In the Garden: Sustainability

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by Charles Kidder

A trip to California this past month brought sustainability, the current buzzword of ecology, agriculture, gardening, architecture, you-name-it, vividly to mind. Not that the Golden State is a paragon of this ethic, as Californians might have you believe. Rather, aside from the conspicuous recyclers and hybrid-drivers, the state struck me as an environmental train wreck, and made me proud of what we do in the East. But I did not come here (solely) to trash our friends on the Left Coast, and I do have some recommendations for gardens to visit if you’re out that way. But first, what is sustainability?

A friend recently said that sustainability had been overused to the point that it had lost much meaning, pretty much like the term “natural”. But without even resorting to formal dictionary definitions, we could probably agree that if something is sustainable, it will keep on going, or persist, with little or no outside influence. Consider the forests of the Blue Ridge. (Or if we lived in the Levant, we could “consider the lilies of the field.”) Without help or interference from man, these oak-hickory forests should be there for a long time. Of course, they are dependent on energy from outside—the sun—as are all of us. And sadly, man has brought in agents such as the gypsy moth, wooly adelgid, etc. that are changing the composition of the forest. But man does not have to harvest the wood or plant the acorns for things to keep on trucking along. And if we were living truly sustainable lifestyles, there would only be a few hundred people in Albemarle County, living on acorns and hickory nuts, along with deer, squirrel and other woodland critters.

But most of us don’t live that hunter-gatherer lifestyle. For the most part we are dependent on fossil fuels, and those can only support us for so long. (And recent events in West Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico reinforce the costs to the environment and to human life that these energy sources impose.) So, what can you do in your garden to reduce the use of fossil fuels in your landscape?

The number one gas guzzler on most properties is the lawn. Only a few fanatics like me are going to totally eliminate their lawns, but reducing their size will help. That means less area to mow, and less gasoline consumed. (Unless you are one of the few actually using your own person-powered push mower, that is.) And forget all those bags of weed-and-feed brews that the “green” industry persuades us our lawns must have. Leave grass clippings on your lawn and fertilize it with a thin layer of compost or manure. Don’t irrigate it. It may go brown, but it will recover.

As for the rest of your property, recent droughts in Albemarle County have made us aware that water is a precious resource. Unlike fossil fuels, it is renewable, or at least, we keep sending the same water around the planet again and again. But unless you are on your own well, county water has to be treated, pumped, etc. and that also requires fossil fuels. So, chose your plants wisely and water only when necessary. New plants require water at least weekly the first year or two, but after that, they should be on their own.

The subject of water brings us back to California, where it is often a scarce commodity and the subject of considerable contention. The most populous portions of the state annually receive 15-20 inches of precipitation, or only about a third to a half of what we get in a normal year, and this comes almost entirely from fall through early spring. During the long dry period, the grass on the hills turns brown, or “golden” as the natives romantically refer to it. To satisfy the needs of the country’s most populous state, water has to be brought in from hundreds of miles away, hardly fitting anyone’s definition of sustainability.

Fortunately, most of California had at least normal precipitation this winter, and the hills were green in early April. Not just green, but yellow with mustard flowers, as well as blue from the lupine and orange from the poppies. Even if you did not visit an established garden, a drive north from Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway, through Big Sur and on to Monterey, affords spectacular vistas and is well worth two or three days. Head a few miles inland and you reach the Salinas Valley, known as the Nation’s Salad Bowl. Reading the nickname is one thing; seeing mile after mile of lettuce, broccoli and strawberries is quite another, conjuring visions of John Steinbeck and Cesar Chavez. Makes you want to start your own vegetable garden as soon as you get home. Why should this stuff have to come from 3,000 miles away?

Water issues aside, several gardens in Southern California are worth visiting. The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden is located in the small city of Arcadia—no shepherds in sight, however—and its 127 acres contain not only an extensive collection of plants, but a historic Queen Anne cottage as well. A few miles west in San Marino, the Huntington Garden is home to one of the world’s finest collections of succulents, as well as a noted art museum.

About a hundred miles northwest of LA’s madness is the much more peaceful city of Santa Barbara, home to the Botanic Garden of the same name. Set in the foothills of the rugged Santa Inez Mountains, the SBBG is dedicated to California’s native flora. Just a year ago, 75 percent of the garden burned in a wildfire. Although dead trees are still visible, the effects of the fire were not entirely bad. The native vegetation is adapted to regular fires, and the blooms of the perennials and annuals were particularly stunning.

Just east of Santa Barbara in the town of Montecito is a quintessentially California garden. Lotusland was founded by Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish woman born in 1887 and described as an “opera singer and socialite.” Married six times, she used her husbands’ fortunes to fund her idiosyncratic garden vision. It appears to be quite the place, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to see it on this trip. If you’re interested, be advised that open hours are limited and visits are by advance reservation only.