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Unfortunate casualties of climate adjustments

Taming the impulse to water in the Southland's Mediterranean landscape has taken seven years and many manzanitas.

June 16, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

In no other city does reputation part reality so completely as Los Angeles. When I moved here from London in the summer of 1998, Los Angeles was the city where being a weatherman was a Steve Martin joke. It would be sunny -- again. There were already workmen hired by my brother fixing up my old house. My priority list read: 1) new wiring, 2) new plumbing, 3) irrigation. Irrigate while the plumbers are there, warned my family. You'll need it.

With all this sunshine, I sure will, I thought. But instead of a Hockney blue sky, the first morning I awoke to my first true fog. The crown of a 100-foot-tall Mexican fan palm stood above a mist bank so thick that the fronds appeared to float.

Goodbye, England. Hello, pea soup.

I dressed in a sweater and jeans. But by midday, the sky was clear and sun blazing; by 3 p.m., the palm was fluttering in a cool ocean breeze. By 8 p.m., fog was creeping back, so heavily that it would drip from the gutters like rain.

I paid electricians to rewire the house and plumbers to replace the pipes, but I left the garden with nothing but a hose bib. If this were Blighty West, I wouldn't be needing sprinklers.

Seven years later, I finally understand, at least technically, what it means to have a Mediterranean climate. In fall and winter, it rains. In spring, our water comes from fog dew. In summer, we go without rain.

Los Angeles is part of only 2% of the world's land mass that has the right mix of features -- a temperate latitude and position next to west-facing coast along an ocean with a cold current -- to constitute a Mediterranean climate. A good rule of thumb is: If it grows in the Holy Land, it grows here.

Still, there is reading something and learning it. As a gardener, during autumn, winter and spring, L.A. still seems in step with much of the country, even England, only warmer. One makes leaf piles, starts seedlings. Only in summer does it depart all understanding.

According to the calendar, June 21 is summer solstice. Yet in my garden, just as that first year, it's still spring. Morning fog, dew so heavy it drizzles and long cool days tell me to keep water light, and even watch tropical vegetables such as tomato seedlings for boggy lurgies that can wreak havoc come salad season.

But in a blink, and sometimes only for a day, it's out of our long, long spring and into the high, clear summer heat so dry that you don't know you're burning until you're crisp. Tomatoes a week earlier in danger of dankness need burlap or half shade to stop burning.

And the natives, the oaks, the manzanitas, the sage and mallows, only weeks earlier pushing out new shoots and flowers, become very quiet. Their transition into dormancy is so subtle, it's easy to miss. How the oaks make acorns in their sleep is anyone's guess.

Out there with my hose, I still can't quite trust the experts who diagnose dormancy. These summer-slumbering natives don't seem dormant. With the exception of the buckeye, they haven't lost their leaves. They remind me instead of my great-uncle Louis, cut off from bourbon in his dotage by a watchful daughter. They seem to be pining. And it feels like my job to sneak them the odd drink.

There are several native nurseries that I may personally keep in business by drowning sages, mallows and manzanitas with this foolishness. Thankfully I haven't messed with the oaks. The one next to my house is one of the neighborhood's old trees. If I watered it into the state that it succumbs to oak root fungus, I'd be run out of town.

As I enter my seventh summer, I still have only a hose. Lawn, the waterwasting parts of the garden are gone, or going. Putting fruit trees on slow-drip watering feeds is habit.

And when the natives look parched, I satisfy the impulse by spraying the leaves to clear them of smog and schmutz.

Bees fly out, lizards scuttle across the path, the neighbor's cat runs back to the safety of his home, and I stifle the impulse to spend another year killing my garden with kindness.

Mediterranean Garden Society, www.mediterraneangardensociety.org/branchesCASo.html, 1344 Hillcrest Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106.

Emily Green can be contacted at emily.green@latimes.com.

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