"These winds are creeping me out," shouted Kristin Sabo as she tended groves of black walnut atop a Griffith Park peak during a mid-March heat wave. As the no-nonsense volunteer caretaker of Amir's Garden, Sabo battles more than unseasonable Santa Ana winds. She terms the 5-acre parcel, created in 1971 by Iranian immigrant Amir Dialameh, a "combat garden," one that's plagued with plant thieves, vandalism and graffiti.
Dialameh, who created the garden after a fire leveled the area, toiled for more than three decades to create a lush, shaded refuge atop the rocky hillside, which can be reached by a fire road off Griffith Park Drive. It's one of three gardens set atop Griffith Park peaks, all created by volunteers who were immigrants. Captain's Roost and Dante's View lie to either side of Mt. Hollywood.
Sabo, who is 49, assumed Dialameh's tireless work ethic after he died in 2003 at age 71. She has since maintained the garden during twice-weekly visits, as well as on holidays and vacations.
Today hundreds of varieties of plants and trees cascade down terraces cut by meandering paths and benches offering storybook vistas. The spot, which regulars call "magic" and "secret," is among the park's most verdant — a sliver of the ineffable imbued with innumerable shades of green and floral hues set amid what at times is a punishing arid terrain.
Sabo stocks the garden (amirsgarden.org) with cuttings from a nursery she cultivates at her San Fernando Valley home. She also maintains the infrastructure — engaging in tasks that range from hauling pipes and mending barriers along paths to repairing stairs on the garden's front and back entrances.
"She's really strong physically and completely determined," said Sarah Newby, who has coordinated volunteers for the garden. Sabo organizes a few volunteer workdays each year, and Scout troops occasionally help out. But Sabo does most of the work, despite severe arthritis and asthma. On holidays she sometimes works for 12 hours.
"I love it," said Sabo, a fundraiser and grant writer who also volunteers for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. She annually spends up to $1,000 of her own money for garden supplies.
Her short frame topped by a brimmed camo hat, Sabo admits to being an "odd duck" as well as "a little obsessive-compulsive." She can appear as a fierce temple guardian, her hefty pick mattock hanging like a threat from her backpack.
Newby said Sabo's bluster is reserved for those who violate the garden. "She can come off very strong," Newby said, "but she has such a good heart; she comes from a good place." Adds Capt. Albert Torres of the City of Los Angeles Park Rangers: "I think all who love the park are a bit feisty that way. We want to protect it and educate people about taking plants."
Sabo has spotted visitors wielding knives, hatchets and hacksaws. "You can't cut down any of my damn trees!" Sabo told one interloper who eyed a 40-year-old Mojave yucca –– and chopped it down when Sabo's back was turned. "Plant stealing up here is ferocious," she said.
Work is accomplished at Amir's whether or not visitors find it convenient; heavy-duty sprinklers have assaulted more than one picnic.
"A woman asked me why I was watering on Easter," said Sabo. "I told her the plants don't know it's Easter." One amorous couple laid out "their entire bedroom set along a path –– pillows, blankets, the whole thing," said Sabo. "They got very wet."
While Amir's Garden would have long ago withered without Sabo's near dozen years of relentless ministration, she's quick to say that "this is not about me; this is about Amir, this place. I'm a baby-sitter."
On this day, Sabo hand-watered terraces well past sunset. Asked if she ever takes time to sit and enjoy the garden, she replied: "You know, I don't ever sit in my life. I'm always doing something."
Amir's Garden endures in spite of drought
California is suffering through one of the most severe droughts on record, so what's a largely non-native ornamental garden watered by 30 sprinklers doing on a rocky, wind-swept peak in Griffith Park?
When Amir Dialameh gained permission from the city to plant his garden in 1971, "not many knew what an ecosystem was," said Kristin Sabo, volunteer caretaker for Amir's Garden. "The garden –– it's all grandfathered in. You can't plant one like it today."
Sabo describes the spot as "all rock, and one of the windiest places in the park. It's not conducive to growing non-native species or retaining water. The only topsoil that now exists is the topsoil the garden created in the last 40 years."
After blazes in the mid-1990s, the city Department of Recreation and Parks asked Dialameh to expand the garden to the southeast to create a firebreak of fire-resistive plantings. Additional sprinklers were added, bringing the total to 30. (The sprinklers reach about 70% of the garden; Sabo waters the rest by hand.)
The garden is perched on an east-facing slope, creating a microclimate that infrequent rainstorms, unfortunately, ignore. "West-facing slopes get more water," Sabo said. "People ask me why I'm watering when it's raining down on Barham Boulevard. Well, it's not raining at Amir's."
Mojave yucca, aloe, jade, agave and ice plant predominate on the garden's hotter southwest side; black walnut, geranium, dogbane, and oaks prevail on the cooler north side. Elsewhere, the garden is strewn with oleander (dying out from leaf scorch plague), African daisies, bird of paradise, devil's backbone, spider plant, sage, sumac, lantana, pampas grass, and ferns. Trees include California bay, eucalyptus, ash, oaks, ceiba, ginkgo, chitalpa and Italian and white pine.
Sabo is incorporating more native plants (which are typically drought-tolerant and dry up more quickly), including sages, toyon (California holly), Douglas fir, California bay and California buckeye –– although she strives to balance watering needs among existing fire-resistive species.
"After Amir died, people had ideas for what they wanted to do with the garden," said Sabo. "Some said it's non-native, let's bulldoze it. I said it has a footprint and serves vital purposes. Don't mess with it; keep it as it is."