The Dry Garden: At the new Grow Native Nursery, West L.A. finally gets its source for California plants
For many Southern Californians, switching from a conventional landscape to a native plant garden starts on the freeways.
The best nurseries can be a long drive away. Only in recent years have some native plant outposts crept into relatively central parts of Los Angeles. The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants runs the most fragrant stall at the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market, and in January Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden began selling California natives on Thursday afternoons at the Westwood Farmers Market.
This weekend marks Rancho’s expansion of that Westwood enterprise into a standing garden center in a dreamy sliver of West Los Angeles running from Constitution Avenue nearly to Sunset Boulevard. Depending on whom you ask, it’s 12 acres, 15 acres or even 25 acres. Whichever figure is right, it’s an enchanting site in a secluded vale sheltered by old stands of eucalyptus.
This would be big news if Rancho were going to operate the Grow Native Nursery in true Rancho-style, with the kind of expert staff and crack volunteers one encounters at its home grounds in Claremont. However, this new outlet is not that.
Rather, the region’s premier native botanic garden has struck a deal with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to take over management of the horticultural therapy program at its Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System's West L.A. center for recuperating servicemen and women. The new nursery’s first mission will be to serve veterans. Those veterans will then serve us shoppers.
If this is ringing familiar bells, it’s because this is the second iteration of that garden therapy program as quasi public market place. Chefs may remember it as a food-based garden run for years by Ida Cousino. Managing the site’s transformation into a native gardening center is Katarina Eriksson, a relatively new Rancho employee. If anyone can marshal amateurs to become capable ambassadors of botanic advice, she can. At a former job at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Eriksson turned volunteers at its herb garden into such knowledgeable docents that they ran what amounted to a plant clinic for visitors.
Clearly the expectation is that she will work that Huntington magic in Westwood. Met recently while leveling half an acre to prepare it as a sales ground, Eriksson looked tired but jazzed.
“It’s hard to sleep at night because I keep thinking of new things to do,” she said.
All around her, the meandering gardens are overgrown. Rhubarb and apricots are somehow fruiting in abandoned corners. There aren’t many natives already growing on the site, but Eriksson has discovered an old elderberry choked by ivy and says there is a spectacular old oak somewhere deep in the property.
As far as selling natives, she’s new to them herself and still learning their quirks. “I have to listen to the plants,” she said. That will take a big pair of ears. She was interviewed less than two weeks before opening day, as 10,000 native nursery specimens to be sold by Eriksson and the veterans were about to arrive from Rancho.
For the grand opening on Saturday, Rancho members will be admitted starting at 9 a.m. and the general public at 11 a.m. However, don’t get used to shopping there on weekends. When it settles into regular business, Grow Native Nursery plans to sell plants only on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The choice to remain closed when most people with jobs would have time to visit is rather like a chef deciding to work any hours but mealtimes, but a Rancho spokeswoman says organizers will revisit the opening times once they get a feel for the place and staff members have been trained.
In the meantime, the take-home point for gardeners is that, as of Saturday, the Westside will be served by a native plant movement long banished to the wilds of greater Los Angeles.
11011 Constitution Ave., next to UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium
-- Emily Green
Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays.
Photo: Katarina Eriksson on the future home of the Grow Native Nursery.
Credit: Emily Green