Imagine packing all of your green debris – from grass clippings to fallen tree branches – into a compost wall, constructed from wooden beams and wire, that surrounds your property. Imagine building raised bed retaining walls out of ordinary soil mixed with cement. Imagine constructing a home for bees and other beneficial insects out of a block of wood.
These and other low tech, environmentally conscious, innovations are on display at the Natural History Museum, which is located downtown, adjacent to Exposition Park and the Los Angeles Coliseum. The purpose of my visit to the museum was to make acquaintance with a collection of drought tolerant plants in the north campus gardens but, as an unexpected extra, I was privy to an education of what the 21st Los Angeles garden might come to be like.
I was privileged to have Carol Bornstein, director of the north campus museum gardens, as my guide. Bornstein is a pre-eminent authority on California natives. She is the author of two highly esteemed books: California Native Plants for the Garden (2005) and Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-Conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs (2011). For nearly thirty years, Bornstein worked as horticultural director of the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, whose sole mission is the cultivation and research of California native plants. To top off her resume, Bornstein is the discoverer of a new species, espied during a native plant expedition along the Northern California coast. Known as silver carpet beach aster (Lessingia filaginifolia ‘Silver Carpet’), several trailing specimens of Bornstein’s botanical baby are flourishing in the museum’s garden. I had to unearth this background information on my own since Bornstein refused to talk about herself. She humbly paused to pick out weeds during our peregrination through the museum gardens, a small but telling sign of her abiding concern for the plants that thrive under her care, proof of the famous maxim that “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.”
A notable feature of the museum gardens is the signage. Written in whimsical script with vocabulary that a child could understand, pithy messages are scribbled. Here’s the sign above a pillbug (roly-poly) nest: “Check out my home. I live here with my family and we help you humans make healthy soil.” In the Get Dirty Zone, where kids have the opportunity to interact with a variety of exhibits, you will find this sign: “30% of world’s people make buildings out of soil.” Who knows what impact such a message, bouncing around in a young mind, might have on a future architect or materials engineer? And then there’s a “Bee Motel,” a slab of wood containing row after row of holes that serve as nests for bees and other insects. The gardens are also designed — from a water feature that emulates the LA River to a hummingbird feeder tree constructed from rebar — to attract birds, with hundreds of species sited, at one time or another, in Los Angeles County.
Among the native plants that made an impression on me were the following: red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande), aromatic pitcher sage (Lepichinia fragrans), desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea palmeri), whose felt-like leaves are a pure bonus when you consider the brilliance of its flowers, golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum), California white sage (Salvia apiana), purple or chaparral nightshade (Solanum xantii), and the bluest giant wild rye (Elymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’) you will ever see. Feathery cassia (Senna artemisiodes) and kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos sp.), both of Australian origin, are also noteworthy garden choices on display. Finally, it was a pleasant surprise to observe that at least two blueberry cultivars, ‘Sharpblue’ and ‘Sunshine Blue’, are producing substantial crops in the museum’s edible garden.
As far as dealing with the current drought, there are two approaches to consider: the technological approach and the biological or botanical one. We can either find ways to bring more water, or more economical water, into the garden or plant species that do not require much water in the first place. Recylced water is one way to go. Griffith Park, as well as its adjoining golf courses, cemeteries, and freeway medians, have been irrigated with recycled water for more than twenty years. Gray water systems, that recycle kitchen, shower, and laundry water, are also perfectly feasible, and have been installed on a limited scale. Desalination of the ocean, an inexhaustible water resource, is also worthy of wider implementation. The example set by Israel, which faced chronic water shortages for decades, is instructive. Not too many years ago, there was a major push towards construction of desalination plants along Israel’s Mediterranean coast and today Israel enjoys a water surplus.
Then again, with or without technological intervention, at least concerning garden water consumption, there is the option of planting California natives and other drought tolerant species. Be aware that such plantings are not without risk and your soil may require improvement. California natives benefit from fast draining soil and the Natural History Museum soil, prior to planting, was amended accordingly. You will also want to consider installing a sprinkler system since many natives, during their first two or three years in the garden, will require supplemental water. And during prolonged droughts, such as the one we are experiencing at present, even established plants will benefit from an occasional soaking.
Tip of the Week: If you live between Camarillo and the ocean, and are contemplating planting a colorful hedge for your garden, you might want to consider poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is a spectacular eight full tall poinsettia planting, 1000 feet in length, just off the Camarillo Springs exit from the Ventura Freeway, and I must thank Jerry Murphey for bringing this botanical wonder to my attention. The only poinsettia hedge I had seen prior to this was in Culver City, so proximity to a Pacific Ocean breeze would seem to be a requirement to establishment of such a hedge. Yet just a few days ago, while driving on Coldwater Canyon Boulevard south of Mulholland Drive, I noticed a long residential entrance planting of robust poinsettias which, given time, could grow into a hedge. Although landlocked, the Coldwater Canyon poinsettias benefit from a sloping terrain so that frosty air, which rolls downhill just like water, might not be an issue with these cold sensitive plants.