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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Welcome to Coastal Southern California, a Gardening Paradise

By Jim Bishop.

Having moved from the Bay Area to Encinitas, I soon learned that owning a house was a lot more work than I had anticipated. I bought a house so I would have a place to garden, but did almost no gardening the first year. Even though the house was only 4 years old, it required a lot of work to make it my own. I spent most of my time and money on interior improvements but still tried to keep the outside looking OK.

Growing up in the South and Midwest, I'd never lived anywhere that required irrigation. To save money, I watered as little as possible, but without water the backyard Bermuda lawn soon turned brown but somehow survived. I bought a rotary manual push mower and string trimmer to keep my parched lawn looking nice.

All of the houses in my subdivision had been landscaped with the same handful of plants used over and over - most prominent where the Melaleuca quinquenervia planted in every front yard. The front of my house was framed by six of these monsters - 3 on one side and 3 on the far side of the driveway. I recognized this as the same invasive Australian tree found in the Florida Everglades responsible for drying up acres of land and ruining native habit. How could this swamp tree be also well suited for dry So Cal? These were odd looking trees-- why did they grow up and then hang down? And what was with the weird bark? Why didn't the leaves decompose? Still I liked the pale-yellow flowers each autumn. Over the years, many of my neighbors topped their melaleucas which only made the trunks grow thicker and more ghost-like.

The backyard of my first house. Well, at least it was clean slate!

Each house also had a Ficus benjamina planted next to the front entrance. I only knew this tree as a difficult house plant. Most of my neighbors over time wisely removed them. I would leave mine for too long and the roots eventually uplifted the walkway and concrete landing in front of the house and encased and eventually squashed the sprinkler manifold. The other heavily used landscape plants were Indian hawthorn, Rhaphiolepis indica, agapanthus, pittosporum, juniper, African iris and tons of iceplant and ivy. I guess many of my neighbors were, like me, from somewhere else since many had added odd plants that never do well in San Diego like Leeland Cypress, birch trees, Japanese maples even a very lost looking blue spruce. The more adventurous had added tree ferns, geraniums, roses, camellias, sycamores, hibiscus, Italian cypress, acacias, palms and eucalyptus.

I was very proud that my front landscaping did not include a lawn. However, it did include a Schefflera pueckleri planted right next to the house, a row of mildew-prone Nandina domestica along the front walkway, a misshapen black pine, hedged sprengeri, lots of trailing pink flowered ice plant and trailing yellow gazania. The previous gardener had trimmed all the trees and shrubs –including the African Iris-- into balls and lollipops. A dry streambed of very out of place black lava rock ran diagonally across the front yard.

I was unfamiliar with most of the plants and trees in San Diego and set out to learn more. I would visit public gardens, hotels, and nurseries on weekends. I subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens and Sunset magazine. I borrowed a coworker’s Sunset Western Garden book and learned I was in zone 24 - one of the most temperate zones in the U.S. On first read, I didn't like the lack of plant photographs, but eventually bought my own copy and read it from cover to cover. I joined the American Horticulture Society and mail ordered seed and plant catalogues. In spring, I visited the flower fields in Carlsbad. In the 80's they were twice as big, and continued further inland and the hills they grew on were much steeper. It was here that I saw my first South African bulbs flowers - freesia, ixia, watsonia, tritonia and sparaxis. I was slowly making a mental list of plants I wanted to grow...but still overwhelmed by the plants from so many places.

Carlsbad Flower Fields in mid-1980s

In August of 1984, my family met up in Washington State for a vacation. We took day trips to the cascades and Canada. We visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria and the public parks in Vancouver. It was here that I realized how much I missed gardening. Returning home, I started putting together a plan to landscape the backyard. I would make many mistakes...but got a few things right. My life of gardening by trial and error had begun.

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