With his wife, Dorothy, Don founded the SDHS in 1994 and drew upon decades of experience with leading other garden groups. A self-taught horticulturist, it was his idea for us to publish a book about trees that grow well here. Don worked for 2 years to take all the photos in Ornamental Trees for Mediterranean Climates.
Here is Don's autobiography about his background in nature and horticulture written in 2005…
California native and lifelong nature lover
I was born in Los Angeles and that’s where I lived most of my life. When I was growing up, Los Angeles was a paradise. Driving from West L.A. to Gardena there were miles of open grassland. It was a haven for the birds. I enjoyed the sound of the meadowlarks that nested on the ground. Curlews and other shore birds would nest in the fields closer to the ocean. One of my older friends used to go duck hunting in the marsh where LAX is now. The landscape was full of sand dunes covered with desert verbena just west of the airport; it was truly beautiful.
I remember driving east to Lake Arrowhead as a boy. In 1948 we could drive there faster on surface streets than we could today using the freeways. We would make our way on the Arroyo Seco, now known as the Pasadena Freeway, out to Foothill Boulevard, then Route 66, through Rancho Cucamonga, Azusa, and Fontana. There were miles of grape vineyards and citrus groves, with fruit stands every so often. It was always such a heady experience whenever the orange trees were in bloom, and I can still remember it to this day. When I was in the second grade we lived in Anaheim for a year. We had to drive through miles of orange orchards to get there. In those days they would announce the “dew point” on the radio every night. I remember during that winter they used smudge pots to ward off the frost.
Butterflies were abundant in the City of the Angels, and I collected caterpillars of the Monarch and Yellow Swallowtail butterflies. I would feed the caterpillars daily until they pupated. I was always so anxious to get home from school to witness their transformation into beautiful butterflies.
We would take the old Red Street Cars that traveled from Long Beach and Redondo Beach to the top of Lake Avenue in Pasadena. There, you could take a tram to the ruins of three hotels on Mount Lowe that had a magnificent view of the L.A. basin all the way to the ocean. The wealthy Easterners had spent their winters at those hotels. They were destroyed in a fire in 1938.
I worked as a gardener in high school and college until I joined the Navy in 1951. In 1955, after serving for four years, I went back to college and went to work in the aerospace industry, working first as a technical illustrator. Later I retired from the Northrop Corporation, with one of the projects I worked on being the B2 bomber. I did a lot of hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Los Angeles during this time. I remember reading about an ad from an 1896 L.A. newspaper stating that, "The San Gabriel River offered some of the best trout fishing in the state and the Creel Club was formed...” Unfortunately, the river today is just a trickle.
I have hiked in Little Santa Anita Canyon, which starts in Sierra Madre and travels to Mt. Wilson. This trail was established when they had used pack trains to carry the materials to build the Mt. Wilson observatory. About a mile out of Sierra Madre, the trail becomes quite shaded and there are remnants of the many cabins that were built and planted for weekend destinations. Back in the days before the automobile, people would spend their weekends hiking. Many exotic plants were introduced and still thrive today. If you take the hike, make sure you look for some Algerian Ivy, Naked Lady, Vinca major, Iris, and, in the stream beds, thousands of saplings of the common fig, to name a few. The last two miles of the trail is in chaparral.
In Big Santa Anita Canyon cabins remain in use today. If you follow this trail it will take you to Sturtevant Falls, where I have enjoyed many lunches breathing in its beauty. I have hiked to seven other waterfalls in these mountains, but none are more beautiful than Sturtevant Falls.
In 1961 I purchased my second home in Torrance. It rested on a sandy slope and I turned to a landscape architect to draw plans for the garden. From those plans I installed the garden. Inspired, I spent the next eight years taking every night course in and around Los Angeles, and joined multiple plant societies to gather knowledge. With a little time, everything grows.
In the 1960s my kids and I would spend our time visiting an abandoned gold mine (there were once hundreds of these in the San Gabriel Mountains) and other sights. One of the more exceptional places we hiked to was Mt. Baden-Powell, the second highest peak in Los Angeles County. It boasts a 2,000 year old pine tree (Pinus flexilis) and an exceptional view of the Antelope Valley.
I became one of the founding members of the South Coast Botanical Garden in Rolling Hills, and served on the board for ten years. At that time, this was the only botanical garden to be built on a landfill. The county gave us their expectations of the amount the trash would settle over time, but the settlement far exceeded their estimates. Odors from the decomposition of the trash, along with unexpected subsidence of the grounds, caused road and building abandonment, and the lake had to be drained three times for repairs. Happy to say, the garden just had its fortieth anniversary, but it is still experiencing settlement.
In 1963 I joined the Southern California Horticultural Society (SCHS) and I am still a member today. I served on their board for over 20 years, as the program chairman for two years, and as president for two years. During my years with the society we had many plant shows, sales, and field trips for the members. We honored people from Santa Barbara to San Diego for their contributions to horticulture. The SCHS was founded in 1937. The founding members were prominent plantsmen of the period, and included people like William Hertrich (who designed and installed the gardens of the Huntington Botanical Gardens), Walter Armacost (of Armacost & Roysten Orchids, a major orchid grower), and John Armstrong (of Armstrong Nurseries), to name a few.
Dorothy and I moved from Torrance to Vista in the fall of 1989, and I spent the first three years designing and building our garden. I then realized I needed to get out in the plant community and meet other gardeners. I volunteered as a design gardener at the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe in Vista and also at Quail Botanical Gardens (QBG) as curator of the stream and waterfall area. I served on the board of the QBG Foundation for one year and stepped down in September, 1994 to form the San Diego Horticultural Society (SDHS).
Seven of us met at Bill and Linda Teague’s house and initiated steps to form the SDHS, borrowing the by-laws from the SCHS and modifying them to meet our needs. Our first meeting was at QBG in September, 1994. We had no idea how many people would come to our initial meeting. We did a mailing from the Buena Creek Gardens customer list, thereby reaching dedicated horticulturists and enthusiastic gardeners. Amazingly, 89 people came and 44 joined at the first meeting! We grew to about 1200 members in the eight years I served as president.
In 1999 I began photographing trees for the SDHS book that was later titled Ornamental Trees of San Diego: Mediterranean Climate Trees for The Garden. The design and production of the book was done at my home, on a McIntosh computer. Steve Brigham, owner of Buena Creek Gardens, very ably provided the text. The book was published in November, 2003 and had sold over 4300 copies by January, 2005.
The last ten years have been very rewarding for me. I have met so many nice people, and as a result I have made so many friends within the SDHS. Let me end by saying the life of a gardener can be a lonely one, but when you have so many people to share it with, it is so grand.