Intuition Is Key to Growing Plants

azaleas at Getty Center garden

azaleas at Getty Center garden

Los Angeles horticulturist Bill Paylen will tell it to you bluntly.
Making flora flourish has nothing to do with how learned you are or how much money you spend on a particular plant. Nor does it have to do with how carefully you follow instructions on watering, fertilizing or pruning.
If you were meant to be a gardener, you’ve already got what it takes.
“Intuition,” he says.
“You can’t take care of plants according to what it says in a book … Either you have a feel for this sort of thing or you don’t,” he adds. “I know people with university degrees who kill every plant they touch, and gardeners with no formal education whose every horticultural effort is crowned with success. If you’re not born with a green thumb, you’ll probably never have one.”
Luckily for the Getty Center, Paylen was blessed at birth.
Not long ago, one of the highlights of the $1 billion jewel of Los Angeles’ art community was fading fast. The azaleas were in peril. The leaves were turning yellow. The flowers of the ‘Redbird’ cultivar, which are supposed to be scarlet, had become pink.
Understand that this is no ordinary azalea planting. It’s a massive, serpentine maze of azaleas that appears to float on the water that surrounds it. It is the piece de resistance of the Getty Center garden, already viewed by a million visitors.
And Paylen, as a consulting horticulturist of the center, had to keep it looking perfect.
Soil and vinegar
Azaleas are finicky plants in Southern California. They are native to parts of tropical Asia, where it rains most of the year and where the soil is highly acidic – conditions that are precisely the opposite of those in Los Angeles. Witness the replacement, only last year, of the large azalea planting at the Tillman Japanese Garden in the Sepulveda Basin. Those azaleas had been in the ground for slightly more than a decade when they died. Still, Paylen maintains that azaleas can live for 50 or 60 years in our city. To realize such longevity, however, they must be planted in 100 percent coarse peat moss. Paylen fertilizes azaleas with cottonseed meal every spring and then applies cotton meal mixed with an azalea/camellia fertilizer on a periodic basis.
The problem with the Getty Center azaleas was that, without Paylen’s knowledge, a slow-release fertilizer called Osmocote had been applied. Osmocote is relied upon by many growers of container plants, and Paylen uses it himself – but not on azaleas.
“The ammonia in Osmocote is toxic to azaleas,” Paylen said. “As an antidote, I recommended vinegar (20 tablespoons of vinegar per 15 gallons of water). In a short time, the azaleas were looking healthy again.”
How did he come up with the vinegar solution? Intuition, of course.
“It just came to me,” he said. “I thought it would neutralize the ammonia, and it did.”
Training ground
Paylen, 81, had no formal training in horticulture, although he did study agricultural engineering in Europe. Of Dutch background, he grew up in Java, where his family had a plantation of coffee, rubber, cacao, and coca plants (from which cocaine is made). In those days, cocaine was not an illegal substance; it was commonly used in the manufacture of Novocain and other anesthetics.
While Paylen was a student in Europe, World War II broke out. His family’s plantation was destroyed by the Japanese, who imprisoned his parents and siblings. His mother died in an internment camp.
In 1952, he came to California without a penny in his pocket. His first job was working at the Paul J. Howard Nursery in West Los Angeles for 85 cents an hour. After a few years, he became involved in gardening and landscaping, and eventually created a unique tropical garden in his own back yard on Gretna Green Way in Brentwood. When he sold the house to a neighbor in 1995, the buyer promised to keep the garden intact. But soon a bulldozer came in and razed the property; none of the plants were spared.
“Luckily, I had taken out the orchids and bromeliads which had been growing in the trees,” Paylen said, sighing. Most orchids and bromeliads are epiphytes, or air plants. While most plants extract water and nutrients through roots in soil, epiphytes have no underground roots. Instead, they grow on other plants and absorb what they need directly from the air or plant debris around their host.
The man born with a green thumb moved to Camarillo, bringing his salvaged plants with him. In the 2-1/2 years since he moved in, Paylen has transformed a barren plot of nothing but dirt into a new tropical garden.
“People told me I was crazy, at my age, to move, and even crazier to start another garden,” he said with a smile.
Starting over
Palms are the dominant trees in Paylen’s garden. His selected species include: The triangle palm (Neodypsis decaryi), the king palm (Archontophoenix Cunninghamiana), the queen palm (Arecastrum Romanzoffianum) – which serves as a windbreak to Camarillo’s 60 mph winds – and Ravenia rivularis. The Ravenia has become so popular that it is now being sold at Home Depot and Vons. “Unfortunately,” Paylen said, “most people plant it in the sun and it soon dies. It needs a somewhat shady location to grow well.”
Paylen fertilizes his palms in the spring with blood meal, in summer with Bandini Gro-Rite and, still later in the growing season, applies Woodace Top Dress Palm Special that has an 11-4-6 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) formulation.
Beneath the palms, Paylen has planted scores of bromeliads, the most provocative ground cover imaginable. Three epiphytic bromeliad types – billbergias, aechmeas and neoregelias – and one terrestrial type – the hechtias – abound. The leaves are various hues of burgundy red, yellow and green, complemented by flowers of iridescent pink, blue and red. The reason Paylen can grow epiphytic bromeliads in the ground is his soil – a fast-draining alluvial sand.
One type of bromeliad that Paylen grows only in the air is the tillandsia. The most famous tillandsia is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), which hangs from magnolias and oaks in New Orleans. This plant can be hung over a chain-link fence, as Paylen has done, or on almost any tree or structure. Given an occasional water spray and protection from the hot sun, it will grow down in long, gray tresses. Paylen has a host of other tillandsias, which flower in a rainbow of colors.
Joy to inhale
In one corner of his yard, Paylen has a special collection of fragrant Vireya rhododendrons. These epiphytic plants can be grown in our area as long as the soil – equal parts of peat moss, perlite and fir bark – is properly prepared. A perfume that Chanel could only dream of permeates the air surrounding the flowers of certain Vireya cultivars.
The most captivating of Paylen’s trees, from an olfactory standpoint, is Acacia farinosa. It produces the characteristic yellow flower puffs common to all acacias, only this species’ larger-than-average puffs are especially sweet-smelling.
As a screen along the side of his property, Paylen has planted – in his words – “the tree that saved the world from hunger.” It is a leguminous species called Leucaena, which can grow 17 feet a year. In the tropics, people eat the seeds when they are green, and feed the ripened pods to livestock. Because of its rapid rate of growth, it is also an excellent source of fuel.
Ironically, one of the few plants Paylen cannot grow in Camarillo is that same azalea he treated at the Getty Center. The water in Camarillo is high in calcium, which means nothing but trouble for the acid-loving azalea.
In this case, even intuition can’t help.

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