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South Coast Botanic Garden, Los Angeles


Where Gumbo Was #448

Gumbo thinks he was in Los Angeles. The more times he visits, the more confusing the area becomes, with its overlapping boundaries, official names, real estate names and more. Gertrude Stein once described the area as "Two hundred suburbs in search of a city."


You'll have to forgive Gumbo for being a little confused; the Garden says it's in Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Post Office says Palos Verdes Estates, Wikipedia calls it Palos Verdes Hills. But all of them appear to agree that it's an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County.

And, congratulations to George G and Professor Abe, who weren't fooled at all by the geographical confusion: they identified our mystery location.


And it was Los Angeles County that created the Garden, starting in 1961, by piling topsoil three feet deep over a five-year collection of household trash it had dumped there, largely filling in an open-pit diatomite mine that produced a million tons of the mineral between 1929 and 1956.


And it's the combination of the diatomite and the trash that makes this not only one of the most unusual botanic gardens anywhere, but also one of the hardest anywhere to maintain. Its topsoil is not all that deep, and much of the soil is diatomite, not the happiest medium for many plants.


And underneath it all the trash is constantly decomposing and producing methane and causing parts of the land to sink, often breaking off parts of the irrigation system. A quick glance at the photo below of the exit road gives you a clue; a few years ago it was a curved ramp; now its surface is twisted like an amusement park ride.


Partly because of the interests of its early creators and partly driven about what, besides native plants, could be grown and cared for well, South Coast has a specialty collection of plants from Australia, the Mediterranean and South Africa.


There's also an extensive collection of dry-weather plants—cactus and aloe, especially—nicely grouped together in a number of areas. And, of course, a timely warning.


I was especially charmed by the Children's Garden section with its fairy-tale scenes. I've left some more of the fairy-tale scenes in the slideshow; I wish they could all fit here!


Actually, I found the South Coast Botanic Garden purely by luck. I was driving south from a wide variety of places that have names (sometimes several) of their own but all lumped in most people's minds as 'Los Angeles,' on my way to Long Beach with a vague idea of seeing the Queen Mary in the harbor. I veered off the 110 Freeway to check a low tire; when I stopped, I was face-to-face with a sign directing me to the Garden. I know when I'm meant to follow orders.


How much of a miracle the garden is can be seen in a Los Angeles Times interview in 2004 with the Garden's superintendent, Tony Gonzalez, remembering the earliest days, when the topsoil had just been laid and the first plants were coming in.


In the beginning, Gonzalez was not certain that the garden would grow. “The diatomaceous earth was sucking out all the nutrients. We had to literally cultivate the soil with horse manure and shavings from wood chippers. It was challenging.”

The trash beneath the thin layer of topsoil posed an even tougher problem. “At one time the soil was getting cooked. It would be about 350 degrees -- you couldn’t even put your hand on the ground. Sometimes the ground would subside and sinkholes would cause a lot of damage.”

Gases would seep from fissures “and the chlorophyll would be sucked right out of plants’ leaves,” Gonzalez said. “You’d dig a hole to plant something and pull out old newspapers from the 1950s. Once I dug up a rusty set of box springs from an old bed.”


Eventually, the county paid for a recycling system system to capture the methane and reduce temperatures. A lake and wilderness areas were added as part of that work. The Garden's visitor center, incidentally, sits on the only part of the garden that was solid land; everything else was mine land.


The garden has an active volunteer federation that helps with fund-raising and creating the garden's educational programs, but it once had an even more important role. In 2004, when a County gas tax was repealed, County officials targeted the South Coast garden for closing to reduce expenses. The volunteers organized a mass campaign that saved the garden. Thank goodness for that!


Today, the garden's 87 acres are home to more than 200,000 plants from 2,000 species. It's frequently visited by groups from other cities that are looking for help in recycling land for gardens.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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