October 2, 2008

Planting Natives

By Evelyn Barge

There are more than 6,000 species of plants native to California, but Lili Singer has a difficult time playing favorites.

It took the renowned Southland horticulturist seven years to decide what plants to feature in her own home garden in Van Nuys, ultimately settling on those that would attract California's resident hummingbirds.

"The more I do, the more natives I want to plant," Singer said. "It's such an exciting subject -- if you're a plant nut like me, you can just move from group to group to group."

Converting a home garden into a "native paradise" was the subject of Singer's Sept. 25 class at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. The first session in Singer's fall series of garden talks, it drew a record attendance of more than 70 people, said Jill Berry, programs manager at the Arboretum.

This is the fifth year Singer has teamed up with the Arboretum to host informative gatherings designed for passionate home gardeners and landscape professionals. She also leads seasonal class series in the winter and spring.

In her role at the Arboretum, Singer is "invaluable," drawing from a wealth of resources culled over decades in the field, Berry said.

At the most recent session, participants travelled from as far as Newport Beach and Camarillo to explore the topics of native plants and sustainability, she said.

When it comes to gardens, "we can't ignore where we live and what we contend with," Berry said.

Understanding Singer's penchant for California natives takes no leap of the imagination. After all, she is one, too.

"I've always loved natives," said Singer, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Reseda. "Nothing smells better than a garden full of natives."

It's an area of horticulture that has become increasingly favored, growing alongside the shift in public sentiment toward conservation.

"Smart gardens -- that's the term that's really become quite popular," Singer said. "It's this idea of planting gardens that are balanced environments."

Native plants are already adapted to local conditions, so they don't require fertilizer, they need less watering and they attract the right kinds of garden critters, Singer said.

"Gardening concepts are changing," she said. "It's not just about beauty and aesthetics anymore. Gardens are environments and they are ecological systems. Survival of some of these native organisms may depend on planting natives in home gardens."

The trend is international, said Singer, who gets electronic Google alerts on native plants coming in from all over the world.

"From Queensland (Australia) to South America to Europe, everybody is saying the same thing," she said.

Preservation and restoration are central to Singer's work as special projects coordinator for the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, a Sun Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to native California landscapes and habitats.

The foundation rests on 22 acres, including several tracts where more than 300 native species are displayed and sold. Other parts of the property are devoted to native plant propagation and public education.

Singer may be one of Southern California's top native plant experts, but her earliest experiences with horticulture revolved around more exotic species.

When she was 16, her father -- a mechanical engineer by trade -- started a nursery for rare succulents, water-retaining plants that are adapted to arid climates and soil conditions.

Singer eventually would work closely with her father at the nursery, receiving shipments from foreign locales like Madagascar and South Africa and traveling with him to the Baja region of Mexico to harvest plants.

"I got totally bit by the plant bug," she said.

Having studied English in college, Singer even found that horticulture appealed to her inner scribe.

"I was fascinated by the plant names," she said. "I was a writer and a word person, and (my dad) taught me to take apart the scientific names."

Since then, Singer has published and edited two award-winning newsletters -- The Southern California Gardener and The Gardener's Companion -- and she is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times Home & Garden section.

"I had always wanted to be a writer, so it came full circle that I could write about plants," she said.

Singer is perhaps best known among local green thumbs for hosting "The Garden Show," a live, call-in radio program on KCRW that ran for 14 years, until it was cancelled in 1996.

"I often tell people that my god is in a carrot seed," Singer said. "There's nothing more amazing than watching it grow into something beautiful -- that is the most godlike thing there is."

There are seven sessions left in the series of Thursday Garden Talks with Lili Singer at the Arboretum. Today's session, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to noon, will focus on "Where Architecture and Horticulture Intersect."

Classes cost $20 each or $100 for the series. Pre-registration is available, or participants may pay at the door.

For more information or to register, call (626) 821-4623.

[email protected]

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2472

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