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

By , Special to The Christian Monitor

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.

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."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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.

The foundation bought six acres of land in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains with four main objectives in mind:

* To supply nurseries with California native plant.

* Tointroduce species from other Madeterranean climates.

* Toproduce trees which would give urban california the fall color which former Easterners missed.

* To develope street trees which would be compatible with urban artifacts.

A fifth purposes has been added in more recent times: to help with the revegetation of scarred areas.

As examples of this, the foundation is producing native plants which the Pacific Gas & Electric Company uses to heal the terrain around the geysers of northern California, where the company generates power with ground heat, and the reestablishment of a stand of buckwheat at Antioch Dunes near the bay.

The buckwheat, essential to the survival of a rare butterfly, was uprooted by a quarry operation.

The development of trees that are compatible with utility lines had only middling success and the foundation has realdoning a beautiful candidate, the autum gold ginkgo, which is lovely in the full but faile to catch on.

Inthe most othere resfects, however, the foundation has realized the hopes of its first director, Maunsell Van Rensselaer.

Mr. VAn Rensselaer set the foundation to work propagating trees by cloning, taking wood from handsome specimens and budding them to rootstock to produce trees with the same characteristics as the parent.

The foundation does not pollenizing. As Barrie Coate, the current horticultural director of the foundation, points out nature has been doing that in a random, uncontrolled way with bees and wind for eons producing an infinite variety within plant families from which to select outstanding specimens for vegetative propagation. Part of the job is going out to find them.

"Our accomplishments have made us worthy of imitation in helping to create a consciousness of our native plant environment," asserts Mr. White.

"Nature has adapted native plants to be environment," he adds. "So we searched them out. Now, across the country, whether it's the prairies or East Coast, we have this movement, this public consciousness of native plants. For example, in this state we have the California Native Plant Society which tries to see that native plants are replaced so that deer have something to eat and birds have places to nest.

"If you want an appropriate landscape, native plants are the first candidates.

"In California they have adapted to a long, rainless summer. so when you use them, water goes down. When you water you also encourage weeds."

Then he asks: "Can you imagine what it would cost to weed along highways? It would waste time and money."

On the other hand, Barrie Coate warns against simplistic answers.

"Energy and conservation are on our minds and native plants are part of that, " Mr. White reiterates.

"We went into the winds of California and selected pretty ones and brought them back and propagated them. Ninety percent of the native plants used in California landscaping came from here, including many varieties of ceanothus (wild lilac). We were leading the march and didn't know it until one day we realized we were out in front."

It may well be that California is in the vanguard of a movement that will give a new look to landscaping all over the country and, ultimately, other parts of the world as well.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...