Going Native in LA: An Interview

By: Scott Goldstein Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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The afternoon sun illuminates a Craftsman-style gate set within the perimeter stucco wall enclosing El Chaparro. Beyond the shade of a native oak (Quercus berberidifolia), California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) flower. Photographs by David Rago

The afternoon sun illuminates a Craftsman-style gate set within the perimeter stucco wall enclosing El Chaparro. Beyond the shade of a native oak (Quercus berberidifolia), California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) flower. Photographs by David Rago

On the itinerary for a tour of Los Angeles gardens accessible under the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, we noted a garden called “El Chaparro,” described as a garden of California native plants. Intrigued, we headed to the area just south of Hollywood, a neighborhood of beautiful Craftsman-era homes, well tended lawns, and gardens filled with colorful exotic plants. It seemed an odd neighborhood for a native plant garden, but there it was, tucked away behind a tall wall on a corner lot—and it was stunning. It was a surprisingly popular garden that day, and most of the visitors tended to linger in the meadow or sit in one of the rustic benches under the native oaks. In hopes of seeing all ten of the private gardens open to the public that day, we took only a few minutes to chat with Scott Goldstein about his garden. What follows is the result of an interview, by telephone and email, in which Scott explained the development of “El Chaparro.”

RGT: What prompted you to “go native”?

SG: A love for California’s flora and the longing to find untouched remnants of unspoiled nature. Though rare, examples of pre-European California can still be found. One notable example is on the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. Two visits in 1990 and 1991 to Santa Cruz Island inspired me to create El Chaparro.

A rustic wooden arbor and bench provide a vantage point from which to view the meadow at El Chaparro. A classic Craftsman-era lamp perches atop the wall, linking the garden to the owner’s beautifully restored home.

A rustic wooden arbor and bench provide a vantage point from which to view the meadow at El Chaparro. A classic Craftsman-era lamp perches atop the wall, linking the garden to the owner’s beautifully restored home.

The garden occupies a large corner lot enclosed by a tall wall. Was the enclosing wall already there when you began work on the garden?

No, the property was purchased from our neighbor, whose 1950 tract home was out of character with all the other pre-1930 homes (most were built between 1911-1920). The small dilapidated structure was razed—to the resounding approval of our neighbors. A wall was then constructed to contain the garden and provide us with privacy from the two streets.

Were you striving to replicate a particular plant community?

Yes. There are two main sections to the garden, the east half is basically a chaparral plant community designed around the idea of companion planting, which is to say that plants that grow together in the wild were planted together in the garden. The west half is a kind of fantasy meadow based on a ground cover of a southern California sedge called Laguna Mountain sedge (Carex ‘Laguna Mountain’). This grass-like plant stays green all year if watered once a week in the summer; it actually thrives with no supplemental water but will go dormant in summer. The meadow contains such natives as bunch grasses, blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium), cinquefoils (Potentilla), and buttercups (Ranunculus); some are companions and some not. I say it is a “fantasy” meadow because all of its components would never occur together naturally, and so it deviates from the overall concept of companion planting. I call the garden “El Chaparro,” which was the name given by the Spanish to the California scrub oaks, which reminded them of their home-land species of the same name. The scrub oak is the central focus of our garden.

You began with a demolition site—not exactly a typical native habitat. What was the process you followed in planting the garden?

Soil preparation was a bit of a challenge as the site was largely clay hardpan. Raised beds were created and the existing hard pan was tilled with lime. The fill soil was un-nitrified soil that came out of a site in Laguna. The company that provided the soil did everything they could to convince me to let them amend it, but I insisted that all I wanted was nutrient poor, average soil—just plain old native “dirt,” because California’s wild plants do not grow in amended soil. Extra nitrogen in any form will make natives grow unusually fast and then they will promptly fall over and die. They laughed about it all and laughed at me as well, but eventually let me have what I wanted. What was delivered was a simple sandy loam that drained exceptionally well—perfect for dry-soil natives.

The areas that were not raised posed a greater challenge. Prior to digging, I had tested the soil drainage by digging a one foot by one foot by one foot hole, filling it with water, covering the whole to prevent evaporation, and waiting twenty-four hours to see what kind of drainage I had. The results were dismaying: no water at all had drained from the hole. Since several tree sites were indicated in my design, large pits had to be dug. These were six feet deep and ten feet square, dug by mechanized equipment (a Bobcat). Drainage holes in the bottom of each pit were drilled by rigs fixed with ten-inch bits; the holes extended another six feet down. Later, these drilled holes were filled with crushed rock to permit rain water to be drained away from the bottom of each planting pit.

All the trees that I selected had three main characteristics:

  • They were growing in boxed forty-eight-inch to eighty-four-inch boxes. The large sizes were meant to counter the unfriendly hardpan soil environment and to provide a few mature plantings for this young site.
  • They were all wild trees, saved from bulldozers. None of the trees I wanted were grown commercially, so they had to be acquired from private lands that were undergoing extensive development resulting in hundreds of native trees being destroyed.
  • All species were hardpan penetrators. My research indicated that certain species were reasonably well adapted to severe hard pan conditions. These included some evergreen oaks, toyons, and foothill pines.
Silhouetted stalks of hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) can be seen below the spreading branches of an oak (Quercus berberidifolia); more sages can be seen in the background

Silhouetted stalks of hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) can be seen below the spreading branches of an oak (Quercus berberidifolia); more sages can be seen in the background

In the end, I chose a fully mature scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia), an Engelman oak (Quercus engelmannii), a foothill pine (Pinus sabiniana), and toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia). Later, I added an island oak (Quercus tomentella), from the Channel Islands, obtained in a fifteen-gallon container, and it’s actually performing quite well in the clay hardpan.

These trees form the basic structure of the garden and provide its main focus. The remaining plants (shrubs large and small, perennials, bulbs, and annuals) were all planted from one-gallon containers and were obtained from several nurseries in southern California that specialize in native plants. By and large, plants that are very content will throw seed, some of which germinates. A few plants in particular are notable for this: California fuchsia (Epilobium or Zauschneria), toyon, oaks (without deer and cattle to eat the seedlings, oaks are fairly aggressive seeders), and, of course, annuals. I did not start any plants from seed here, as this usually requires extensive preparations such as burning, planting with ash, long periods of storing seeds in the freezer, and careful weeding. In any case, it was not necessary because so much is available in containers.

What kind of irrigation system is incorporated in the garden and how often do you water?

The garden was installed with small-radius “micro” sprays plus some laser drip lines, but mostly micro sprays, which best imitate the results of rainfall. Drip is good for certain applications, but it is actually very un-nature-like. Truthfully, irrigation was only important for the first two years while plants were getting their roots down. The garden now passes the summer months with perhaps two irrigation cycles, one in July and one in late August or early September. For the remainder of the year, no irrigation is necessary if the annual winter rainfall is within the normal range for our area (about fifteen inches).

How much work does it take to maintain “El Chaparro?”

Actually, it is surprisingly low maintenance, with the exception of the meadow, which attracts hundreds of birds bringing non-native seeds with them. To deal with this, I maintain a regular, manual weeding program to control the exotic grasses and weeds. The secret is getting to the unwanted plants before they go to seed. This is the key maintenance program; there is nothing else of any significance.

When was the garden started?

The garden was ready for planting in the fall of 1994, but wasn’t fully planted until the fall of 1995.

Has everything been successful?

No. In the beginning, the mortality rate was quite high, perhaps as much as fifteen to twenty percent. My strategy was to replace the losses every fall until the garden was fully established, after which replacement plants would be few. I reached this goal in November of 2000 or after about five years. At first, when plants would die, I was crestfallen and I worried about them. But after a few years and after talking it over with other native plants people, I realized that establishing native gardens can be a challenge. The simple reason is that wild plants generally do not take well to container growth or, more specifically, to the process of starting their lives in containers and then being transplanted into the ground. Nature does not do this, so for many plants this process of container to ground is really a stretch.

Native sages (Salvia clevelandii and S. apiana) provide early summer color at El Chaparro

Native sages (Salvia clevelandii and S. apiana) provide early summer color at El Chaparro

Most of your neighbors have fairly conventional front gardens. What was their reaction to your garden of native plants?

Several are serious plants people and/or professional garden designers, so they are naturally supportive. Other are fascinated and have been inspired to experiment with some of what they’ve seen. There is, however, a noteworthy dissenter: a green-lawn, hose-it-yourself-every-day hard-liner, who refers with serious and extended animosity to our garden as a “swamp”—a curious insult for a dry-soil environment.

What pleasure does the garden give you and your family?

I guess one way of answering that is to say that the garden and its fragrance have a transporting effect: one’s imagination can drift to a California of bygone times or to some non-populated natural area. One gets a similar feeling when hiking in the mountains. Adults seem to find it meditative. Children find it magical. Once, I overheard an adult and a young girl, about four years old, discussing what was inside the wall. The adult insisted that it was a tennis court. The child calmly disagreed, stating in a way that only a child can conjure a serious thought: “No, no, it’s a secret garden. Yes, that’s what it is.”