century', and 'Dainty Bess' roses.
Plants with blue flowers are also gracefully integrated into the plantings. My favorite was Clerodendrum ugandense, with its clusters of small flowers that look exactly like fluttering blue butterflies -- antennae and all!
Even the concrete garden bench and the curving concrete pond and fountain echo the soft curves of the house and gardens. Hom to several goldfish and even some whimsical yellow rubber duckies, the pond supports water lilies (Nymphaea), variegated cattails (Typha latifolia 'Variegata'), miniature papyrus (Cyperus haspan viviparus), arrowhead (Sagittaria japonica), and sweetgrass (Glyceria maxima variegata), all in submerged pots. The softly falling water creates a subtle murmur, especially noticeable in the cool of the evening when quiet descends and subdued lighting creates a magical atmosphere.
The back garden, reached by a path under a second-story deck, is a fairy land of shade plants that thrive with only the sun that filters through the narrow cracks in the floorboards of the deck. Several aspidistras, ferns, gingers, ficus, begonias, and ivies are creatively arranged to make for a cool, private moment as one passes through the small area to the colorful garden beyond.
After the shade of the under-deck garden, the vivid colors and angular shapes found in the sunny back garden are, for a moment, visually dazzling. A great variety of plant material and landscaping detail is ingeniously integrated into a very small area just 30 by 60 feet.
A cooling stream traverses the garden, weaving around and under an angular wooden walkway and ending in a pond. Near the pond, in a charming seating area, the soothing sounds of the moving water encourage guests to relax, study the myriad colors and forms of the garden, and enjoy the spectacular view of the San Gabriel mountains.
Against the property-line fence is a spectacular climbing 'Sally Holmes' rose that reaches 11 feet in height and more than 30 feet across. For most of the year, it's covered with huge clusters of buff-colored buds that open to pure white five-petaled flowers. Of course in less temperate climates, the rose reaches only about 5 feet, but in any part of the country, it's floriferous and hardy.
Height comes from several strategically placed trees. The semitropical and deciduous pink trumpet tree (Tabebuia impetiginosa) has sunset-colored flowers in March and April. The banana clump (Musa species) takes a beating from the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, but it always seems to recover, unfurling huge leaves that provide shade and movement in softer breezes. Pink and white dogwoods cast lacy shade onto fuschias, columbine, Swedish ivy (Plectranthus), and mirror plant (Coprosma repens). And a flowering plum tree (Prunus cerasifera 'Purple Pony'), with pink flowers and lovely dark burgundy foliage, carries the garden's maroon color transitions above eye level. Two Japanese maples provide fall color and winter silhouettes, and of course there are the requisite orange and lime trees.
Adding texture are several spiky dracaenas (Cordyline albertii) that contrast strikingly with white 'I Bless' reblooming iris. Silver dusty miller (Senecio cineraria 'New Look') adds yet another thread to the panoply of shapes, forms, and colors.
If the owners had to choose favorites, they would include the more than 15 unusual varieties of canna, the reblooming irises, the 30 kinds of hardy geraniums, and the many uncommon varieties of daylilies. Carruth and Furman, of course, covet the tulips, rhododendrons, lilacs, peonies, and hostas that are difficult, if not impossible, to grow in their climate.
Even though Carruth and Furman can enjoy their garden year-round (iris, daylilies, paperwhite narcissus, and roses bloom even in December), we in the North have the advantage of being able to grow tropical plants by bringing them indoors for the winter. Many of them do very well on a sunny windowsill through the winter months. But one more visit to California may mean I'll have to construct that other thing many northern gardeners desire most: a greenhouse!
Five that are tender (to overwinter indoors in Boston):
Five that are hardy (can survive Boston's winter outdoors):
Ann Hooper is a consulting rosarian for the American Rose Society, and is the past president of the New England Rose Society.
Photography by All-American Selections (top) and Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association
Article published on June 23, 2008.