Earthquakes & Sustainability



At a garden I visit every day, an arbor festooned with hanging baskets lies prostrate on the ground, felled by Monday’s earthquake; a few feet away, roses glisten in the morning sun. The glory of our winter gardens reminds us of why we came here in the first place and why, no matter what happens, we will triumph.
We Angelenos are an unusual breed of people. Like our plants, we are sustained by sunshine. Even now, you can hear people confess, “If I only have to live through an earthquake like this every 20 years, I’ll still take L.A. sunshine over Chicago snow drifts and wind-chill factors.” For Angelenos, no matter what is lost or destroyed, the sunshine remains. It is our one possession that cannot be taken away.
Our gardens – and what we can grow in them – figure prominently in the ethos of Los Angeles. Stories of growing roses year round, of harvesting tomatoes in January, and of raising apples and tangerines side by side, have been instrumental in bringing easterners here to live. Our plants and gardens have contributed to the dreamlike, wonderland quality of this city; anyone visiting here goes home with true tales about winter-blooming birds-of- paradise which, lest we forget, are exotic plants for most people.
Newcomers to our city may not be aware that large areas of Los Angeles were once agricultural. Lima beans were grown as a cash crop on land that became Beverly Hills. Walnut orchards were planted from Woodland Hills to San Gabriel. Chicken farms, orange groves and olive oil presses were, for many years, elements of a thriving agricultural industry in the San Fernando Valley.
A virtual 12-month growing season gives Los Angeles its true character. This is a place where growth is constant not only for plants, but for the human population as well. Even in a recession, there will be many more thousands of people living here in 1994 than there were in 1993.
Perhaps the time has come to use our only inexhaustible natural resource – sunshine – to start a new agricultural industry in Los Angeles.
“Sustainability” is the ecological catchword of the ’90s. It refers to the ability of a community to take care of itself, to become self-sufficient, where life’s essentials do not need to be imported from somewhere else. As the fight to bring water from the north intensifies, our case would be strengthened if we could show that some of this water was being used to grow food for our ever-expanding population.
Pierce College in Woodland Hills has more than 200 acres of land that could perhaps be brought into agricultural production. Jobs could be created in cultivating the land and processing crops for the local market. It’s remarkable how little space is needed to grow enough vegetables for a family. Every homeowner in this city has more than enough yard space to accomplish the task. South Central Los Angeles has a better growing climate than any other part of the city. Intensive methods of agriculture, such as hothouse growing of vegetables, could maximize utilization of space anywhere, even on vacant lots.
Now that movement on freeways is restricted, and traffic will be worse than usual, people may be spending more time at home. New ways of using their living space will be explored; it is likely that more time will be spent growing plants.
If there is anything to be gained from the earthquake it may be in rethinking why it is we are in Los Angeles. The fact that we have turned chaparal and desert into the largest oasis on Earth cannot be overlooked. The challenge of sustaining this oasis could make gardeners out of all of us.
In the meantime, working with plants could be the best therapy for us. The events of the last week were beyond our control. But we can still determine how floriferous our primroses will be, how big our beets will become, and how lush our ficus will grow. Bringing order to the garden will reduce the feeling of chaos in our lives.

Photo credit: Håkan Dahlström / / CC BY

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