Gardens for the Dog Days of Drought


There’s a Garden of Eden tucked into the San Fernando Valley foothills, a unique 21-acre nursery filled with plants and trees that attract birds, bees, butterflies--and water-conscious buyers.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find the tree of knowledge, but there’s enough modern-day enlightenment at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley to either begin or augment your own patch of paradise in the midst of drought.

Incorporated in 1960 as the first organization dedicated solely to the propagation and preservation of native California flora, the non-profit foundation is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

Its primary aims are to offer the public more than 600 species of native plants and seeds and rare and endangered varieties, many of which have narrowly escaped developers’ bulldozers. The grounds also serve as a bird sanctuary for more than 100 species.


These goals are mainly supported by a loyal and fast-growing membership that now stands at about 800--up from 500 five years ago--as well as from plant sales (including some water-conserving non-natives).

Seven staff members, augmented by volunteers, preside over this oasis of gently rolling hills in La Tuna Canyon against a mosaic of colors and shapes provided by the flora. More than 90% of the plants are drought tolerant and able to enliven local gardens with minimal care.

“This place looks the way it would have when nature ruled and people were supplemental,” said Melanie Baer, foundation horticulturist for six years. “The drought and rationing situation is changing people’s attitudes about what constitutes a good landscape.”

Before the plants leave the premises in one- or five-gallon containers, Baer and the rest of the staff ensure that buyers are well-schooled in the proper maintenance of their purchases. Well-schooled themselves, staff members hold degrees in disciplines ranging from horticulture and landscape architecture to biology, computer science and Egyptology.

The foundation’s history has its roots 6,000 miles away in England.

An 1882 British botanical exhibit of California wildflowers and other native plants attracted attention from botanists and avid gardeners. Among them was 22-year-old horticulturist Theodore Payne.

Payne came to the United States and spent 55 years introducing into cultivation between 400 and 500 species of wildflowers and native plants for general use. He died in 1963 at the age of 94. What many consider the typical English garden is, in fact, a grouping of British species liberally mixed with California natives that were brought to England hundreds of years ago.

Vivid yellow poppies, evening primrose, wooly blue curls and nearly 60 species of flowering penstemon only appear in California because of Payne’s efforts. And they’re not found only in well-tended gardens, but alongside urban roads, freeways, peeking out of rocks and even in dirt parking lots.

Until 1963 the foundation, formerly a nursery in the Los Feliz area, was mainly a back yard operation, but three years later, in 1966, its current site was donated to the organization. Soon, a monetary gift bought an adjoining house that was converted into office headquarters with space for seed stock, a bookstore, reference library, gift shop, museum and meeting room. There is a demonstration garden out back.

“It’s significant that we can live in beauty here in California within the limits of water conservation,” said former northeasterner Lance Diskan of Culver City, a frequent visitor to the nursery. “The foundation is a living demonstration that so much is possible with native plants in landscapes of great subtlety. The green is not endemic, but it’s the obvious choice with drought conditions. I appreciate the fact that you can get a great yard with these plants.”

As the current demand for natives grows--total sales of plants and other merchandise have increased 425% in the last five years--the foundation is stepping up its agenda of education and public awareness regarding the culture and uses of these plants. Besides the myriad plant species and seeds available there for transplantation into a garden or yard, the foundation boasts other resources found nowhere else in the state.

A 24-hour wildflower hot line (818) 768-1802 provides reports, updated weekly, of the best viewing areas in the Southland (a springtime seasonal service that runs from March 1 to May 31), and a quarterly newsletter available free to members contains information, programs and special events.

Now facing an increased demand for its resources due to the state’s fourth year of drought combined with imminent water rationing and a long, dry summer, staff members are busier than ever answering questions from concerned gardeners.

“It’s just not slowing down for the summer any more. We’re very pleasantly surprised because it used to be dead here during the hot months,” foundation horticulturist Jan Busco said, adding that just the day before 50 first-time customers visited the foundation.

And the staff has increased to accommodate the demand. Five years ago, there were only two staff members, one in the nursery, one in the office. Now there are seven, four in the nursery and three in the office.

“The foundation has gone from being fairly laid back to the forefront of change in a relatively short time,” said Jo Kitz, president of the Santa Monica Mountains chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Foundation staffers report a different breed of customer is coming to the nursery, looking for attractive plants that grow easily in this arid terrain. According to Busco, besides the “die-hard native plant lovers and collectors,” more area homeowners want to rip out their lawns and convert to drought-tolerant substitutes for a different type of garden.

“When my husband and I moved into our house the lawn was a real water guzzler,” said Leslie Birzniecks of Van Nuys, a customer at the nursery. “We let it die out and replaced it with some yarrow, some trees and gravel. People move to California for its special characteristics and then want it to look like their homes back East or Midwest. This is really just a developed desert.”

But sometimes the transition from traditional lawns to drought-tolerant plants has glitches.

“We sell plants to some people who drown them right away,” Busco said. “When we say drought tolerant, we mean very tough. About 95% of what we grow requires less water than most people are used to in their gardens.”

A list of landscape architects, designers and contractors is kept by the foundation for potential customers.

For Valley residents who have made the decision to switch to a new type of garden, or the beginner who just wants to fill in the concrete with some pretty, low-maintenance plants, there is an abundance of native flora in the area.

“People have stereotypes as to what are natives,” Busco said. “They think of succulents immediately, but actually there are very few succulents compared to other native plants.

“We have to do a lot more educating to start them off at square zero,” she said.

At the nursery, ringed by the chaparral-covered Verdugo Hills, customers can roam among seven shade houses on terraced land to inspect container plants grouped according to their specific type and needs. Propagation is carried out in a potting shed near areas where cross-pollination can occur.

In addition to 85-year-old botanist-seedsman Ed Peterson, who scours the local woodlands and mountains for stock, foundation horticulturists also gather cuttings from private and public properties with permission. There are no regulations against selling native species, but they cannot be taken from the wild unless they are threatened by development.

A recent afternoon at the foundation was marked by a soft breeze and a steady but manageable stream of customers.

Up on Wildflower Hill, where the magnificent view of the Valley stretches to Woodland Hills, horticulturist Dennis Bryson surveys a still-lush rainbow of blooms.

“This is what it looks like after a weekend of over 100-degree heat compounded by a drought year,” he tells a woman who is taking Payne seed stock back to her native Holland. “In a wet year, this place is not to be believed.”

Bryson has a simple solution for switching to water-conserving gardens. “You just have to use your smarts. No one is saying you can’t have a turf lawn, but you can do things to mitigate the maintenance, like cutting down the area.”

As untamed nature determines growth cycles on foundation grounds, human nature is being handled by co-managers Busco and Baer, who report to the 12-member board of directors. The board includes a landscape architect, a horticultural consultant, an accountant and a specialist in toxic waste management.

Since membership has expanded and more plants and personnel are required, the foundation is considering major changes in fund-raising, said Baer. “We’ve been low key in the past, stemming from our understated tradition established by Mr. Payne,” said Busco, “but we want to change that. We’re breaking even, but need to be more aggressive without the hard sell.”

The foundation’s plan includes approaching large environmentally concerned corporations, according to board secretary Therese Thompson. Along those lines, members will attend their first retreat in June with a professional specializing in non-profit organizational fund-raising.

Meanwhile, back at the compound, customer Steve Robins is scouting container plants for his Studio City home.

Robins said that after he bought his house he planted drought-resistant digger pines in his front yard. “After five years they’re 17 feet tall and haven’t been watered, apart from rainfall.”

A teacher at the private Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Robins said drought-tolerant plants are being used there for landscaping.

Gloria Alcala, a longtime foundation employee, is ringing up sales, showing customers what their seeds will look like when they germinate and patiently answering questions and offering advice.

“Just stay as close to what will naturally grow close to home so you can enjoy your yard. You can have a formal garden, a wild garden, a meadow or whatever you want, and still remain drought tolerant.”