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A Green Jungle Grows In Urban Los Angeles

By April Austin / February 29, 1996



'Excuse me while I shut the door, the fountains are too loud,'' were the polite first words of Leon Whiteson on the telephone from his home in Los Angeles. The soothing nature of water is important to the author of ''A Garden Story,'' providing an aural screen from the noise and intrusion of city life.

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Mr. Whiteson's yard is difficult to visualize from his descriptions in the book (which has no pictures). A reader guesses that the garden is wildly individualistic and doesn't follow a traditional style. But what our photographer found was unexpected: the sheer jungle and apparent haphazard look of the place. Tangled vines form canopies that block out all but dappled sunshine. Kitsch abounds in the ''totem pole'' of cast-off objects that Whiteson has erected, a monument to weirdness.

In Los Angeles, he says, the landscape is almost all imported. Everything comes from somewhere else, and it grows amazingly well, in a kind of horticultural chaos. ''It's a metaphor for Angelenos themselves,'' he says.

''Europeans love L.A. for its openness and trashiness the way the French love Jerry Lewis,'' he adds with a gentle laugh.

How would he garden if he were suddenly plunked down in another region? ''This is the longest I've lived in one place since I was an adult. I've taken root here, a rhythm has been established. I suppose, if I went to live in Boston or Toronto, with their short growing seasons, I would have to find a different rhythm. But I'm not sure I could do it.''

Whiteson says his wife teases him about being garden-dependent. Because of his personal attachment to the garden and his need for its solace, he rarely travels. And because he hand waters each plant, it's difficult to turn the job over to someone else even for a few days.

The author says it's unlikely he would write another garden-inspired book, unless it wERE about the gardens of the Alhambra, the 14th-century Moorish citadel in Grenada, Spain. He has little interest in horticulture for its own sake. Garden experts, he says, ''are like stereo buffs: They love acquiring all the equipment and end up neglecting the music.''

His favorite garden task? Pruning. ''I love to cut away the dead wood that is killing new growth,'' he says, it's cathartic.