How to know what you got

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It is 1999. I have lived in southern California for three years, but in my current home for only one. My first gardening project is to replace the weedy grass in the parkway on the east side of the house with a low-water use, native plant garden. The strip is 182 feet long and six feet wide. I still feel like a stranger to my home, my garden, and the plants that do well here.

In my first three years in South Pas, I learned that though it can be hot in summer or winter, it never rains in the summer. The few times during the dry season that there was some moisture in the air – I would not actually call it rain – the “unusual” weather was all the buzz. I’m just amazed that there is a dry season. Water also comes in the form of coastal fog that blankets the garden on some mornings, usually burning off before noon.

Parkway garden began here in December 1999 at the north end of the strip.

I know that to create a garden that will do well with little attention and resources, I must match the plants to the conditions, and therefore, it is critical to know what I’ve got. Though much of the yard is shaded by mature trees, the strip gets a lot of sun. I plan to set up a low-volume irrigation system to simplify watering while the plants are young, but in the long term I hope to do away with irrigation altogether. So clearly I need plants that can survive in dry, sunny heat, with occasional fog, during summer, and cool weather, with intermittent rain, in winter.

All new gardens should start with wild sunflowers (see Emily Green’s post, A sunflower or two. Or 200,000). My, how my daughter, aged nine in picture, has grown. She graduates from college this spring!

Easy gardening is predicated on compatibility of plants and soil. I have lived in many places, but it is not until I put shovel to ground that I feel at home. On Long Island where I grew up, I would dig for small, rounded rocks made of quartz. Living at the southern edge of the last glacial advance, these smooth rocks were commonplace. As an adult, my first house and garden was in a hilly area with rocky soil. Gardening was a real challenge. Wherever I put the spade, I hit something hard and unyielding. In my mind the subterranean rock took on propositions of a boulder roughly the size of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Mercifully, my soil in South Pasadena is rock-free, yet well-drained. Being located far enough from the youthful, rapidly-rising San Gabriel Mountains, the garden soil is made of medium-sized particulates, neither clayey nor rocky.

Spring 2002, working my way along the parkway. I dug out the grass on the northern half of the parkway.


What puzzles me, though, is what used to live here before it was houses? I hike in the mountains and know what grows there, but I live in the flats. I do not know of any natural open space that still exists around here. In fact, I do not even know of any rivers or creeks that in any way resemble their wild selves. Whenever I visit museums or libraries I look for historic pictures of southern California. Mostly it looks flat and dusty. On one trip to our local library I find an interesting picture taken in the 1930s of the Arroyo Seco near the York Street Bridge. A woman, in a white dress and a hat with a bouquet of wildflowers in her arms, is gazing at the bridge. Trees and shrubs surround her in this idyllic spot.

October 2002. Although I dug out the grass in the north half of the parkway, I hired some stronger backs to complete the job in the south. It is much easier having someone else do it.

Lest I get carried away, I remind myself that I do not live on the banks of the Arroyo Seco or any other river, stream or creek. Geographically, the flats of South Pasadena are located in the San Gabriel Valley. My garden is roughly six and a half miles south of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and twenty miles from the Pacific Ocean. Streams and creeks that once flowed are mostly buried, though some still see daylight as they drain towards the sea in concrete channels, more akin to sewage drains than natural waterways. The area was developed at the turn of the century, with massive building sprees in the 1920s. Prior to housing development, this was a rich agricultural region, primarily orange groves. For thousands of years before European settlement, the area was inhabited by indigenous people, known today as the Tongva.

It is within this framework that I try to envision my new garden. The channelization of the waterways – implemented to allow maximum development with minimum risk of flooding – has resulted in much drier growing conditions. Still my house is probably not located very close to any natural drainage, so what did grow here?

One day, while enjoying lunch with an environmental colleague and friend, LA Creek Freak blogger, Jessica Hall, I posed the question to her. I was thinking that my garden was probably dry, coastal sage scrub. Jessica, though, pointed out the obvious. Street names here include Oak Street, Oak Knoll, Los Robles (Spanish for The Oaks), Fair Oaks, Dos Robles, Five Oaks Drive, Charter Oak Street, Oaklawn Avenue, and so on. Furthermore, acorns sprout in my garden like they belong here. In fact, the most beautiful and majestic tree in the yard is a volunteer oak that the previous owners decided not to remove about sixty years ago. The light bulb goes on: it was oak woodland!

December 2005. Planted three young coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) in the parkway.

September 2010. The oaks have grown. Grasses, sages, buckwheat and other coastal sage scrub plants spill over out into the street and sidewalk, though I work hard to keep them within bounds.

September 2010. South half of the parkway has filled in. The white flowers in the center are coast buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum).

March 2011. Somehow these pictures do not show how beautiful the oaks have become. The green foliage is from the two northern most oaks.

With a picture in my mind of families of indigenous people working, playing, and eating among magnificent old oaks, I set to work on my parkway. Low growing shrubs common in drier coastal sage scrub plant communities will be planted between three widely spaced coast live oak trees (Quercus agrifolia). Over time, just as in nature, the oaks will grow and mature, shading out the understory plants. As I grow old and less able to bend and weed, the oaks will provide shade and comfort in a carefree garden space.

One thought on “How to know what you got

  1. sima

    What a lovely post. Thank you.

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