The Dry Garden: Descanso in recovery

Posted on | May 21, 2010 | No Comments

Schematic from the Long Range Conceptual Plan for Descanso Gardens developed with the Portico Group. Click on the drawing to be taken to the Seattle company's master plan for Descanso.

Nowhere in the West is sustainable gardening a harder sell than in Southern California. Public gardens preach conservation, but their grounds are surrounded by turf. The message to visitors: Eastern-style, highly irrigated gardening is not just OK here, it’s the way it’s done.

And so, it is beyond refreshing, more like happy dance exciting, that Descanso Gardens has begun what will be a long-range overhaul in which water conservation is the central theme. The messaging will start with the landscaping.

A 237-page review, grandly titled a “Long Range Conceptual Plan,” outlines what will one day be a sweeping overhaul with a paean to water. “The structure of the garden plants, native and introduced, is informed by water. The Gardens’ cultural heritage and current concerns center on the need for and use of water. Therefore this Long Range Conceptual Plan was informed – and shaped – by water.”

Click here to keep reading The Dry Garden in the Los Angeles Times. Or  click below for my response to some of the Times’s reader comments to the piece.

To Lawrence W., who worries that parking will be lost. These are schematics. To ask about the number of parking spaces, contact Descanso/ Portico. The main change in parking is that the parking lot will capture rainwater drainage and treat it in bioswales, thereby both creating a new resource and stopping a potent source of pollution. There is also plenty of local parking.

To Chris N., who writes, “Oh, this is so sad! Can’t they opt for using recycled water from wastewater treatment plants in addition to implementing other conservation projects? I love native plants and think they have their place. Native plants can’t be in every garden everywhere. The idea of a botanic garden is not exclusively to mimic native plant environments. Botanic gardens are collections of plants that are preserved and presented artistically. In So. California we have a precious climate in which so many plants can thrive. Why not capitalize on it? I understand the Arboretum has similar plans. It looks like our botanic treasures are will all be turned into the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is beautiful but limited. I’m sure the new Descanso will be beautiful also, but what a loss.”

Chris, dry your eyes. First, you act as if native flora dominates instead of exotics. The truth is exactly the opposite. Second, Descanso is not a botanic garden; traditionally, it has had very little horticultural or intellectual ballast, though it’s a pleasant park and it does have some interesting collections. This overhaul marks a turn to a more serious, credible approach that respects these collections. There’s nothing about turning the garden into a Rancho, which is a botanic garden. Rather, the drive at Descanso appears to be to curating the gardens in a more appropriate way. Areas such as parking strips will be landscaped with climate hardy material, from California and other mediterranean climate zones. This is only good gardening. Even bad old day editions of Sunset knew better than to put camellias under oaks.

Our climate, “precious” or otherwise, in no way allows for so many exotic plants to thrive — that’s the problem. This is a dry region and only by destroying watersheds for thousands of miles around do we achieve our island of exotica. A quarter of the energy we use goes to pumping that water. Generating that energy is a primary driver of climate change, which in turn is drying out our watersheds. If you want sad, that’s sad and the mass extinction that we are seeing, and responsible for driving, that is beyond sad. There is no need to pipe in municipal grey water. Descanso has its own water supply; this plan will use that in a more appropriate way. There is no reason for it to be drawing additional supplies from a stressed municipal system, particularly of potable water, and pressing reasons for it not to do that.

To “Camellia fan.”

What’s with the pseudonym? As for your comment, “No, don’t take out the eucalyptus and redwood trees!!” Why? The eucs are fire risks, water hungry and bad at wind resistance. The redwoods are native to rainforests, not foothills. They burn up, suffer stress and then harbor disease. Why not use the more appropriate sycamores, which will fill up with wood peckers and butterflies, rustle fetchingly in the wind and thrive? This is not the plan of camellia haters, but of people determined to save the garden and make it sustainable far into the future.

To Doug, who wrote: “My favorite and most memorable aspect of Descanso is the Camelia forest. It was a stunning experience to stroll the hills below towering arms of giant blooms at a time of year when most things are still hibernating. It’s a shame to lose it under what seems to be an extreme shift in focus for the Gardens.”

Worry not, the camellia experience will only be enhanced when they are not grown in a way that kills the sheltering oaks. Because the oaks can’t be moved, it means moving the camellias is the better strategy. And it will be a safer stroll too. No dying oak, killed by irrigation, will fall on you.

As for the remark, “I for one hope they don’t reach their fund raising goals as I’d rather pay a little extra at the gate so they can pay their water bill to keep it the way it is.” It’s not about money, it’s about finite natural resources and biological processes that are healthy for the plants. It will be far more expensive for all of us to waste water; there are no savings there.

To Steve, who said: “Leave the redwoods- they are California Natives and they are beautiful!”

I love them too and very few people like cutting down large trees. The problem is that they are not from this floristic province; redwoods are rainforest plants and using large trees that are ill equipped to cope with the conditions is a dangerous thing to do anywhere, particularly in public places. The sycamores will be amazing. And maybe they could put in some better adapted conifers.

To Steve S, who said: “This is the dumbest idea ever. It will ruin all that Descanso is famous for, camellia and oaks. It is the reason, that people go to the garden. If you want native plants more than half the 160 acres of the garden is native vegetation. Some facts. Descanso collects most of its irrigation water from runoff of the Angles National Forest (located only a few miles north). It is collected and sent down pipes owned by Descanso. Descanso uses rainbirds to water the gardens. These indiscriminately water the roads, pathways, and even some of the neighboring houses. If they would focus on using drip irrigation they could save much of their water. Yes Oak trees do not like to be watered in the summer. Some end up with root rot. However, the camellias have been under the oaks since world war II…70 years …. it does not seem to be doing the oaks too much harm. Besides, when you you walk around you see that for every oak, there are 100 babies waiting for it to fall so they can take its place. The oaks are not endangered! This will ruin the gardens.”

Some facts backatcha:

The total irrigation demand of Descanso Gardens is 76.4 acre feet of water per year, 28.5 of which traditionally comes from potable municipal supplies and 47.9 of which comes through the local Hall Beckley Canyon. (Source: Descanso Gardens Long Range Conceptual Plan. Translation: an acre foot is enough water to cover an acre to a depth of one foot; for those who want these figures in gallons, multiply the acre feet by 325,851).

How those figures will change in 2010 is not clear because of damage by the Station Fire and subsequent debris flows to the local Hall Beckley system.

However, in the long-run, this new plan will mean that the use of potable water, which has to be pumped to the region and expensively treated to potable standards, will no longer be tapped.

This is a formidable savings, not only because of the quantity of water saved (enough for more than 60 households for a year), but also because of the energy savings. A fourth of the energy used by Californians goes to moving and treating water, most of it to Southern California. Much of this energy comes from coal. In other words, water conservation is the most formidable tool that all Southern Californians have to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Descanso deserves credit, not ridicule, for having struck a balance that will keep the gardens so green but cut heavily and strategically at the most polluting sources of its water supply.

According to garden staff, as many as 40 oaks come down in significant windstorms. This is a terrible rate of tree failure and one accommodated because of strong resistance by some of the garden’s fans. The emotional attachment to the camellia-oak experience is understandable, but the inexcusable part is that a public garden should be showcasing a dangerous arrangement to the homeowners who visit and emulate its husbandry. It is beyond time to do better by the oaks, the camellias and, most importantly, the visitors who go there to learn.

Finally, nobody wants to banish the camellias, at least nobody involved with this plan. Under it, the showcasing of the camellias will be improved — not lost.

Enough said. This feels like arguing with drunks — water drunks. I know that succumbing to anger is not useful, so I’m off to the drinks cabinet to conserve water by drinking some whisky.


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