The Dry Garden: Turning a monument to the past into a model for the future

Posted on | April 16, 2010 | 2 Comments

Richard Schulhof, new CEO of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. Schulhof, a native Angeleno, arrived from Harvard's Arnold Arboretum six months ago. “I didn’t come back here because I needed a job,” he said. “I came because I think L.A. should have a great arboretum.” Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles was sold to the world as the place where anything grew. As if to prove it, more than 10,000 exotic plants were tested last century on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Arcadia. “The original notion was that it would be a big, big trial ground to see what could flourish in L.A.,” explained Richard Schulhof.

According to the Arboretum’s recently appointed chief executive officer, this makes the arboretum’s collection a living history. So many of the plants tested flourished that roughly half a century later, eucalyptus, palms and bamboo compete with cedars for space in the skyscape. Not that you have to drive to the foothill community next to Santa Anita race track to witness this style of festooning eclecticism. It came to grip all of Southern California.

Six months into his job, one of the challenges facing Schulhof is what to do with the great big collection of exotica. The biggest crisis facing the arboretum may just be that the taste for thirsty imported plants that built the place is bringing down the region. So much of Southern California’s urban water supply goes toward garden irrigation that utilities have started paying customers to abandon exotic planting schemes for native and drought-tolerant ones.

Click here to keep reading The Dry Garden profile of Richard Schulhof in the Los Angeles Times.


2 Responses to “The Dry Garden: Turning a monument to the past into a model for the future”

  1. D Ready
    April 16th, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    What’s up with the weed loving friend from Harvard comment? Are people still denying the invasive species issue? Peter Del Tredici maybe?

    Anyway, thanks for the great article. I was fortunate enough to get my start in horticulture as a boy spending a few weeks every summer mowing the lawns and watering delicate plants in two magnificent tropical greenhouses of an arboretum affiliated plant collector’s estate. I was so inspired that for years I cluttered my little room with aquaria/terraria filled with plants, fishes, frogs, snakes, and lizards, mostly from the world’s tropics. After high school, I went on to spend a summer interning at the arboretum for a short but memorable introduction to the hard hot work of botanic garden maintenance.

    I moved from Los Angeles and spent several years as an undergraduate on a defunct army base – a place where a century of infantry training led to the protection of tens of thousands of acres of sand dunes, sagescrub, chaparral, oak woodlands and vernal pool studded grasslands. It was a majestic landscape replete with fairy shrimp, horned and legless lizards, badgers and blue butterflies, sand gilia, tiger salamanders, kites and cougars. I got to know them all. It was there I realized what I had been missing all those years in the exotic landscapes of the Southern California suburbs.

    The arboretum will always be a place where the exotic is celebrated, as it probably should be. I too hope they will continue to expand their practices illustrating to all of us ways of gardening that are beautiful, resilient, save water, reduce our carbon footprint, build an appreciation for here (let alone now), and maybe most importantly, protect native plants and animals that have been calling HERE home for a long loooong time.

  2. EmilyGreen
    April 17th, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    What a great comment. As it seems to me, the Arb is of most use to film studios as a big cheap set and locals as a park. It chewed up and spat out the last CEO in such short order that it would not have occurred to me to even interview Schulhof had he not gamely responded to a dismissive reference ( ) on this website with an invitation to come see what he is doing, particularly the permaculture program (more of that below).

    Having met him, and been impressed by him, I can’t shake the conviction that it will be a long road to relevancy for the Arboretum, which needs to start with a reworking of the mission statement, shifting from turning the place from a gardenesque clearing house to standard-bearer for best regional horticultural practices.

    Can he do that? Too early to tell, though he’s personable, great on paper and talks a great game.

    The events calendar is friendly enough but largely something that only locals can enjoy. It’s in its messaging about landscaping for the future and as the horticultural voice of the county that the place fails so damn miserably. The Arboretum needs to emerge as a problem solver in a region where the landscaping that is not so much bad as tragic, in no small part because of the Arboretum’s giddy example of popularizing so many unsuitable exotics.

    I am not sure why Schulhof thought that I would want to see a strange little hidden corner where a bunch of unfathomable burrows, berms and badly planted trees is now called the “permaculture” garden. I forgot to thank him properly for escorting me to Hippy Corner for Dissidents.

    Here is as good a place as any: Richard, I wish you well, best of all good things, but the issues that are bringing down the region in terms of squandering our budgets and natural resources, never mind defining our sense of place, are not fringe concerns. They should be front and center for the Arboretum, not in odd little messy corners where people bejewel rammed earth seats with marbles. These issues include tying the landscape into watershed protection, civic default use of lawn on medians and around buildings, street tree policy, water trapping for developers in the face of a new Low Impact Development ordinance and on and on and on.

    The Arb has all it needs right before it, not least the strong County connection, except the vision of its potential and a sense of purpose. It could dig in, but it’s as if everyone at the Arb is busy scheduling sweet little events for the locals of Peafowl-ville. This is not to diss that end of things, but they are not the making of a great regional horticultural center.

    Right now, for lack of an official organization to tackle those issues, it falls to organizations such as TreePeople to challenge the county and region on the big issues. An activist non-profit cannot fill in the void left when established organizations such as the county arboretum are so utterly disconnected from the process. You know things are back-asswards when local water companies and public works departments have to tackle landscaping-caused problems without a strong voice from the Arboretum.

    We’ll see how Schulhof does. I wish him well. I wish him courage. And I wish him the ability to understand the difference between my criticisms and the enthusiams of hippy diggers.

    Boards tend to hide behind their CEOs. The first question I asked Schulhof was where the board buried the last executive (it turns out that Mark Wourms left LA for Kentucky). Given the Arb’s failure with Wourms, and its failing of the region as crisis grips our water supply on every conceivable front, it would be nice to see the board of the Foundation hauled into the public eye and held accountable for the slipping stature of the place, its lack of vision and the failure with Wourms. That board and the County, more than this brave new hire, needs to understand that they are not just overseers of a rather large park in the foothills, but authors of its legacy. That, at present, is the miserable, ragged and wasteful standard of public landscaping in Los Angeles.

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