For peace in the garden: Just let it be

Times Staff Writer

EIGHT years ago, I moved to a central Los Angeles neighborhood with enough ramshackle properties that it was a favorite filming ground for companies producing horror movies. Scarcely more than a block away was an abandoned house, replete with the remnants of what clearly had been a gracious garden. As I plunged into feverish fix-it-up mode in my own yard, for some reason, I kept being drawn around the corner to the spooky place. Its lesson was slow and haunting: that my highest aspiration as a gardener should be to master the art of neglect.

The abandoned garden occupied a pleasing crescent-shaped lot that extended around the side of a Craftsman home built in the fusion style of mausoleum meets antebellum. Local gossip varied about how the house came to sit empty for more than a year. Somebody died or moved. In his absence, cobwebs draped the arbor. The lawn died.

But in the dry shade of 2-century-old cedars, most of the other plants endured. The leaves of the box hedges darkened, then turned olive, gold and red, but plumped out after winter rain. The birds of paradise around a long-dry fountain furled their leaves under stress, but somehow the plants put up spiky displays of flowers that dribbled enough nectar to incite territorial disputes among the hummingbirds. The sum was a still, ghostly beauty.


In contrast, by electing to reseed my lawn around planting beds front and back, and heaping on lots of nitrogen rich amendments, I had assured rocketing growth. After the initial thrill of a sudden garden came a sobering reality: feeding and grooming it. This involved winter cover seeding of rye grass, truckloads of manure top dressing, three to four hours a week of watering, $40 a pop for weekly mowing, and moving overflowing green bins to the curb on Sunday evenings.

For years, it was alternately so labor-intensive and noisy that I didn’t bother with garden furniture. No time to sit down, no quiet among the block’s many mow-and-blow teams. If I wanted peace, I could go to the abandoned garden, which I found myself doing with surprising regularity until, after a year or so, the property was sold.

The new owners promptly fixed the fountain, restored the arbor, ripped out the birds of paradise, installed irrigation and replaced the turf. Except for ripping out the birds of paradise and adding two life-sized plastic cows to the garden, they didn’t do anything that I wouldn’t have done and did much that I wish I had. It took years to understand a lingering sense of loss.

The reclamation was, I now realize, the end of the only place in the neighborhood where the tempo of the garden was dictated by nature, not man. By turning on the water, the new owners had taken the garden’s often ragged and bittersweet progress through the four seasons and replaced it with manicured beauty and the deep greens of suspended spring.

MY maternal grandfather was the last one in my family who had the reflexive instinct to do a critical reckoning before breaking ground. He was a farmer, and before putting in a crop, his first step was always to calculate what it needed: How much water and amendments meant how much growth, meant how much yield, meant how much labor, meant how much fuel, meant how much cost, and so on.

In my feverish early start, it never occurred to me that the calculations might apply to my eighth of an acre parcel, and that my desired crop was serenity.

Looking back at old water and maintenance bills, I am stunned by the energy and money I put into a model that systematically undermined my goal. Instead of creating a haven where seasons progressed in swells from magnificent to melancholic, and where peace and privacy were assured, I had subjected myself to a labor-intensive regimen where I lacked sufficient affection for the result to even bother to execute it properly.

The Pomona nurseryman John Greenlee has thoughts about how I, and others like me, can avoid this mistake.

“The crux,” he says, “is that at the end of the day, as a gardening nation, as a culture, we have to learn about plants.”

Harsh but true. The problem, he thinks, is that people use them as decoration without considering their natural cycle. In the wild, plants are adapted not to stand still and look good, but to reproduce. In the wild, grass equipped to live here shoots up at a hint of water and grows fast in order to flower and set seed, which in a ballet with the wind, it casts off before dying. That cycle and thousands of ones like it by other plants is how nature displays its seasonal glory, provided that we allow this to happen.

It’s obvious to Greenlee, who has a degree in horticulture, and would have been obvious to my grandfather, that the first way we accelerate the pace for all the plants in our garden is with water. Our hoses and sprinkler systems give plants two options: grow or drown. The roots of a plant that enters dormancy while still being watered will rot out beneath it.

Plants in the gardens of Greater Los Angeles, it turns out, not only have to keep growing year round but also have to cope with amounts of water not found naturally in most of the wettest climates in the United States. According to Robert Muir, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, homeowners here, on average, put 50% to 60% of the water that they draw from the system on their gardens, and this equals 84 inches of rainfall every year. That’s a rate normal in the Amazon but more than five times the average here (15 inches), four times the norm for Honolulu, two times the typical rate for Seattle and one and a half times the precipitation in Miami.

Had someone put this to me when I first planted my garden, I might have secretly welcomed it. Constant growth is a good thing when you have a newly seeded dirt yard, or a chain link fence to conceal with 1-gallon shrubs. But one almost immediately encounters the dilemma made famous by pet shop sales of the pot-bellied pig. It keeps on growing after you wish that it would stop.

Grass that if left to its own devices would be waist high in a month requires weekly passes with mowers to be kept at 2 to 3 inches. A hedge capable of growing 2 feet a year will take two years before it has zoomed pass the legal maximum of 3 1/2 feet in a frontyard and four years before it’s exceeded the maximum in back gardens.

Mine is now a great deal higher in both places, and I am wondering if there is such a thing as an arborist with a jet pack and, while I’m wishing aloud, a silencer for his buzz saw?

In ushering in this rate of growth of lawn and hedge, I soon inherited the next direct penalty: noise. The mechanical power required to maintain our urban rain forest produces what must be the theme song of Los Angeles -- the 90-decibel roar of each of an estimated 4 1/2 million lawnmowers in the region, along with the 180-decibel accompaniment of string trimmers and leaf blowers.

In their wake come the dawn baritones and rumble of the sanitation trucks, which collect an average of 60 pounds of green waste from a single-family home each week. City of Los Angeles haulers collect 3 million to 4 million pounds of shrub and lawn clippings every day.

I discovered that my lawn of Bermuda grass, not a native, reproduces through root spread, and the roots can go a foot deep. I had been seeding, fertilizing and watering a nemesis. I took a pick ax to dig it out, one foot at a time. Eight years after busily laying in a treadmill garden, two years after conclusively having decided to get off of it, I am finally free of lawn, which by conservative estimate of the seeding, watering and mowing costs was a $17,000-plus mistake, not counting the hundreds of hours spent in a mortal contest with Bermuda grass.

My water bills tell the story. The bill for July 2000 was $91.71. This year, for the same period, it was $28.35. I take no fewer baths, do no less laundry. The reduction was entirely in the garden and directly related to lawn.

It has been a year since I paid a team to cut the stuff, and the savings have already paid for half of the new landscaping work.

IT takes an inner steel to let the garden go entirely dry. It also involves a learning curve to find out how to landscape with a palette of largely native and Mediterranean plants that are equipped to survive on 15 inches of rain. We’re all raised to love a sweep of lawn; it will take time to appreciate a scrubbier Western aesthetic. I’m lucky my neighbors are supportive.

The worst part of going dry is recovery. The 12-step program includes acknowledging that the L.A. County Department of Public Works estimates that 100 million gallons a day of dry-season irrigation water runoff are slowly poisoning the San Pedro and Santa Monica bays; that according to the California Air Resources Board, garden equipment alone in greater L.A. produces the same pollution as more than 780,000 cars; and that the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts Southern California as a leader in West Nile virus cases because of mosquitoes breeding in irrigation water puddles.

I do hope that if hypnotized, then asked why I am making the change, I might say that it is to safeguard public health and preserve the bays, water resources and air quality. I might even say that I did it for the immediate and fabulous savings of $200 a month in maintenance and water.

Yet I suspect my first response would be that I did it because I longed for the transcendent peace that I felt in the presence of the abandoned garden. It taught me that my hand is more potent when doing nothing than when gripping the end of a hose. Only through restraint do I have any hope of comfortably relaxing in my garden without fretting about the great undone, or correcting season after season of mounting mistakes.

It is a more distant hope that one day I might again experience the wonder that I felt in the presence of the abandoned garden, where the plants with the mettle to cut it here in Southern California were left to do their thing.



Natural solutions

One homeowner whose sprinklers flood into the gutter isn’t a problem, says Joyce Neal Amaro, the storm water public education coordinator for the city of Los Angeles. It’s the combined runoff from 10 million people that carries fertilizers, pesticides and street waste daily into the Pacific. Small changes will help, be it growing grass another inch before cutting, adjusting automated sprinklers locally and seasonally, composting at home or landscaping with California-friendly plants. The following agencies are among those that suggest additional solutions:

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: For the last four years it has developed programs with information about landscaping, irrigation upgrades, resource guides, grants and retailers of California-friendly plants. To learn how to adjust your sprinklers for your microclimate, soil type and planting scheme, go to the online calculator For general information,

City of Los Angeles: It will sponsor a compost bin sale and free workshops from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Griffith Park Composting Education Facility. Composting reduces the burden on landfills and creates high-quality soil amendments. It’s for L.A. residents only, so bring a drivers license and Department of Water and Power bill. For information, For information on getting free mulch made from yard trimmings, call Kurt Reschke, (818) 834-5128.

City of Santa Monica: It maintains two educational demonstration gardens, one conventional, the other equipped with rainwater trapping systems and planted with native (“heritage”) plants. During the last eight months, the Heritage Garden has required less than one-fourth of the maintenance labor, generated less than three-fifths of the green waste and used roughly one-tenth of the water. To see the gardens and to get full plant lists, go to 1718 and 1724 Pearl St. To view the experiment online, For information about education programs and grant opportunities related to sustainable gardening,

Los Angeles County: Smart Gardening program, (888) 253-2652 or

Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden: It runs classes on horticulture and garden design. For information, (626)-821-3222 or

Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants: It runs regular workshops for gardeners converting to drought-tolerant natives. For information, (818) 768-1802 or

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden: This Claremont garden has a native plant hotline to help gardeners create water-wise landscapes: (909) 624-0838 or e-mail

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: It has just expanded its GreenScapes outreach program to homeowners. For information,

-- Emily Green