The Dry Garden: In the backyard with Yvonne Savio, head of the L.A. master gardener program
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Color is everywhere. Fruit is all around. But the most persistent sensation to be experienced in Yvonne Savio’s garden is softness. The soil is so springy, so voluptuous that you could fall into it and come up laughing -- provided that you fell into the terraced half-acre slope and not off of it, in which case you might land on the roof of the house that Savio’s father built in 1950.
Such soil is no accident, but the product of yearly applications of mulch. Some years, the head of Los Angeles’ master gardener program might use composted stable manure, other years straw. There is the constant supply of her own home-made compost. The upshot of these blankets of organic material has been the transformation of a naturally rocky Arroyo Seco hillside into a kitchen garden that is crazily fecund. (That’s asparagus rising from mulch, at right.)
The best place to check what’s growing in Savio’s super soil at any given time is on her National Gardening Assn. blog, where she recently reported the end of artichokes and beginning of squash and boysenberries.
If you get an opportunity to see the garden in person, wear sensible shoes. It’s so steep that she’s stationed hand-trowels at key points along a pair of paths. ‘I have tools on both sides so if I’ve forgotten them, that’s it. I’m not going down and coming up again,’ Savio said.
The main challenge for me was drinking it all in, an impossible task in one visit. We passed citrus. Stone fruit. Roses. Verbena bonariensis, pictured at the top of the post. Nasturtiums were everywhere. So were lilies. Whoa, what kind of peach was that?
In other homes, clothespins might sit on laundry lines. Here they are clipped to trellising in case temporary support is needed for a boysenberry branch. In early June, there were still leeks left over from winter. Beyond a block of summer tomatoes whose earliest blossoms had been nipped to build early-season root strength are yet more Lycopersicon esculentum vines. These are tucked in wherever she can fit them.
‘I can see I’ve put tomatoes here too,’ she remarked as if reproving herself when we passed a bed that was notionally for artichokes and asparagus.
Watering a large, steep garden presents challenges. The routine addition of all that compost to foothill granite has built soil that holds water. Ensuring that irrigation infiltrates the earth is accomplished in a number of ways. Fruit trees, for example, are encircled by soaker hoses that are then covered by mulch to discourage evaporation and keep the soil cool. ‘You want three to four inches of mulch,’ she said.
Black nursery pots strategically placed in the ground can be filled with a hose, and the water then seeps out the bottom. It’s another ingenious way to get water to percolate deep in the root zones of nearby plants.
In addition to these slow, deep-watering techniques, trails of hoses along the paths made it clear that Savio also waters by hand.
Until I experienced Savio’s garden, I thought that I understood why the Southern California Horticultural Society named her its 2010 horticulturist of the year. Seventeen years after she left the botany and vegetable crops extension program at UC Davis to run the master gardener program for Los Angeles County, she has trained nearly 1,000 master gardeners. These people, in turn, have dedicated more than 100,000 community hours to build vegetable gardens serving nearly 750,000 people. Get on her email chain and you will receive updates on what can seem like every school garden grant and mulch giveaway in the county.
But in her garden, glimpsing her as she momentarily melted with fondness at the sight of a radiant Lucille Ball rose, it was suddenly clear that there was another reason why she is celebrated by her peers. She loves plants.
Only the terminally curious among us congregate regularly in the Friendship Auditorium near Griffith Park to hear lectures about cacti or water lilies, and to pore over the eccentricities on the plant table. ‘If it’s a weird flower, I want it,’ Savio, at right, said with a laugh.
At home, she has them. And vegetables. And fruit. And herbs. And vines. And succulents. The upshot is a wonderland of tastes, color, scent and shape.
Did I mention the soil?
-- Emily Green
Alstroemeria, also called Peruvian lily.
Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.