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The Dry Garden: Descanso Gardens overhaul
has water conservation at its core

May 21, 2010 | 12:06 pm
Food-Garden

Nowhere in the West is sustainable gardening a harder sell than in Southern California. Public gardens preach conservation, but their grounds are surrounded by turf. The message to visitors: Eastern-style, highly irrigated gardening is not just OK here, it’s the way it’s done.

And so, it is beyond refreshing, more like happy dance exciting, that Descanso Gardens has begun what will be a long-range overhaul in which water conservation is the central theme. The messaging will start with the landscaping.

A 237-page review, grandly titled a “Long Range Conceptual Plan,” outlines what will one day be a sweeping overhaul with a paean to water. “The structure of the garden plants, native and introduced, is informed by water. The Gardens’ cultural heritage and current concerns center on the need for and use of water. Therefore this Long Range Conceptual Plan was informed – and shaped – by water."

There will be a lot of fundraising to realize the plan drawn up by the Seattle-based Portico Group, the architecture firm whose design credits include the celebrated sustainability interpretive center, the Las Vegas Springs Preserve. But finally, after five years work poring over conservation possibilities, Descanso has a mission involving truly progressive goals, which include irrigation of its 150 acres with locally harvested water, capturing storm water with bioswales, generating enough solar power to take Descanso facilities off the electricity grid and composting all its own green waste.

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Rather than waiting for megabucks to drop into garden coffers in the toughest economy since the Depression, Descanso Executive Director David Brown is doing what can be done most affordably and to the greatest effect now. “We’re taking out lawn as fast as we can,” he said leaning against an oak on Descanso Drive. Two acres of sod that used to run along its entrance has already gone. The days of the eucalyptus and redwood trees that now border the parkway are numbered. Coming in their stead will be a largely native garden that will include toyon, coffee berries, sycamores, ironwood and sugar berries.

This only sounds like a landscape plan designed by a berry-loving Cedar Waxwing; the parkway planting scheme comes from Megan Fairleigh of the San Diego firm Go Native Landscape Design Studio. While using mostly natives, the new entrance garden will also employ Mediterranean plants such as olives and even the Eastern Redbud, whose cultivar ‘forest pansy’ Fairleigh says can survive on relatively little water while providing a startling purple counterpoint to the white bark of the native sycamores.

Some of the parkway replanting should be complete by June. This change alone, Brown estimates, should save 600,000 gallons of water a year. By contrast, the long-range plans anticipate water savings in the millions of gallons. Under Portico’s conceptual plan, the garden’s current annual use of almost 25 million gallons could be cut to roughly 19 million. These savings become much more meaningful when you consider that by better managing native water, the garden could eliminate its current draw of 9 million gallons a year of water expensively treated to potable standards, but then squandered on irrigation.

For Brown, the plan is to nurture the big dream while small dreams are realized on a daily basis. Change is already palpable. Beyond the parkway, just past the entrance, a former lawn is now a food garden crowded with parents and foraging children. Gratuitous turf is also steadily coming out in the rose garden.

But some of the most important changes, such as the transfer of the garden’s camellia collection out from under the oaks, will require big bucks and emotional acceptance. The problems here extend beyond dollar signs and digits. Descanso is famous for its mixed oak-camellia forests, an arrangement beloved by many, but one that garden staff have known for years is slowly killing the oaks, with marked attrition after windstorms. The problem: The irrigation needed by the exotic flowering shrubs rots the roots of the native trees.

“The tension between the camellias and the oaks perfectly captures the challenges faced by Descanso,” said Brown.

Until Brown arrived at Descanso five years ago and began looking for solutions, the arrangement pitted camellia lovers against native plant advocates. Now there is a cure on the horizon. Look at the contrasting schematics of the current planting and the future ideal in the Long Range Conceptual Plan (see both after the jump), and the camellias do appear to be migrating. Brown is committed to saving both plant communities, but to change the way that they are celebrated, placed and irrigated so that visitors who emulate the garden’s landscaping at home won’t be cultivating disaster.

“Think of the interpretive opportunities,” he said. “Descanso could be an object lesson in progress.”

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly.

Photos, from top: The new food garden at Descanso gardens was once a big, water-sucking lawn; David Brown, executive director of Descanso Gardens. Credit: Emily Green.

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Above: the existing layout of Descanso Gardens. Below, the long-range plan, where the Camellia forest is smaller and more contained. It is in the lower right, below the word "ESTATE."

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