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Byline: Barbara De Witt Fashion Editor

When it comes to green thumbs, California ranks high.

Sunny California not only has a diverse climate that allows even the most uneducated gardener the opportunity to experiment and express oneself, but the mild climate ensures year-round gardening and lots of colorful flowers, say garden experts Bruce and Sharon Asakawa, who have worked the Golden State's soil for 40 years.

Bruce, the host of ``The West Coast Garden Line,'' a syndicated talk-radio program that reaches more than a million gardeners every Saturday and Sunday on 18 stations, including KIEV (870 AM) in Glendale,and his wife, Sharon, who produces and co-hosts the 10-year-old radio program, put together their wealth of horticulture experience to create a 400-page bible, ``Bruce and Sharon Asakawa's California Gardener's Guide'' (Cool Springs Press; $24.95), that will arrive in stores next week.

``This was one of our dreams, because it's a place to put our responses to the many questions we've been asked over the years,'' says Sharon.

And the most commonly asked questions, says Bruce, are about plant choices, and insect and fungi problems, but the book has so much more - from a history of each plant, to maps showing where each plant does best, and details on which plants will attract birds, bees or pests.

The size and weight of the book might be intimidating, but it's really a no-brainer. And that was their goal.

``I wanted it to be user-friendly so people would really try gardening and be more successful in their gardening ... and find satisfaction in working with the landscape like I do,'' explains Bruce, who has a landscape architecture degree from Cal Poly, Pomona; developed and taught a horticultural orientation course for the University of California, San Diego Extension Program; and served on the governor-appointed Urban Forest Advisory Council.

He and Sharon also owned and managed Presidio Garden Center in San Diego, but their gardening background goes way back. Says Sharon, ``Our grandparents came to this country and started out as farmers in California, and I still visualize my grandmother with her old straw hat and pedal pushers bending over in her garden growing tomatoes and flowers.''

According to Bruce, he grew up in the nursery business in San Diego, helping his father, who served as president of the California Association of Nurserymen in 1975.

So, when it came to devoting an entire book to a single state, the pair picked the state they know best. And they rave about the weather that ranges from foggy San Francisco, where Japanese maple trees flourish, to the San Fernando Valley, where the warm climate produces an abundance of sub-tropical plants. The Valley, they explain, is mostly above the frost line so people can grow just about anything from hibiscus to Rose of Sharon to Madagascar jasmine (commonly known as stephanotis). And also great roses.

But it isn't all a bed of roses.

``The biggest challenge in the Valley,'' says Bruce, ``is the soil, which is heavy clay with poor percolation. In other words, it's easy to kill plants by over-watering and not digging a big enough planting pit.'' But take some time to prepare the soil and the Valley floor is the perfect place, especially for citrus trees, he adds.

Newcomers who long for lilacs, apples, Alberta peaches and fresh blueberries on their cereal lack the Asakawas' state pride. According to Bruce, those types of plants need real winters, referred to as ``chill hours.'' And with so many gardening hours under their belt, Bruce and Sharon also know that eucalyptus trees aren't a great choice for Southern California as they are susceptible to red gum lerp psyllid, the nasty pest that's been killing the Valley's eucalyptus by the thousands in recent years.

So what does grow best in the San Fernando Valley?

The couple put their heads together for a few minutes, then named roses as their favorite choice because they're hardy and last up to 15 years with maintenance. And for those fair-weather gardeners who only want to grow roses for filling crystal vases, Sharon suggests the St. Patrick's rose because it has an elegant green bud that turns into a buttery yellow flower that will last up to two weeks in a vase.

Other good choices for beginners are Iceland poppies, pansies, pride of Madeira, lemon trees (they're easier than oranges), lily of the Nile flowers (or their miniature version called Peter Pan) and pink Indian hawthorn, a shrub that blooms in the spring with showy pink flowers.

While the above-mentioned plants do well in full sun, camellias and gardenias will flourish on the shady side of the house, as long as they're protected from those nasty Santa Ana winds, says Bruce.

Poppies, the state flower, he says will grow anywhere, but you have to plant seeds (sorry, nurseries don't sell them in six-packs) and you have to plant them this month (prior to the rainy season) for spring blooms.

We also asked what type of grass made the best lawn in the Valley.

According to Bruce, the dichondra lawn that was so trendy in the '50s is out because it is so susceptible to flea beetles and the products once used to kill them are no longer environmentally safe (or available). What's hot in lawns is a hybrid tall fescue grass, says Bruce, because it's evergreen, drought-tolerant and disease-resistant. Available in seed or sod, it's from Ventura County so it will easily acclimate to Valley soil.

And what about those folks in condos and apartments, who leave the lawn (and the mowing) to others?

According to Bruce, tree roses and dwarf citrus trees do well in huge pots on the patio, as long as they have plenty of sun, while potted gardenias, camellias, azaleas, ferns and impatiens will flourish in partial sun, protected from hot winds.

For more gardening information and news of garden tours, contact the Asakawas on their live, interactive Web cast at

Valley-friendly flowers

We asked gardening experts Sharon and Bruce Asakawa what plants will virtually ensure Valley gardeners a reputation for having a green thumb. Here are their choices:

Roses: Super hardy and great for cutting. Need plenty of sun and water.

Blue marguerites: They have lavender petals and yellow centers and attract butterflies. Grows in full sun. Great for cutting.

Iceland poppies: Delicate flowers that make a great ground cover.

Pansies: Lots of color and charm in their velvety faces, but short-lived and attract snails. Grow in full sun or partial shade.

Pride of Madeira: Large purple candles that attract hummingbirds, tolerate drought.

Camellias: Great blooms with dramatic green leaves; need shade.

Gardenias: Provide lots of fragrance; need shade.

Lemon trees: The easiest citrus to grow under the sun, with fragrant blossoms.

Pink Indian hawthorn: An evergreen shrub with pink flowers in the spring. Plant in full sun or slight shade.

Lily of the Nile: Adds drama to a border with its long-stemmed purple or white flowers. Likes full sun or partial shade. Also try the miniature version called Peter Pan.

- Barbara De Witt

Gardens of Eden provide inspiration

So you've read books, gone to the local nursery and still can't decide on what type of garden to grow? For inspiration, Bruce Asakawa recommends visiting:

--Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge; (818) 952-4400. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for seniors and students. Open daily except Christmas. This weekend there will be a special Japanese festival with drummers and dancers.

--Huntington Library and Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; (626) 405-2100. Admission is $8.50; free for children under 12. Open daily except Mondays and major holidays. Highlights are the rose and desert gardens.

--Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens, 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont; (909) 625-8767. Admission is free, donations encouraged. Open daily except Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. The garden specializes in native California plants.

--Donald C. Tillman Japanese Gardens, located at the City of Los Angeles Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, 6100 Woodley Ave., Van Nuys; (818) 756-8166. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and children. Open Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays for reserved tours, open to the public on Sundays.

--Arboretum of Los Angeles County, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (626) 821-3222. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for senors and students. Open daily except Christmas. The ``Big Bugs'' exhibition runs through Nov. 30.

- Barbara De Witt


11 photos, 2 boxes


(1 -- 2 -- cover -- color) Well-suited to California's climate are Papver nudicaule (Iceland poppies) and Echium candicans (blue marguerites).

Garden photos by Thomas E. Elzroth

(3 -- cover -- color) Sharon and Bruce Asakawa share their green-thumb expertise

Lorenzo Gunn/Cool Springs Press

(4 -- color) Camellia Japonica

(5 -- color) Raphiolepus Indica

(6 -- color) Gardenia Jasminoides

(7 -- color) Double Delight Rose

(8 -- color) The Valley's soil is ideal for growing citrus trees, especially lemons, which are easier to cultivate than oranges.

Thomas E. Elzroth/Special to the Daily News

(9 -- 10 -- color) In addition to hosting and producing their talk-radio program, ``The West Coast Garden Line,'' Sharon and Bruce Asakawa, above, have put their years of horticultural experience into the 400-page book ``Bruce and Sharon Asakawa's California Gardener's Guide,'' right, which hits stores next week.

Photo by Lorenzo Gunn/Cool Springs Press

(11) The large purple candles of Echium candicans attract hummingbirds and tolerate drought.

Thomas E. Eltzroth/Special to the Daily News

Box: (1) Valley-friendly flowers (see text)

(2) Gardens of Eden provide inspiration (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 11, 2000

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