The Dry Garden: How can an old arboretum be relevant to modern gardeners? Survey lets you answer


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Since arriving at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden more than a year and a half ago, Chief Executive Richard Schulhof has been listening.

The region’s leading horticultural figures have been invited for brainstorming sessions about how to remake the Arcadia garden and its programs. A consultant has been called in to direct discussion. Recently the public was invited to complete an online questionnaire. The arboretum wants anyone with an Internet connection and 10 minutes to spare to suggest improvements for the 127 acres.


Anyone who cares about the future of Southern California should summon up their inner optimist and fill out the form, because the arboretum has the potential to be more than a pretty place where people can recreate. It could set the bar for our region’s horticultural standards and the way Southern California gardens evolve. What we say now could improve our environment for years to come.

Set on land carved from the estate of Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, the arboretum was formed in the late 1940s as a collaboration between Los Angeles County and the region’s horticultural movers and shakers. By all accounts, a physician named Samuel Ayres Jr. did the most to see it formed and then set its agenda. After a trip to Hawaii, Ayres dreamed of exotic flowering trees festooning the more muted California landscape. Among thousands of plants that eventually came into California through the arboretum were coral, floss silk and golden trumpet trees. When Ayres died in 1987, the headline on his Times obituary said, in part: “He Put Color in L.A. Landscape.”

The problem? The color craved by Ayres often came from plants native to the tropics, where rainfall is measured in feet. Rainfall in California’s Mediterranean climate zone is counted in inches, on a good year maybe 15 of them.

In Ayres’ day, L.A.’s increasingly exotic canopy could be forced into tropical-style bloom with water imported from the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra and the Colorado River. The State Water Project that now taps the San Francisco Bay tributaries was about to be built. Climate change was a move from New York to California.

Over time, gardens became thirstier and more people had them. Since the arboretum was founded, the population of Los Angeles County has more than doubled. Yet no matter how many people poured into this dry place, a core belief popularized by the arboretum’s founders didn’t budge: Anything grows here.

Meanwhile, the task of pushing heavy water around the state consumes energy. Climate change, in no small part driven by energy production, is drying up the water supply. A steady trickle of contaminated sprinkler runoff from cities is poisoning the Pacific. Lawn mowers and leaf blowers are a prime source of regional air pollution. Add turf as a default ground cover, and you understand the problems facing gardeners in Southern California.


Few would want Los Angeles without the flowering legacy of Samuel Ayres Jr. The problem is that since he led the purchase of Lucky Baldwin’s estate, the response of the greater horticultural community and some Southern California residents to our water, energy and pollution problems has been inadequate. Some may argue that residents are of free will and could garden responsibly on their own, but my point is that leaders haven’t been leading.

A charitable foundation that had been started in Ayres’ day eventually gained management powers, but it doesn’t name its trustees on the arboretum website, never mind publish agendas, invite the public to meetings or post minutes. Go to the arboretum, and you might be greeted by the sight of sprinkler runoff coursing down Baldwin Avenue. That urban slobber is water yanked from wilderness, shipped hundreds of miles, made potable, then squandered by a place that should be our horticultural standard-bearer. Nobody has fixed it. If there is a progressive on the board, he or she must be tearing his or her hair out.

So little about the online questionnaire challenges the arboretum’s current emphasis on activities for seniors, the perceived fairness of its design vistas, its underrated library, its midcentury cafeteria, its flowering trees. It asks whether we care about habitat for wildlife, want concerts and would like sustainability programs. How does it do on local history, and what do we think of its website?

That the tone of the multiple-choice segment invites good grades is fair enough. These are all genuine amenities. But they’re not what’s needed to help the arboretum reach its full potential. To make those points, you’ll have to write them in a box for comments.

My questions include: Where are the demonstration gardens to trap rainwater and prevent runoff? Shouldn’t lawn removal be a course offered continually? It’s fabulous to see mushroom fairs held on the grounds, but could there also be weekly exchanges of polluting lawn equipment for low-emission models? If one of the greatest challenges before us is retraining lawn crews to be real gardeners, can the arboretum help do that? Why are the best horticulture classes held on weekdays, when working homeowners are unable to attend? Given the distance that most people have to drive to visit it, how about arboretum experts going into the field to help create pocket parks?

I could go on and on, and believe me, I have. I hope you do too.

Complete the questionnaire. A snapshot of early responses will go to garden executives this week, whoever they are. The final tally of responses will take place in about one month, and a report will be published in due course.


-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow “The Dry Garden” and related Times coverage, join our Facebook dedicated to gardening in the West.

Top: Richard Schulhof, the arboretum’s chief executive, photographed in April. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Middle: Flowers on one of the arboretum’s yellow trumpet trees. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

Bottom: A purple trumpet tree in the arboretum’s canopy. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times


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