Tag Archives: Old Town Historic Park

getting close to the 2015 garden tour

Native Plants Live Here Sign_WEB

This weekend I had a chance to revisit five of the twenty gardens that will be on the 2015 Garden Native Tour on March 28-29. One cool sighting was the new CNPS sign that features a monarch butterfly feasting on native milkweed.

The gardens were looking nice now, and should be great at the end of the month for the tour. Here are a few great details:

A compact, long-established garden at a condominium, with large, mature shrubs and lots of dappled sunlight…a step into a bright woodland…

Winter blooms on the Howard McMinn manzanita
Winter blooms on the Howard McMinn manzanita

The sheltered woodsy plants beneath a dark-trunked Howard McMinn manzanita
The sheltered woodsy plants beneath a dark-trunked Howard McMinn manzanita

Tasty strawberry on a native strawberry--a bright green groundcover that supplies you with treats while you're weeding...
Tasty strawberry on a native strawberry–a bright green groundcover that supplies you with treats while you’re weeding…

The interpretive native plant landscape at Old Town San Diego State Historical Park–The site will serve as one of the sign-in points on the tour weekend.

The historic McCoy House on the edge of the Old Town native plant landscape
The historic McCoy House on the edge of the Old Town native plant landscape
White yarrow against the white picket fence in front of the McCoy house--what a cool planting idea!
White yarrow against the white picket fence in front of the McCoy house–what a cool planting idea!
Lupines at their peak in Old Town
Lupines at their peak in Old Town
Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, in crazy bloom at the Old Town landscape
Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, in crazy bloom at the Old Town landscape

…and some random great ideas…

A delicate planting of our humble ranunculus, R. californica
A delicate planting of our humble native ranunculus, R. californica
A gloriously wild, unmowed "lawn" of sedges
A gloriously wild, unmowed “lawn” of sedges
A bright yellow yarrow selection planted on the edge of a rain-permeable driveway
A bright yellow yarrow selection planted on the edge of a rain-permeable driveway

I have too many things going on this month, but–hey–this will have to be one of them!

two saturdays

A couple hours of community service: Sounds a little like a sentence handed down by a judge, but it was actually how I spent some of last Saturday. I’ve posted earlier about the native plant garden at Old Town State Historic Park. That trip I was walking the paths and enjoying garden.


But this time I was a volunteer helping maintain this interesting young garden. Much of the time I was squatted down in the dirt pulling up little palm trees. If you live in another part of the world you might think that pulling up palm trees is a bizarre thing to do. But palm seedlings are a very real weed around here, especially when there are still actively fruiting palms nearby, and when there’s still an active seedbank left from one of the palms that was removed to make way for the garden.




In just one month since my last visit, the number of flowers had diminished as we head into our long brown season when many plants approach dormancy. There were some splashy clarkia flowers remaining, as well as this mallow from the Channel Islands.

There were other weeds to pull at, and the day ended with a quick pruning demonstration and a demonstration on one way to maintain deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). With this big, dramatic grass you can let the stems go brown–which is an easy-maintenance approach to this plant. Or you can reach down on each of the old flowering stems, feel for a joint a couple inches above the base of the plant, and pull. muhlenbergia-rigensIf you find the node, the stem yanks out without much resistance. It’s not a chore you can do easily while wearing thick gloves, and without gloves you’ve likely to shred your hands. Fortunately this a grass that looks stately and architectural whether or not you pull the dried stems. We left most of the plants as they were.

After just two hours of tidying the garden looked even better and ready for the dry months ahead.

Jump ahead one week…


Even though June is typically one of our dry months, today was cool and drizzly as John and I headed for the Master Gardener’s plant sale at Balboa Park.


We parked near the park’s jumbo Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla). It’s an amazing plant, but like many figs, it’s not a good choice if you’re concerned about keeping your home’s foundation intact. I was appreciative of having the park, a great publicly-funded shared space, where you can go to enjoy spectacular plants that don’t make sense to plant in most home spaces.


Rain or shine, the people make a trail to this plant sale. This is half an hour before the sale, with all these brave souls standing in the heavy mist waiting to get first crack at this year’s offerings.


…and this is during the first few minutes of the sale.

Some highlights this year were bromeliads from Balboa Park’s propagation program–big plants for the price of a Happy Meal–and an entire table of different salvias. As thrilled as I am with the genus salvia, I resisted the temptations. No space in the garden is no space in the garden.


But John didn’t show the same restraint. He likes his succulents. And the more unlabeled the succulent is the better. I swear he does this to drive me crazy, knowing how much I like my plant names. (The succulent expert on site looked at it and said that it’s some sort of crassula relative, which is what I’d have called it. Okay, we have a family name, and now only 1400 species to go through… Any help out there?)

Although we didn’t end up dropping a lot of change on this sale, many people with more space in the gardens found interesting plants to populate their spaces. And the proceeds from the sale go to a good cause.

So these two Saturdays showed a couple way you can help the botanical organizations around town. You can donate your labor. Or you can do what comes naturally for most Americans: Go shopping!

interpreting history through plants


The native plant garden at San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park occupies a gentle rise in the land on the north end of the park. The garden sits on the grounds of the Silvas-McCoy house, a modern reconstruction by the park service based on foundations excavated in 1995.

The house replicates an 1869 structure by Irish immigrant James McCoy. Previous to McCoy’s arrival the site was previously in the hands of Maria Eugenia Silvas, and the grounds also contain the foundations of two adobe structures that predate the McCoy house.

The park service, charged with interpreting the history of San Diego’s founding, decided between rebuilding the McCoy house or recreating the earlier adobes. Would they opt to tell the story of early Spanish settlement? Or that of later settlers? Or instead could they do something to interpret the area’s original inhabitants, the Kumeyaay, whose village of Koss’ai occupied the site, and whose tenure went back thousands of years? Choices like that are never without controversy, and you could make good arguments on all sides of the debate.

This was during a flurry of historic reconstruction in Old Town which turned this corner of the park into a construction zone. During the project I spotted one of the more amusing informational signs I’ve encountered, one that proclaimed a nearby patch of earth to be the “Future site of San Diego’s first city jail.” (Do you ever regret not having a camera along?)


The native plant garden, like the Silvas-McCoy house, also participates in the park’s mission to provide historic context. The selection of plants reinforces the story the garden tells.

In the days of Silvas and McCoy the San Diego River flowed in front of this site. The plants that would have been found here would have been primarily riparian species. To tell that story, you’ll see stands of mugwort, sycamore, mulefat, coast live oak and willow featured on the grounds.

In the past, the river would sometimes empty into Mission Bay to the north, or into San Diego Bay to the south. The geographical indecisiveness of a meandering river works fine for the natural world, but poorly for a culture tied to private ownership of property. The current San Diego River has been forced into an engineered channel a quarter mile to the north and is no longer able to decide on its own where it would like to go. So, in addition to telling a story about the location of the river 150 years ago, the garden–a riparian plant community stranded hundreds of feet from the river that would have originally sustained it–to me speaks to notions of ownership of space and ideas about the control of nature. It’s not just another pretty garden.


Of course, when you say “garden,” people do want to see pretty flowers. Above is chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus), and here’s the perky red monkey (Mimulus aurantiacus)…


…and the ever-popular California state flower (Escholzia californica) in its most recognizable color form, with wands of white sage (Salvia apaiana) in front.


And here’s a bouquet of some of what was blooming.

The garden in its current state goes back only a little more than a year, when a group of local California Native Plant Society volunteers weeded the site and planted many of the plants. The garden hosted an open house on Saturday, and visitors got a chance to tour the site and get insights from ethnobotanist Richard Bugbee about traditional Kumeyaay uses of many of the plants in the garden.

For example did you know that young flowering stems of white sage were peeled and eaten raw? This is one of the most assertively aromatic of sages, but peeling the stems purportedly takes away the oil-producing glands and gives the stems a flavor something like celery. (Maybe “tastes like celery” is the botanical equivalent of the catch-all “tastes like chicken,” but I intend to find out the next time my plants need a haircut…) Future plans for the garden include signage on traditional Kumayaay uses of the plants growing there.


That’s ethnobotanist Richard Bugbee, second from the right in this photo, along with landscape architect Kay Stewart, far right, who was heavily involved in designing the garden. Next to Richard is Peter St. Clair who, along with the original donor to the native garden project, had the vision and persistence to have the garden in the first place. Peter also organizes the volunteer work crews that help maintain and shape the garden.

At not much over a year old, this is still a young garden. There are still areas to be cleared and plantings to be finalized, but the garden has good bones and occupies a fascinating location. It’s definitely a place to watch as it matures, and they’re always on the lookout for volunteers to help the process along. Sign me up!