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Making Ends Meet : The Guru of Gardening

March 07, 1991|KYLE RODERICK

It's a warm February morning, and George Patton, grower and landscaper, is zooming around his Sun Valley property like a comet. One minute he stuffs bags with fallen leaves; the next, he dashes past mulberry and carob trees to tend the vegetables growing in compost. Patton's deeply tanned head bobs like a furry hazelnut.

He turns his attention to some thriving bibb lettuce seedlings that he shows off to a visitor, then erects a trellis for scarlet runner beans. Finally, Patton seeks shade under a carob tree and munches on some fallen pods.

"Growing, seed saving and drought-tolerant landscaping have been my vocation and my lifestyle for the past 20 years," the L.A. native explains between nibbles. "Southern California has an ideal climate for edible landscaping, and it's easy to grow inexpensive food that can help feed a family in even the smallest back-yard garden."

As California faces its most severe drought in decades, and families try to adjust to lowered incomes brought on by recession, Patton is finding himself increasingly in demand. He's renowned in Southern California gardening circles for originating the KCRW radio show, "Gardening Naturally." He also helped introduce Tahitian squash to the United States and Europe in 1976. (He brought back seeds from Bora Bora, planted 1400 of them in 700 used Styrofoam coffee cups, which he kept on a friend's garage in the Hollywood Hills, and then grew the seedlings out in Lucerne Valley.) From 1979 through 1980, Patton was field supervisor at Metro Farms, which trained new gardeners and landscapers for Mayor Tom Bradley's Community Gardens CETA program. And since 1970, Patton has designed and cultivated diverse edible and drought-tolerant landscapes for more than 40 houses and estates in the hills and valleys of Los Angeles.

Though he's worked with the rich and those who garden mostly for the luxury of yielding, say, a perfect (and expensive) summer tomato, Patton sees home gardens as a partial solution for those trying to feed their families on a tight budget.

"California's agricultural authorities have projected that the drought crisis will raise produce prices," Patton says, "so it makes good economic and nutritional sense for people to start growing food for themselves and their families."

Patton's specialty is what he calls total ecological site planning. He's trained in Permaculture, the Australian drought-tolerant landscaping system, which aims to foster an independent ecosystem, rather than just creating a pretty garden.

"Some people are distressed with this drought and the changes that it will bring to their lives and gardens," Patton says. "But I see it as an opportunity to move away from expensive, water-intensive gardens and toward growing low-cost, drought-tolerant foods such as cylindra beets, Hopi Blue corn, tepary beans, Hopi orange lima beans and desert king watermelons."

In choosing the most economical foods to grow, Patton recommends first ruling out water-gobbling plants such as spinach, standard yellow corns, ordinary lettuce and carrots, and melons, except for the drought-tolerant, desert king watermelon.

"Now is the time," Patton says, "to plant warm-season, drought-tolerant vegetables and herbs--the Hopi corns, the beets, green peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, rosemary, thyme and sage. You know, contrary to popular belief, once their root systems are established, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant don't have to be watered every day. Especially if water-saving mulch is used, they can skip water for a day or two even in hot weather."

Patton, no relation to the World War II general, is a slender, elfin man whose spry body language as he talks make him seem a decade younger than his 48 years. He believes that as people limit water consumption during the drought, "we can still give sufficient water to the garden through the use of water-saving systems." Water-conserving mulches he suggests include newspapers and peat moss.

Other high-yielding, low-cost warm-season vegetables that Patton especially recommends include winter squash, which develops large fruit through the summer and fall and then forms a hard shell, which allows it to keep many months through winter. The tree collard, a perennial collard that lives for as long as 10 years and produces abundant amounts of greens, is another Patton favorite.

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