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Garden Visit

Nurturing the High Life

Ed Sampson turned a ranch into a botanical dream, planting flora that thrive at a lofty 4,000 feet


TEHACHAPI--To see very different garden flora in Southern California, you don't have to go far; you simply have to go higher, 4,000 feet above sea level to this former ranching and railroad town. Here a garden, planted under majestic 400-year-old valley oaks, is filled with interesting plants that are difficult to grow closer to the coast, such as bright orange oriental poppies, leafy hostas, lilacs or aptly named beautybush. It's also home to heat-loving oaks, madronos, manzanitas and other native plants.

Mourning Cloak Ranch, named after one of California's most distinctive butterflies, is a 30-acre botanical garden surrounding the home of retired entomologist Ed Sampson, 74. He and his wife Marian, who died in 1998, bought the ranch in 1973 after a five-year search for a piece of property that could be a botanical garden. Not many gardeners have such ambitions. Today, the garden is open to visitors six days a week. About 9,000 toured it last year.

When the Sampsons first found the old cattle ranch nearly 30 years ago, it took them about five minutes to make up their minds to buy their dream property. Even though he was trained as an entomologist and ran his own agricultural chemical company in the Central Valley, Sampson had a horticultural background.

As a student in Arizona, he worked at nurseries and even landscaped Frank Lloyd Wright's innovative circular house designed for Wright's son. In the 1950s, he raised freesias and gerberas on rented land in Malibu for the cut flower market.

But he didn't know much about growing plants at an elevation of 4,000 feet. When he moved up here, the only place to buy plants was at the feed store and it didn't have much of a selection. So Sampson began collecting, propagating and growing plants himself. He figures that 80% of his garden plants were raised on the premises, from seed, cuttings or liners (tiny potted plants used as starts).

The Sampsons planted everything--the pines, blood-twig dogwoods and the grand English oaks--but not the huge old valley oaks (Quercus lobate), although Ed has been known to tease visitors by telling them that he planted those as well. The biggest of these oaks is 72 feet tall, 128 feet across.

Marian Sampson, who was not a gardener when they moved here, quickly became one. She used to say that her fingernails were long and her hair short before the move, but her fingernails quickly became short and her hair long once they started planting the property.

Ed has kept careful records of his plantings and has learned what will grow at this elevation. For instance, although most people call Tehachapi's climate mountain-like, he considers it more like the high desert.

The air is very dry and the wind-blown desert town of Mojave is only 20 minutes away. "We can grow Joshua trees up here," he said, "but it's too dry for hemlocks."

It gets hot but temperatures seldom go over 100. "Last summer we had our hottest day in 29 years, when it got to 105." High desert differs from the low desert of Palm Springs in that winters are very cold, so plants freeze. "It's not all that different from Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq or Iran," said Sampson, who pointed out that many of the plants he grows come from those countries with cold, nearly snowless winters.

It doesn't snow much in Tehachapi, but it gets "cold enough to freeze the ground," according to Sampson. His garden's record low was 13 degrees below zero in 1990, and 10-degree nights are common. "We usually get a couple of 5-degree nights each winter." That means no bougainvillea, no palms, no citrus. Most of the signature plants of Southern California are missing; many of our winter flowers, such as Iceland poppies and calendulas, do just fine here if they are planted in the summer.

Long, cold winters let Sampson grow things more commonly seen in New England. The first thing he planted back in the '70s was an herbaceous border next to an old red horse barn, which became so filled with New England asters and eastern goldenrod that a photograph of it ended up in a book on New England wildflowers.

The garden began with 20 acres and Sampson slowly added another 10 as adjacent properties became available. His plantings now include some 2,600 distinct species. In 1990 he took a step few gardeners dare. He began offering guided tours through his garden after joining the American Assn. of Arboretums and Botanical Gardens. Recently the garden has been open for self-tours.

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