Subscribe to Art + Ideas:
“Whenever I take people in there, I say—and it’s not a very large room—I say, ‘You’re now in the presence of millions and millions and millions of living beings. Fortunately, most of them are very small, and most of them are very dormant.’”
In the late 1920s, Susanna Bixby Bryant founded a garden devoted to preserving the diverse native plants of California. Well ahead of her time and against the advice of experts, she crafted a garden showcasing plants from across the state. Today, the California Botanic Garden, formerly known as the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden , is an 86-acre park in Claremont that highlights the climate zones and plant families of California. The garden is home to rare plants, a seed bank, and an herbarium (a research collection of plant specimens), which allow it to play a key role in preserving California native species as they face increased pressure due to climate change and habitat loss.
In this episode, host Brian Houck walks through the California Botanic Garden with Lucinda McDade, its executive director. They discuss the garden’s history, their favorite native plants, and some tips for growing them in your own garden.
More to explore:
California Botanic Garden
Brian Houck: Hello, I’m Brian Houck, head of Grounds and Gardens at the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series with artful gardeners in southern California.
Lucinda McDade: Whenever I take people in there, I say—and it’s not a very large room—I say, “You’re now in the presence of millions and millions and millions of living beings. Fortunately, most of them are very small, and most of them are very dormant.”
Houk: In this episode, I speak with Lucinda McDade, executive director of the California Botanic Garden
In California, there are roughly 6,500 native plants. Many are found only in California. These plants are incredibly diverse, adapted to the wide range of climates and habitats, from the High Sierra to Death Valley, from the foggy forests in the north to chapparal and desert in the south. And conserving these diverse plants is increasingly important as we see the damaging impact of human encroachment and climate threats to the environment.
The California Botanic Garden in Claremont was ahead of its time in conserving native plants. Founded by the visionary Susanna Bixby Bryant in the 1920s, the garden now serves as a critical home to rare plants from across the state as well as a seed bank. Lucinda McDade oversees the garden. I recently got the chance to walk through it with her and nerd out about our favorite California native species.
Lucinda, it’s good to be here with you today.
McDade: It’s very good to have you hear. Always love to host people at our garden.
Houck: Your title is Executive Director of the California Botanic Garden. How long have you been in that role?
McDade: Very close to ten years. And I started as Interim Executive Director and then became Executive Director. As I joke, the trustees asked me to lose the interim part of the title about six months after I became Interim Executive Director. But I have been at the garden since 2006. I came as Director of Research.
Houck: We just walked through the front entrance of the California Botanic Garden. Can you tell us a little bit about what we walked into?
McDade: We call this the California Welcome Garden. And we redid it just a very short time ago. Interestingly enough, when we were summoning our courage to reopen, after being closed completely for—what—two months, owing to COVID, we realized that this part of our garden was the narrowest part, and it’s the part that everybody walks through.
McDade: We have an eighty-six-acre, big, funnel-shaped area, right? And then this little, skinny neck that we were putting everybody through. And so we widened it and we improved it and we replanted it. It had been planted to desert. There were a lotta spiky things right up by the trail, and we didn’t think it was all— the world’s most friendly welcoming.
So you’re in the California Welcome Garden. You are coming in. We love this because you have a beautiful view of the San Gabriel Mountains, snow-covered in the winter. Just spectacular. And then this leads to what we call our Southern California Gardens Areas, which are strung like jewels on a bead, out to a new area that we just finished, called the Forest Pavilion.
Houck: Alright. Well, let’s keep going. Alright, I’m gonna stop right here, ’cause we just passed this mahonia.
McDade: Uh-huh. Berberis now; they’re all berberis.
Houck: Oh, this shows my age. I don’t usually see a clump this large. This looks fantastic.
McDade: They do look good, don’t they? They are growing actively and they look very, very happy, yeah
Houck: But when I think of mahonia, I think of the Pacific Northwest.
Houck: I don’t think of Southern California.
McDade: Oh, we have lots of native berberis. Lots. In fact, one of the most spectacular is this one right here.
Houck: We passed it without noticing it?
McDade: This is a berberis.
McDade: Yeah. Yeah, you’ll convince yourself that it is when you touch a leaf.
Houck: It’s— Yes, it’s…
Houck: …sufficiently pokey and prickly and—
McDade: Yeah, yeah, pokey, yeah. This is berberis navinii, which is actually an endangered species. And there’s hardly any in the wild. We had a project; one of our staff crawled all over Southern California looking for individuals of this thing that were reported to exist. And found quite a few of them, but not really very many.
Here in our garden, it plants itself. Or rather, birds plant it, ’cause they’re bird-dispersed. It’s interesting.
Houck: I know this plant, but I’ve never seen one this large.
McDade: They’re huge. They are kind of obscenely large here. It’s a little frightening.
The California flora is absolutely amazing because there’s just a number of genera, like berberis, that absolutely go crazy here and make bazillions— dozens and dozens of species. Manzanitas, there’s—what—sixty or seventies species of manzanita in California. I don’t know how many berberis there are, but there’s quite a few.
On the other hand, that plant right behind you, right there with that interpretive sign in front of it, that’s red shanks…
McDade: …which is related to our chamise. The genus of that is adenostoma, and there’s only two.
McDade: Two. In the whole state. Why didn’t that thing go crazy?
Houck: We have a lot of this in the Santa Monica Mountains, by the Getty Center.
Houck: And it’s amazing.
McDade: They’re a beautiful plant.
Houck: The shaggy red bark is fantastic. And they have lasted through our fires.
McDade: Yeah. They’re fire-adapted, yeah.
Houck: Just went right over it and then stumps sprouted right through it.
McDade: Yeah, they’re fire-adapted. There’s two approaches to surviving fires, when you’re a plant like that. One is to stump sprout. Basically, the above-ground parts get burned, but then it comes right back great, ’cause it’s got a mature root system that’s already in touch with all that it needs from the ground. Or you— by seeds. So some disperse their seeds in association with fires, and grow back from that.
Houck: You said a technical word a little earlier, genera.
McDade: Uh-oh. Genera.
Houck: Alright. So for those folks who may be listening and not clue into that, we have genus and species to make the scientific name. So genera is—?
McDade: Plural from genus.
McDade: Yeah. Don’t say genuses. That causes the ears of scientists to be very painful.
Houck: I think I’ve done that, at one point.
McDade: Genera. It sounds so elegant. Oh, it’s a bunny. We have a lotta bunnies.
Houck: I’m also gonna back up to say if I was gonna start learning about Southern California plants, most people might be aware of the USDA zones. I know we don’t always use that in Southern California. In my understanding, the most popular sort of go to are the Sunset zones. But what would you recommend to somebody if they were trying to learn about California zones?
McDade: Yeah. So in California—and this is even up to the Bay Area—it’s not so much how far north you are, but how far inland you are. We’re only—what—fifty miles inland from the coast here, and still, our winters are much colder and our summers are much hotter than right by the coast. And that’s the same if you go up to San Francisco and go fifty miles inland; the winters are much colder and the summers are much hotter. But San Francisco has a very moderate climate, right?
And also elevation, of course, because we have a wonderful state that’s full of mountains.
You know, the tool that we are recommending more and more to people for what they should plant in their area is called Calscape. It’s a digital tool that is made available to us by the California Native Plant Society. You can put in your zip code and it will sort of generate a list of suggested plants for you. And a little bit more information, and you can refine the list quite well. So.
Houck: Thank you for that.
McDade: Yeah, you bet.
Houck: Your name used to be the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.
Houck: And you’ve changed your name to the California Botanic Garden. Can you tell me how that happened and why that happened?
McDade: Absolutely. So we were called Rancho Santa Ana, because we were founded on the ranch of Susanna Bixby Bryant’s family, which was in Orange County, but not in Santa Ana. It was near Yorba Linda.
We were there in Orange County, near Yorba Linda, until the late forties. In the— in the forties, a couple of terrible things happened. One is that there was a horrible Santa Ana-driven fire that burned a huge part of the garden and killed a lot of the plants. So that must’ve been devastating to deal with.
McDade: And then Susanna died unexpectedly in, I think, 1947. She wasn’t that old. She wasn’t understood to be in poor health. She had taken a trip up to Santa Barbara and she never went home. And so all of a sudden, the founding sort of central organizing principle for the garden was gone.
She had just, though, hired a person named Philip Munz, who had been at Pomona College, and who had gone back east to Cornell. She had hired him from Cornell, to come out and be her first Scientific Director. She had basically been functioning more or less as Scientific Director, as Director, for the twenty-five years to that date.
Houck: Munz is a famous name…
Houck: …in the world of horticulture.
McDade: So Munz had been at Pomona. He knew about the Claremont area, he knew that there was a consortium of academic institutions developing here, and Munz was convinced that the garden would be better off here.
I started with that part of the fire. To me, I can’t imagine anything more daunting than moving this garden anywhere, you know?
Houck: I know.
McDade: So how did they get the courage to do it? And I actually think that fire, given that they’d been through already that devastating fire and had to deal with that much of a recovery, you know, maybe it made them feel like, “Well, we did that, so we can probably do this
And so then for the next— Until 2020—so for seventy years—we were Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, in Claremont.
You all are Southern Californians. You are well aware that Santa Ana is a place. It’s a real place. We are not there. We actually never were there. Also, how many Rancho Santa Somethings are there in Southern California? We would get called Rancho Santa Anita, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho San Antonio. You know, just on and on and on, all kinds’a things.
The other aspect of it is that it didn’t tell people anything about who we are and what we do.
We also had people who thought they were coming to a ranch, little kids saying, “Grandma, where’s the horses? Isn’t this a ranch?”
Houck: It sounds like Susanna Bixby Bryant was ahead of her time.
McDade: Absolutely. The woman was prescient. How did somebody realize, in the late twenties, that the native plants of California were under duress? You know, how did she know that? She was amazing.
Houck: We need a few more of her still in today’s world.
McDade: We need a few more of her, yeah. And in 1934, she directed us to conserve the rarest and replenish their stock. It’s really a remarkably prescient statement, I think.
She was a amazingly determined woman. She was part of founding our herbarium. A herbarium is a scientific collection of plant specimens for study and advancing knowledge. She was right out there with other people in the garden, collecting plants and bringing them and starting the herbarium. We can easily pull Susanna Bixby Bryant specimens for you to see. It means a lot to various of her family members, for example, to see those specimens that she was part of collecting.
She was also absolutely clear that she wanted a botanical library of research quality.
Houck: I didn’t realize we owed her such a debt of gratitude.
McDade: Yeah, I have a—
Houck: For all of the work she has done.
McDade: I have her picture right above my desk. She stares at me every day, so—She’s checking on me.
Houck: So you had mentioned that Susanna Bixby Bryant was prescient in sort of her California landscape preservation focus. And I don’t know that I’m saying that exactly right, but could you maybe tell us what was going on in her mind?
McDade: I’m not sure I can tell you what was going on in Susanna’s mind, but I can tell you that when she had this idea to found a garden that would be devoted uniquely and only to California native plants, she consulted a huge number of people all across North America. She consulted people at Berkeley, she consulted people at Harvard. She consulted with Jepson, who’s, like, the father of the California flora and as I understand it, they unanimously told her that it couldn’t be done. That what she wanted to do couldn’t, shouldn’t be done; it wouldn’t work; she couldn’t pull together plants from across the state in one place.
Furthermore, she had the very, I think at that time, very novel idea that part of the garden should be planted to be plant communities, the plants with which…
Houck: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
McDade: …the plants occur in nature. And you know, you’ve been to European gardens where they have the roses, and then they have the crassulaceae, and then they have the— They’re kind of organized taxonomically.
Houck: Correct. Which is how the scientific naming sort of came through.
McDade: That’s right, yeah.
Houck: So that was a natural extension of what was done before.
McDade: That’s how Linnaeus’s garden is organized. And so they sort of wanted her to do something like that. And she’s like, “No. Not doing that.” And so we have this great quote from her that— She must’ve written or said this sometime in the mid-twenties, just as she was really getting going. She said, “And now, having listened to all of this very sage advice, in the traditional female manner, I am going to do exactly what I intended to do from the beginning.”
Houck: It’s brilliant.
McDade: It’s just— It’s absolutely terrific, yeah. So yeah, she went ahead and basically did it.
Houck: Well, it’s such common sense.
Houck: I mean, it’s so surprising now, that that seems novel or revolutionary, because that is such the right approach that we’re doing now.
Houck: It makes such sense.
McDade: Yeah. Exactly, yeah.
As I said, we’re the largest garden in the world devoted to California native plants. We have the entire state as our purview. Susanna directed us to grow as many plants of the State of California as we could on our site in Southern California, and that’s obviously a work in progress, to understand which those are. We also are still exploring our site here. We actually have kind of a complicated and interesting site related to that, which is Indian Hill.
That’s actually Indian Hill Mesa. It’s a giant clay lens, stranded lens from the San Gabriels. So this used to be connected to the San Gabriels, and everything else washed away but that giant chunk of clay.
Houck: I didn’t know that’s where the name came from.
McDade: Yeah. That’s where the name came from.
Houck: So we have a north-south-running giant chunk of clay, which is a different soil type.
McDade: Yeah. It’s a different soil type, greater water-holding capacity than under here, which is cobble, basically.
Houck: So that gives you the opportunity for microclimates that other people don’t have.
McDade: Exactly. You get it right away.
Houck: That’s wonderful. I feel like a lightbulb just went off.
McDade: Right. That way’s east; that way’s west. So if you’re here on a hot summer afternoon, where do you wanna be? You wanna be right here, as the shade comes over and this area gets into the shade first. And we also get cold air drainage off of Indian Hill, which is a bizarre phenomenon, but it absolutely happens, even in the summer. If you walk down one of our ramps, you can feel your feet getting cooler as you come down in the late afternoon.
Houck: So it just retains that much moisture…
McDade: Some— Yeah, exactly.
Houck: …and it’s that evaporative cooling possibly happens.
McDade: Yeah, yeah. Of course in the winter, it’s freezing when you get to the bottom and you wish you’d brought your hat and gloves, but—
Yeah, so it’s a very interesting site to work with. We don’t know why, but actually, a not-so-well-kept secret is that our predecessors planted it wrong. We run to the north, basically south to north. And they decided, “Well, we’ll put Southern California in the south and Northern California in the north.” But the nicest part of our garden for people and plants is this southern part, east of Indian Hill Mesa. So they put the desert here, which doesn’t belong here.
Houck: Got it.
McDade: And eventually, we’ll get that fixed, but it will take a while.
Houck: I know I really appreciate you claiming the state. I mean, that is your mission. That is what you’re doing. So how do you do that? So how do you preserve the plants of the state, conserve them—I see the plants here in the garden, but you have other ways to do that.
McDade: Yes. We absolutely do. So first of all, I want to make sure you’re aware that you’re in a garden that also happens to be a living collection. So each one of these plants—except the weeds, as I say—was collected in the wild. We know where it came from and we have a very detailed database that tracks it. And if we walk up to some of them and I get in the right corner of a shrub, we can find the tag.
They’re all mapped. They are all part of a database, and we have really detailed knowledge of where— This one right here, this one that we lost in the windstorm, the seeds were collected at Torrey Pines, and it was planted in 1950.
Houck: This was a torrey pine?
McDade: This was a torrey pine. Yeah. The other thing that’s interesting is that the torrey pines that we plant here grow tall and straight and magnificent, and look nothing like the torrey pines at Torrey Pines State Park, where of course, they’re in the howling wind and sea spray and all of that.
So we preserve them by growing them from wild-collected seeds or cuttings here in the garden. But we are the California seedbank. So there’s a little building right over there that has 80% of the seeds of California native plants that are in seedbanks anywhere. And they’re right over there.
Houck: So the seeds are held to have a storage of them. And I’m assuming they’re refrigerated somehow.
McDade: They’re frozen.
Houck: They’re frozen.
Houck: Just from my laymen’s perspective, you could unfreeze them and start them wherever you needed to in the future, in a hospitable place.
McDade: Exactly. That’s right. Yeah.
When you make a seedbank that’s for— a collection that’s for conservation purposes, you don’t just walk up to that tree and grab fifty seeds off of it. Instead, my joke or my metaphor to explain it to you is if we’re gonna preserve humans, you know, which of us do you want? And obviously, you don’t want just one of us; you want a sample of humans, ’cause you want our genetic diversity and our adaptability to different climates and et cetera to be represented in your little capsule of humans that you’re gonna save. Same with plants.
We have every reason to think that plants in nature are genetically diverse. The one that’s over there is different genetically from the one that’s over there. And so you wanna capture that genetic diversity.
So we have teams. Probably have a team out in the field right this minute, making a conservation seed collection of something probably over in the desert, because you know they have had such wonderful monsoonal rains this year that the deserts are working out great for us, for late summer seedbanking.
And what they do is they survey an area. They say, “Okay, it looks like we’re in this area, and it’s maybe, you know, a hundred meters, 300 feet by, you know, whatever. And the plants are pretty dense. And so what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna walk through it and stop every, you know, ten paces and collect seeds off of that plant.”
And then you keep those seeds separate from the seeds of the next one that you collect. So it’s extremely painstaking. We call it collecting along maternal lines, ’cause the plant that made those seeds is the mother of those seeds. So that’s maternal line one; your next one that you stop at is maternal line two, et cetera.
So then you get back and you have to clean those seeds very carefully. Seeds, in general, have very strong dormancy mechanisms, and they will freeze wonderfully, and then emerge from the freezer and grow just fine. But if you put them in there with junk around them, like pulpy fruit or something, that stuff rots. And when it rots, it takes the seed with it. So it kills the seed. So you’ve gotta clean. And so our people spend hours meticulously pulling the stuff away from the seeds.
Houck: I’m imagining an army of volunteers doing this.
McDade: We have quite a few volunteers. We also have interns. We have seasonal people, ’cause it doesn’t necessarily happen all year round.
McDade: The seedbank is wonderful. Whenever I take people in there, I say—and it’s not a very large room—I say, “You’re now in the presence of millions and millions and millions of living beings. Fortunately, most of them are very small, and most of them are very dormant.” So they’re just in their envelopes or their little plastic jars or whatever, in their— in their giant freezers. And they’re just giant domestic freezers, minus twenty.
Houck: I’m gonna have to, like, reserve that image for moments of reflection, ’cause that’s a little overpowering.
McDade: Yeah. It is, yeah. But I can, you know, take out one seed container, and you look in there and see how many there are, you’ll know that I’m right. Millions and millions.
Houck: Well, and they were all cleaned to put in there…
McDade: And all cleaned, yeah.
Houck: …so that’s a— that’s a huge undertaking.
McDade: It’s a huge amount’a work. And by the way, after you get ’em all cleaned, one of the things that you need to do is to do a germination trial, ’cause you don’t want— if they’re dead, you wanna know sooner rather than later, right? So you do a germination trial, and then you know what proportion were viable when you put it storage.
Houck: But also, some technical work is involved with that because if the freezing is what breaks the dormancy, then you have to break the dormancy ahead of time to do your viability trial.
McDade: That’s right, you have to do— Yeah, exactly, yeah. And you wouldn’t believe the implements that the seedbank has for breaking dormancy.
Houck: Well, you’re burning things—
McDade: Toe clippers, liquid smoke. We got a message the other day from the nursery guy saying that “We’re going to be smoking some romneya coulteri, seeds, ’cause they need a smoke exposure. And so if you smell smoke, don’t worry.”
Houck: Right, we have to do the same thing.
Houck: Like, you know, “We’re doing a fire extinguisher test, so when you see black smoke, please don’t call 911 today.”
McDade: Don’t— Please don’t call 911. I let the field station over next to us that’s associated with the colleges know, as well, ’cause I don’t want them calling 911 either, so—
Houck: Right. So for those people who don’t know romneya coulteri, that’s the matilija poppy, the—
McDade: The matilija poppy, which is our logo.
Houck: Right, the fried-egg plant, the big, white—
McDade: Fried-egg plant, yeah. Largest flower in California.
Houck: Which is fantastic. And we have it on our slopes at Getty Center, and I wouldn’t mind having more of it.
McDade: Yeah. It’s a great plant. Especially when it’s in flower. We can’t keep it in the nursery; everybody wants one.
Well, you know, they spread terrifically…
Houck: Yes, yes.
McDade: …and so you have to be— You know, it’s like getting a Great Dane puppy. You know, you have to be aware that it’s going to get to be a very large creature. And so your romneya, your matilija poppy— Which, by the way, is a Chumash word…
Houck: Oh, matilija is?
McDade: …not a— not a Spanish word.
Houck: Am I saying it correctly?
McDade: Matilija, yeah.
Houck: Lucinda, what is this here on our right?
McDade: This is an example of one of our garden areas that we’ve renovated very recently. And this water feature— I joke we used to grow a lotta water here. This used to be kind of a fake waterfall that came down, and leaked like mad. And we don’t think that’s really appropriate, for us to model that kind of water feature in Southern California anymore. So this is completely recirculating. It sits on a big sort of pan, where there’s a reservoir of water.
McDade: And it has the sort of like a toilet float in it, so that if it evaporates and needs more water it comes on and runs a little more water into it. But it’s basically recirculating.
Everybody loves these. We had red-tailed hawks that nested up at the top of the hill, in a— in an oak tree. And they controlled this thing while they were— while they were learning to fly and getting big and ornery. And they would just sit on top of that, drinking water and shrieking and scaring everybody else away, but—
Houck: Well, okay. So we have birds sort of getting some water.
McDade: Oh, there we go.
Houck: And we have sort of some bees going around. So as the water’s skimming over the rock, it’s just the right sort of film size of water that the bee can drink out of it.
Houck: I know this from experience at Getty, because we have a sculpture that, when it has water in it, has the same kind of water sheeting over it.
Houck: And the bees say, ‘Thank you very much.’
McDade: The bees love that.
Houck: [inaudible] prefer to stay in that area.
McDade: Mm-hm. And then hummingbirds come. And what they do is they just— they hover, and then they stick their bill right into the sheeting water and get a drink, and back up and process that and stick their bill back in, then back up and process that.
All three species of squirrels that we have will come to it. Often at the end of the day, if you sit on a bench here towards the end of the day, you get to see that.
Houck: So this is the watering hole.
McDade: This is a watering hole, yes. Yeah, yeah.
Aren’t these things spectacular? These washingtonias, our native fan palm here in California.
Houck: So you’ve left the skirt all the way to the bottom, which you don’t often see.
McDade: Yeah, we let them do what they wanna do, the palms. And they do periodically lose a trunk of their skirt. Something breaks loose up in there and disrupts the balance, and then they [makes a noise].
Houck: Sort of tumble down.
McDade: A bunch come down, yeah.
Houck: There’s twenty-plus in this sort of grove of them, and they’re all sort of spaced apart. So this looks to me like sort of a classic oasis.
McDade: Yeah, that’s what it’s designed to do, yeah.
And we have owls that nest in there. Many days, if you look in just the right place, you can see an owl nesting in there. Or you can find an owl pellet.
Houck: You touched on something about how you let the washingtonia fan palms do what they’re supposed to do.
The philosophy of pruning in this garden, what would that be? I mean, I think there’s value in letting plants grow as they would naturally, so we see their natural form. But I’m imagining you’re not always allowed to do that, and you probably have very specific rules on when and how you prune.
McDade: Yeah, we do, really. We try not to let them block the paths. And then there’s seasonality to it. Basically, when you prune, you cut a plant, you’re telling the rest of the plant that stays there that now is the time to grow. Because you’re what’s called releasing the lower buds on the plant by getting rid of the upper buds. And you don’t wanna do that at some times of the year.
The last thing you wanna do to a plant that’s trying to go dormant because it’s July and it’s not gonna rain or do anything for three or four more months is tell it to grow, ’cause growing requires water and, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So you just don’t wanna do that. So we time things pretty carefully, when you’re going to prune.
But also, you know, part of our mission, really, is to encourage people to take California native plants home. That’s why we run a grow-native nursery, which is seasonal, but is operating for about eight months of the year. And so we need to demonstrate, you know, that certain plants can be made to look, as opposed to unruly, ruly, if you will. They can be encouraged to look like they are in a well-kept garden, as opposed to a wild and crazy place.
Houck: Yeah, I mean, there is a different sort of design parameter around using some of these native plant materials than sort of a traditional landscape, where the ornamental hedge is in place or you’re expecting a green lawn. And you kinda have to take that aesthetic and throw it out the window and understand how big these plants are gonna get.
Houck: And the sizing—
McDade: That’s— We always say, “Read the label.” It says it’s gonna be six feet tall and six feet wide. It is. Believe it. Don’t plant it right next to something else that’s going to get six feet tall and six feet wide. I’m very guilty of overplanting. It’s called overplanting, planting too densely. You want instant gratification, right? So you just put ’em too close together.
Houck: I’m a gardener; I do that, too.
McDade: Yeah. The thing that convinced me to try to stop doing that is that what you end up generating is a lot of green waste. Which means you generate a lot for the trucks to cart off. I’m not happy contributing to that. I’d rather believe it, that it’s gonna be six feet by six feet.
Houck: But you do have to live with it for a while, where it may not be the size or the aesthetic you were expecting.
McDade: Yeah, you do. But you can plant some other things that will give you more instant gratification, like annuals. You know, we’re gonna be selling California poppies in little four-inch pots, I think, and you can plant a bunch of those. And by the time they’re going to seed and kind of going away, your bigger plant’s gonna be established nicely.
McDade: So that’s what we recommend is think of it as waves of time.
Houck: Yeah. So if I want poppies in my yard, when do I put my seeds out?
McDade: Now would be fine, actually.
McDade: Before or as it’s raining. The only thing you don’t wanna do is put ’em out too late, after they’ve already missed the rain. Like, I wouldn’t do it any later than December.
Houck: Oh, okay.
McDade: ’Cause you want ’em to have a good chance to get wet and stay wet. And also, when the photoperiod is very short and the sun is low angle, any rain that does fall really benefits the plants, versus drying up immediately.
Houck: See, I thought I asked you what was a simple question, and I clearly got the scientist answer for that. Lucinda, to me, the unspoken part of your garden sort of is the educational and research aspect of it.
McDade: Exactly. It’s kind of what goes on behind the scenes in the big, white building on the hill up there, where we have the tenth largest herbarium in North America. Herbarium is a collection of specimens of plants preserved for study and documentation and teaching. And where we have our graduate program. We do offer both master’s degrees and PhD degrees. Our students are out there right this minute, advancing knowledge of California native plants.
And we have a lovely research library that’s a gem, a total jewel. But we also do a lot of community education. We do a lot of public education, informal sorts of things, both onsite and offsite. And we also do really fun things, like we’re doing yoga in the garden.
Houck: Lucinda, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a true pleasure to learn more about the garden and to walk around with you today.
McDade: You are very welcome. The pleasure has been all mine.
Houck: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
For new episodes of Art and Ideas, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening.
Brian Houck: Hello, I’m Brian Houck, head of Grounds and Gardens at the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series with artful gardeners in southern California.
Lucinda McDade: Whenever I take people in there, I say—and it’s not a very la...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824