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Special Garden Issue | Cover story

The Quiet Californian

A Screenwriter Creates a Thoughtful Garden Full of Natives

May 18, 2003|Susan Heeger

Scott Goldstein tended roses with his mother as a child in New York, discovered rock gardening as a grown-up and, after moving to L.A. in 1986, experimented with succulents and euphorbias. But he was inspired less by California's gardens than by its natural landscape. He loved the hills and oak savannas, the wild islands off the coast. "On Santa Cruz Island, where there are no structures and no fences, you can see the California of 300 years ago--the wildflowers, the flannel bushes," he says. "And where else are there so many blue-flowering trees and shrubs?"

The image of ceanothus--California's wild lilac--stayed with Goldstein as he and his wife, Lauren Gabor, bought a 1912 Craftsman house in Windsor Square in 1988, and then the property next door six years later. They razed a decrepit 1950s structure on that property, which gave Goldstein what his gardener's heart had always wanted: a blank slate. Coincidentally, while he was brooding over what might grow in the lot's hardpan soil, he and Gabor visited Claremont's native plant center, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. There he saw all of the rugged, rangy plants they had admired on hikes. "Why not go with these?" Gabor said.

Goldstein, a screenwriter and director, relished the thought of bringing back old California. He envisioned an arid chaparral and a flowery meadow, both edged with sage and ceanothus, looped with paths and alive with birds. After extensive research, he came up with a list of trees that could withstand hardpan conditions, and he replaced his topsoil with clean, sandy loam trucked from Laguna Beach. He built encircling stucco walls--a foil for sprawling natives--and laid out oaks, a foothill pine and several toyons, around which he planted garden beds.

The scrub oak, Quercus berberidifolia, lies at the heart of his re-created chaparral and gives the entire landscape its name, El Chaparro, after the Spanish word for this craggy, poetic tree. At its feet and in the ground nearby, Goldstein combined plants as they grow in nature: hummingbird sage with Heuchera maxima, flannel bush with California fuchsia, coastal sagebrush and white-flowering bush anemone with ceanothus. He added a Batchelder tile fountain for its meditative sound, and hickory benches from which one can watch hummingbirds and short-legged lizards.

A hickory arbor (much like those that decorated early California Arts and Crafts gardens) divides the chaparral from the meadow. Its chief component, native 'Laguna Mountain' sedge, which was grown for Goldstein by Pomona grass nurseryman John Greenlee, is extremely drought-tolerant, can be mowed like lawn, takes foot traffic and stays green year-round if watered weekly during the summer. To create the effect of a flowery carpet, Goldstein planted it with blooming perennial natives such as blue-eyed grass, buttercup and cinquefoil.

Unlike common turf grass, the flowery carpet gets along without fertilizer or chemical pest control, and it looks fine even if mowed only five or six times a year. Drawbacks include the fact that it can be hard to find in large quantities and must be planted in tiny plugs that knit together slowly. It's also more expensive to buy and install, though it's less costly to maintain.

"It's really a perfect replacement for turf," says Goldstein, acknowledging that not all grassy natives are easy to manage. Early on, for instance, he experimented with native oat and rye grass, which became "an invasive nightmare. We're still removing them. They throw off a ton of seed and push out other plants." Less of a problem is the needlegrass, which "once covered hills and canyons throughout California," Goldstein says. "We let it seed wherever it wants to. It grows wonderfully under oaks."

During the garden's first two years, as his native plants developed roots, Goldstein watered weekly, using a system of small micro-sprays that dispense water like a fine rain. "You have to watch the plants carefully at first," he says, "to see that they get what they need. Later, there's a danger of overwatering, especially in summer, when plants start to look stressed. That's how you kill them!"

Now, in normal rainfall years, his garden goes months without supplemental water, needing irrigation maybe twice in the heat of summer. With all of the ground cover and tree litter, it doesn't need as much mulch as it did when there were large gaps between plants.

Goldstein adheres to the naturalistic pruning style, letting plants look like themselves rather than some control-happy neatnik's dream. When vines and shrubs begin to brown, he leaves them alone, enjoying the change of seasons. He concedes that some people can't tolerate the dormant cycle. "I see things differently," he says.

Goldstein has been known to take a magnifying glass to ceanothus blooms, which have a jewel-like structure, but he's also attuned to the more obvious characteristics of his native plants--the smells of spice bush and sage, the swell of poppy buds, the light that ripples through his sedge. "To me," he says, "anyone who thinks a native garden is just a bunch of weeds isn't looking carefully enough."

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Resource Guide

Native plants and seeds are available through the following companies: Larner Seeds, Bolinas, (415) 868-9407; Las Pilitas Nursery, Escondido, (760) 749-5930, and Santa Margarita, (805) 438-5992; Matilija Nursery, Moorpark, (805) 523-8604, S&S Seeds, Carpinteria, (805) 684-0436; SeedHunt.com, P.O. Box 96, Freedom, Calif., 95019; The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802; Tree of Life Nursery, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 728-0685.

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