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The Valley

Splendor Blooms on the Inhospitable Ground Next to Santa Monica Freeway

He was once a thorn in Caltrans' side, but now the agency welcomes the man who turns land next to the road into an expanse of wildflowers.

April 07, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Steven Coker spends his days as a mild-mannered accountant. In his off-hours, however, he becomes positively passionate -- about flora.

On most evenings, neighbors can find him planting California poppies and tending yellow tidy tips on a hillside below the Santa Monica Freeway just east of Robertson Boulevard.

"I've thought about writing a book called 'Extreme Gardening' because this is about as extreme as you can get," Coker said as he strode purposefully across his tilted urban patch, pitchfork in hand, his boyish face bathed in late-afternoon sun.

Indeed, aside from the Sahara -- or maybe Mars -- few environments are as inhospitable to plants as a highway right of way. In addition to being constantly dusted by vehicle emissions, plants near the freeways are doused by spilled loads from semis and crushed by cars that vault sound walls. Rather than stopping to smell the roses, passersby shower them with beer bottles, old sofas and tires.

It is Caltrans' job to keep such areas clean and attractive. Suffice it to say that, with nearly 19,000 miles of state highways and freeways to tend, the agency can't always keep up.

Realizing that, Coker, who is self-employed, began years ago to plant and maintain the approximately two-acre tract that extends along Regent Street between Cattaraugus Avenue and National Boulevard across from the home he shares with his parents.

And he hopes to "adopt" the area under Caltrans' wildflower planting program as soon as the agency's contract with Bel-Air West, a Buena Park landscaping company that controls that stretch, expires in about a year.

Until then, he, Caltrans and the contractor have agreed to nurture their informal and highly irregular arrangement.

"We recognized the value and the beauty of what Steve was doing," said Lydia Deets, a landscape specialist with Caltrans' construction department. "We agreed to cooperate in that beautiful little area that he has created, and we continue to do that."

An avid gardener and a past president of the Culver City Garden Club, Coker, 44, recalls that he got the opening he needed by accident. One night about eight years ago, he said, a drunk driver jumped the curb and punched a hole in the chain-link fence intended to shield the area from intruders.

When no one arrived to mend the breach, Coker ventured in. First, he cleaned up the litter. Then he planted a few wildflowers. After that, he just kept going.

For a time, he was a thorn in Caltrans' side -- and not just because he planted bougainvillea, a plant the agency does not like because of its spines, against the fence. One year, a Caltrans crew sprayed herbicide across the slope just as Coker's plantings were about to bloom.

But Coker's dedication won over Caltrans workers, and now they leave him alone.

In these early days of spring, the hillside is alive with the color and fragrance of the 30 different species that exist there, courtesy of Coker. They include white freesias, golden poppies, baby blue eyes, orange nasturtiums, purple irises, Mexican sunflowers, blue lupines and blue and pink bachelor's buttons.

Coker grows many of his plants, including several native California wildflowers, from seeds. Most are annuals that bloom in the spring and fade by summer. Many reseed and come back on their own, Coker said. He plants only flowers that can resist pests, drought and disease.

At Caltrans' request, he limits his plantings to within eight feet of the fence. But he also weeds and prunes the lantana and bottlebrush shrubs that Caltrans planted as part of a massive restoration project along the freeway two years ago.

Coker's biggest coup was landing a key from a sympathetic Caltrans official so that he can enter his padlocked preserve any time he likes.

Which is often. Coker estimates that he spends an average of 10 hours a week raking leaves, watering, propagating and sweeping out gutters. He also spends as much as $1,000 a year on seeds, plants, tools and gloves.

"I've thought about applying for matching funds from the city," he said as he gathered a load of dead morning glory vines on his pitchfork, "but I haven't, because I want people to see what one person can do on his own, with no help from government."

After all, Coker has lived on the same street since before the freeway was built in the 1960s. His family moved to their current house from one that was torn down to make way for the freeway.

To him, the right of way has seemed like a gigantic extension of his family's backyard.

Coker's usual companions on the slope are bees and butterflies, lured by the colorful blooms.

Lately, though, Coker has found himself sharing the plot with a neighbor, who grows corn (a few feet shy of being as high as the elephant's eye), strawberries and sunflowers on the eastern end.

Neighbors often comment on the garden's progress as they stroll or drive by. The garden is not visible to freeway drivers, but it attracts attention for blocks around.

"If you want to meet all your neighbors, garden the freeway," Coker said. "People honk their horns. I wave, even though I have no idea who they are."

Then there was the police officer who stopped to ask whether he was "doing anything funny with the poppies." Coker had to explain that the California poppy, the state flower, is not that kind of poppy.

Such interruptions aside, Coker relishes his role as an urban farmer.

"It's very much a work in progress," he said. "I've got a lot to do. But I'm too stubborn to stop."

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