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Water-spare horticulture changes the greenery in some parts of US

By Richard F. BarrettSpecial to The Christian Monitor / June 5, 1981



While energy-conscious Americans insulate their homes and turn down the thermostat, a California-based movement is trying to "save energy" in the garden as well.

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Dennis White, director of the nonprofit Saratoga Horticultural Foundation in the foothills south of San Francisco Bay, sees "a whole new attitude of conservation planting, a momentum to change the public idea of what a beautiful garden looks like."

Asserts Mr. White: "State agencies and organizations such as ours across the country are trying to establish an appropriate horticulture. We have even had people from the Mideast, which has a similar climate, come here to see what we are doing."

Saving water is part of the plan. For example, homeowners in Tucson, Ariz., have cut their average daily water use from 200 gallons in 1977 to 140 gallons today.

Throughout the city people are letting their green lawns wither or have had them dug up, replacing them with cactus and vegetation that is indigenous to the region. Gene Cronk, the city water director, says: "It's a slow process. It will probably take a generation for people to apply it. But over time, people will change their attitudes."

The concept, however, goes far beyond saving water and the energy to pump it.

Back at Saratoga, Mr. White sits behind his desk and explains the added significance:

"Fertilizer is made from oil and gas, and what it is coming down to is whether you would rather fertilize your plants or drive your car."

The foundation which he directs has been at the front of the movement for almost 30 years, although the thinking behind it was somewhat different in the beginning when energy was plentiful and cheap.

In the 1930s the urge was to save money, which was hard to come by, rather than resources which at the time seemed inexhaustible.

Thus, it was the scarcity of funds that started the idea of appropriate horticulture on its way. One of the early farsighted pioneers was Ray D. Hartman, one of a small group of nurserymen specializing in California native trees and shrubs. By 1930 his catalog described more than 100 species.

Yet there was home to a lot of nostalgic immigrants from other parts of the country who treasured memories of the gardens they played in as children -- green lawns and towering elms.

In 1932 the CAlifornia division of highways hired a man named Dana Bowers who became concerned with control of erosion along the freshly cut hillsides as the state's road system burgeoned.

To keep winter from burying the new highways in landslides, Bowers set out trees and shrubs to lock the soil into place.

Toward the end of the decade there was a campaign to beautify streets in the San Francisco Bay area to make them attractive to visitors to the Golden GAte International Exposition, but it took an additional 10 years before planting along the highways for the same reason took root.

Meanwhile, the depression showed a need to base Bower's work on plants that accepted low-cost maintenance, which ruled out exotic species.

The highways people began to lean on Hartman, the native plant specialist, and others like him, for advice. Soon motorists were being exposed to groupings of wild imports from places with suitable climates, such as the hundreds of varieties of eucalypti from Australia.

Beautification of the highways began to achieve status with erosion control about 1950, the same time that the Bay ARea's tree-planting spree of the late 1930s was posing for cities and utilities the same problem that beset other parts of the country; that is, incompatibility between trees, utility lines, and sewer pipes. The needs of the highway builders and utilities led, in 1951, to establishment of the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation by Hartman with the help of acquaintances in finance, industry, and others.