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Kathy Puplava

First Balboa Park Horticulturist

The East Coast and my start in Gardening

As all of us are, I am a product of my era and my family. I was born in the mid-1950s in Daytona Beach, Florida to hardworking parents from the mid-West. My father was a first generation Greek-American; my mom was not Greek, but adopted the culture and the Greek Orthodox religion. My parents had a restaurant, as many immigrant Greeks do! Growing up, my brother and I both worked in the restaurant with our parents. I started out in the back peeling potatoes and washing dishes at about eight years old, and graduated to a waitress and cashier at 12 years old through high school. Growing up in Daytona Beach was fun because we only lived a few blocks from the ocean and our high school was just one block from the beach. The worst part for me, as a “local girl,” was the tourist seasons that included Spring Break, Motorcycle week and the Daytona 500, when the population in the town would swell and overflow. Even though the crowds were overwhelming, those weeks were very important to the local economy. My interest in plants started with my grandparents who lived in Indiana and always had a vegetable garden. They also had an earthworm box that they would raise fishing worms in. I was fascinated with adding kitchen scraps to the compost and checking the worms daily! Whenever I spent time in Indiana, I would follow my grandparents around the garden and help. I tried to plant a garden back in Florida but was disappointed when our sandy soil didn't produce the same quality vegetables as the rich, dark soil at my grandparents’ house. And then came the green movement of the 1970s, which corresponded to me heading to college. The first Earth Day was in 1970, and that decade was a time when growing tropical houseplants became a popular hobby. Even though I wasn’t able to grow a good vegetable garden in the sandy soil of Daytona Beach, growing tropical houseplants was easy in Florida! So that is the direction I took at the University of Florida. I received a great education in Gainesville, where I earned a BS of Agriculture, with an Ornamental Horticulture major. Cloning was just starting to be developed, and tissue culture was the cutting edge technology at the University of Florida. I was fortunate to have attended a school with such good professors and greenhouse facilities. My college jobs included greenhouse keeper in a research facility and a summer forestry program called YCC (Youth Conservation Corps). The YCC was modeled after the CCC program of the 1930s. A sad twist of fate brought me to California. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 50 years old. My mother married a man from San Diego and moved there, where my older brother was also stationed in the Navy. So I followed them out to the West Coast in 1979. Along the way, I spent three months traveling with my dog in a VW bus on an extended road trip exploring the southern U.S. It was a fun adventure and a bucket list item before I knew the definition of the term! The West Coast and my career in horticulture

In 1980, I was hired at the Wild Animal Park to work in the plant shop, and eventually became a plant propagator in the nursery. In 1985, I transferred to the San Diego Zoo. During this time I learned so much about African and Australian plants, conservation issues, and maintaining a public park. I loved working around the animals every day, and the dedicated keepers and gardeners inspired me. Even though I only worked there for a total of 8 years, I still maintain some very good friends from that time. In the 1980s, I was a founding member of a network group called Professional Women’s Horticulture and Landscape Association. PWHLA met once a month to share information and job leads. It was because of that group that I met Sue Fouquette, the Balboa Park Nursery Supervisor, who encouraged me to apply for the Balboa Park Horticulturist position. I was hired by the City of San Diego, Park & Recreation Department in 1988 as the first Balboa Park Horticulturist. 1988 was a big year because I also married my husband, Dan. Dan would rather ride a motorcycle than plant a garden, so although he won’t be mentioned much in this horticultural biography, his support for the last 29 years helped me accomplish all that I have. At Balboa Park, my first assignment was to do a tree inventory for the development of the Balboa Park Master Plan. It took me months to walk the entire park and to identify and map the trees. Computer systems were basic and cell phones uncommon. I used a Polaroid camera and a DOS program to catalog the trees. There was no internet to research plant ID, so I poured over giant reference books like Hortis Third and Tropica. Because planting records were sporadic, I depended on the memories of park staff including Sue Fouquette, Karl Schnizler, Gary Stromberg, and other long time employees and volunteers. This first effort was a quick inventory for the Master Plan. Then, in 1998, The San Diego Foundation funded a grant to conduct a Balboa Park Tree Survey to not only map, but also to catalog the trees and evaluate the health of the urban forest. As I spent my days mapping and measuring each tree for the Balboa Park Tree Survey, two things became clear. I became increasingly impressed with the horticulture experimentation and legacy that was still growing there for San Diego. It was an incredible treasure that seemed underappreciated. The second issue was that the Balboa Park forest was an aging monoculture, and we needed to develop a reforestation plan. The 1998 Tree Survey revealed that there were 15,271 trees (348 species) growing in Balboa Park. At the time, over 37% of the Park forest consisted of Eucalyptus, including the predominant species of 3,177 Sugar Gum Trees. The Sugar Gums, E. cladocalyx, were the tall eucalyptus skyline trees that framed the historic buildings. For about 140 years, Eucalyptus were fast growing, pest-free trees that were widely used in the California landscape. But in the mid–1980s pests and diseases started to infest the trees. The Balboa Park Reforestation Plan calls for eucalyptus to be replanted in fewer numbers, away from public sidewalks, and alternate species to be planted throughout the Park. The Balboa Park Forest Another serious issue unveiled during the tree survey was that the Park forest was aging out. Unlike New York City’s Central Park that was carved out of a native forest, Balboa Park had very few native trees when the land was set aside in 1868. Balboa Park was landscaped in great bursts of civic enthusiasm. Large quantities of trees were planted during community Arbor Day events, and again prior to the 1915 and the 1935 Expositions. Park Arborist Paul Sirois and I developed the Balboa Park Reforestation Plan, which recommended that 100-200 trees be planted each year to provide for a healthy age diversity. The number of plantings should be adjusted depending on how storm damage or construction impacted tree removals. As a landscape maintenance manager, it was important for me to walk through the Park on a regular basis and communicate with the gardeners. As I walked around Balboa Park, I would visualize how the landscape would look in the next few decades. Were we planting enough trees now so that the park visitors in 2030 could picnic under mature trees? At this time, I learned how to put on my 5 year, 10 year and 25 year glasses to “see” what the park landscape will look like in the future. I became less focused on lawns and flowerbeds and more on the trees. I also tried to become a voice for the cultural landscape. The Balboa Park trees (and landscape) do not have a community group to support them. They stand silently during city council discussions about the park budget and new construction. It became my mission to communicate the value of the landscape up and down the chain of command and to the public. I wasn't interested in developing new gardens for Balboa Park. It became my goal to provide more appreciation and interpretation of the existing 15 gardens and of the Park forest. That’s how the idea for the Trees and Gardens of Balboa Park book came about. Paul Sirois and I hoped that visitors would develop an appreciation of the Park by using the book as a field guide to locate and visit the trees and gardens. The San Diego Foundation provided the funds to publish the book in 2001, along with several other garden brochures for horticulture interpretation. Several times we worked towards having Balboa Park designated as an Accredited Botanic Garden by the American Association of Museums. The Park certainly has enough assets to qualify. The accreditation process got bogged down along the way, and it became somewhat complicated by the fact that it is a public park. We resolved that even though we did not have that official designation that we should behave as though we were a botanic garden, and by putting into place plant record keeping and maintenance standards, so that if the Park ever applied for the designation again, we would be that much closer. And, in fact, they were just good landscape maintenance standards. Balboa Park is maintained by dedicated city gardeners who work for modest wages, and yet many of them bypass promotions into other departments in order to spend their entire career caring for Balboa Park. It is only through the individual gardeners’ efforts (both City employees and dedicated volunteers) that the Park has thrived. As more and more families have moved to the downtown area, Balboa Park and all the urban parks have become even more important as a green retreat and open space. I had the honor of working in Balboa Park from 1988- 2005. During those 17 years, Dan and I had two children: Joe (22) and Danielle (18). In 2005, I retired early to care for my mother, who had terminal cancer. At the time, our children were 12 and 8 years old. After my mother passed away, I decided to become a full-time mom. In spite of planting thousands of trees in an incredibly fulfilling job, I felt like my most important life contribution would be to parent two healthy individuals who would be capable of making a positive impact on the world. A decade later, I still feel like it was the right decision, but I do miss the wonderful people and the beautiful Park. Life after retirement In addition to volunteering with my children’s schools and sports over the last ten years, I have continued to volunteer with several conservation groups, including City Beautiful of San Diego, The Friends of Balboa Park ( and most recently Eco-Life ( My Life Lessons and 2-cents worth opinions: It stills shocks me when I hear that there are people that have lived their entire life in San Diego but have never set foot inside the Botanical Building or visited the Inez Grant Memorial Rose Garden! 90% of the Balboa Park gardens are free, including the Botanical Building, which is open 6 days a week. Get out there people! For maps and details, visit When moving from the East to the West Coast, I had to learn all new plant materials. In addition, working at the Wild Animal Park required that I learn about African and Australian plants. There is always more to learn about plant science. No one can be an expert in every type of plant; it is a lifelong quest. Set your pride aside and ask questions! The founders of Balboa Park, George Marston, Kate Sessions, Samuel Parsons, Carleton Winslow, and Alfred Robinson, were not wimps, they had guts! Their vision and persistence resulted in one of the nations’ most outstanding parks and urban forest. I felt a deep sense of obligation to do the right thing for Balboa Park. In simpler terms, Kate and George haunted me! Unlike many other industries, people in working in horticulture are incredibly generous with their knowledge, resources and their plants. Always pronounce plant names with confidence. Show no hesitation and don’t blink… make the other guy think that THEY have been mispronouncing it all these years! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have a sense of humor and ask questions. No one knows everything about plants. After 40 years of working in this industry, I think I know a lot about a few plants, a little bit about a lot of plants, and very little about some plants! Do not become emotional about tree removals with a Certified Arborist inspection and recommendation. You cannot freeze a tree in time. Trees grow everyday until they start to die more every day. When they start to die more every day, they eventually break apart or fail; the process is called senescense. Propagate them and replant them. Be pro-active about responsible tree removals in public spaces because you could be saving someone’s life. My life lesson for 2015: Turning 60 isn't for wimps, get out and contribute to the world!

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