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150-acre park goes even greener with $64 million overhaul

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Many public gardens in the last decade have moved to correct problems related to the wrong plants installed in the wrong places.

| July 19, 2010

LOS ANGELES – It's magical to walk among the century-old oak trees and the thousands of camellias that take shelter under them in Descanso Gardens, a chance, even when the flowers are not in bloom, to gaze wide-eyed at the glories of the planet.

But however pleasing, it turns out to be one lousy pairing for the trees and the flowers.

Descanso has decided it's time for a breakup, based on irreconcilable differences.

Many of the cherished camellias will be relocated as part of a new 237-page long-range plan that makes Descanso a model for sustainability and guides decisions for years to come about what to plant and where to plant it. Camellias, which need water year round, will be moved away from dry-dependent oaks, but that's just a start.

The plan calls for Descanso, in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., to use zero potable water for irrigation, to stop trucking 300 tons of waste annually to a landfill and to become a self-sufficient generator of energy, in part by installing solar panels over parking spaces.

, but Descano's "fundamental shift in its role in the community" - to become a role model for water conservation and fire protection - puts it in a category of its own, said Daniel J. Stark, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association.

Water is at the center of the change for Descanso, which sits in a natural bowl at the base of the San Rafael Hills.

"Descanso Gardens was, and is, continuously being shaped by the action of water flowing across the site, the availability of water from Hall Beckley Canyon, and the lack of rain water for much of the year," notes the plan, which offers guiding principles for the land, from chaparral to flower garden. At $64.1 million, the changes will require substantial fundraising to realize conservation, new buildings, programs and more.

Descanso, which is county-owned but has been run since 1993 by the nonprofit Descanso Gardens Guild, has an irresistible "opportunity to come to grips with major issues of the day" and to promote "a change in human behavior away from mindless consumption at all costs," said David Brown, the gardens' executive director.

Changes come with another imperative: maintaining the restful beauty and cultural history of the 150-acre La Canada Flintridge site, which greets 275,000 visitors a year.

The Portico Group, a Seattle firm, and other consultants worked with Descanso staff, trustees and volunteers for years to come up with ideas that respect the history of the land as an agricultural estate and public garden and that move it toward becoming a "water-wise, fire-smart oasis of beauty."

Some of the changes are underway, but in large measure, plans still need to be put into action. "How do we get from big ideas to shovels in the ground?" as Brian Sullivan, Descanso's director of horticulture and gardening operations, put it.

Two acres of lawn near the entrance have been replaced with eastern redbud, California sycamore, native shrubs and other selections - a move Brown said will shave 600,000 gallons of water from the more than 3 million gallons used for irrigation each year.

Read more at The News Tribune.

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