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Seeds of Knowledge : It's a Concept: 25 Acres of Public Education on Conservation, Landscaping


Botanical gardens have traditionally been places where plants are collected and categorized--public spaces where people can walk among giant trees and exotic flowers. But few public gardens offer more in the way of practical gardening information than a spattering of horticulture workshops and plant shows. That may change in Orange County if plans proceed for a public garden in Irvine that would be educational as well as aesthetically interesting.

The Irvine Gardens Environmental Learning Center--a proposed 25-acre, $25-million garden adjacent to the Irvine Ranch Water District's reclamation plant near the San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh Reserve in Irvine--would be a garden dedicated to demonstrating how water, energy and other natural resources can be conserved while still creating attractive landscapes.

The project, conceived by the Irvine Ranch Water District board of directors, calls for a series of demonstration gardens appropriate for the average suburban yard, public landscapes such as median strips and a technology center using computers to help visitors design energy- and water-efficient landscapes and select appropriate plants.

The water district board expects to review in mid-November the feasibility study for the garden--including financing--and decide on whether to go ahead with the project. If final approval is given, it is anticipated the project would take two years to complete.

The master plan calls for the garden be a nonprofit, self-sustaining venture to be supported by private financing and public funding. The Irvine Ranch Water District owns most of the 25-acre site; seven acres would be donated by the Irvine Co. if the project proceeds. If approved, the district's anticipated role would be to build, maintain and operate the facility. Private funding for building materials, technology and plants would be sought. A nominal entrance fee would be charged to help defray maintenance costs.

The idea to create a teaching garden came from a drought-tolerant demonstration garden created at UC Riverside during the last drought. The garden, opened in 1989, drew visitors from throughout Southern California.

"People were coming from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego counties," said Tom Ash, the horticulturist and education specialist who designed the garden. "And not just the general public but landscape professionals as well, because it was the only place they could come and learn anything about resource-conserving landscapes--this little one-acre garden."

The water district's board of directors decided such a demonstration garden would be a valuable resource in this area and hired Ash to plan one.

In planning the garden, workshops were conducted with local government agencies, homeowner associations and other interest groups. The input from these groups was given to the design team that included landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, based in San Francisco; RJM Design Group in Mission Viejo; Wolff Lang, Christopher Architects of Rancho Cucamonga; Environmental Research Lab at the University of Arizona and the California Academy of Science in San Francisco.

Every portion of the Irvine garden would be planted to show energy and water efficiency as well as economic frugality. In general, water use in coastal urban areas is distributed with 40% for outdoors and 60% indoors. The ratio of outdoor consumption dramatically increases in hotter inland climates.

"We want a garden that will incorporate energy conservation with the economical value of proper landscaping," Ash said. "We'll also have information on how much it costs to put in each planting and the cost to maintain them. Our hope is that not only homeowners but municipalities and landscape professionals will use the garden."

The garden would be adjacent to the Irvine Ranch Water District's state-of-the-art reclamation plant, which processes 15 million gallons of water a day. Visitors to the garden could also tour the plant to see where their waste water goes and how it is treated before reuse. Among other things, the garden would demonstrate how water reuse can begin at home by rechanneling water instead of dumping all household waste water into the sewers.

The proposed garden would be divided into several sections, all blending into one another. Here is what planners envision:

Home Demonstration Gardens

Home demonstration gardens would be arranged like an actual neighborhood with a main street/ walkway and front and back yards. Each lot would be geared toward maximum conservation of water. Large, single-family lots and small condominium lots would be represented.

The demonstration gardens would emphasize three themes: water, climate control adjacent to structures and the economic impact of sound environmental practices.

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