The Pride of Mar Vista: Sustainable Gardens

The Pride of Mar Vista: Sustainable Gardens

At this year's Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, there were gardens that hadn't been watered in months. You might think this would make for a pretty ugly tour, but it didn't. The Green Garden Showcase is a sustainable garden tour — the largest in Southern California, in fact — and not watering your plants here is a point of pride. Conventional lawns are verboten, as are conventional watering systems.

"You can't have a sprinkler," Mar Vista Community Council board member Melissa Stoller said. "You have to be sustainable. Our agenda is to remove the lawn."

Roofs, ideally, should create energy with solar panels. Yards should capture water rather than squander it. Outdoor spaces should be pollinator habitats. "This is not a regular garden tour like in the Palisades."

Stoller was standing at the entrance to the tour's de facto starting point, a house on Grand View Street belonging to real estate agent Susan Klos. Klos has chickens. People were going nuts over them and the old Ikea shelving she'd turned into a coop. But Klos pointed instead to a clump of dirt. "This, I think, is really cool," she said. The dirt was inside the hollow parts of concrete blocks. It wasn't much right now, she admitted, but in a few weeks there would be alyssum, basil, marigolds, collards, Swiss chard, kale and mustard greens.

Another board member, Michael Millman, came over. "You have to be a true believer to go on this tour," Millman said, blinking through large glasses that made him look like a ladybug.

"You don't have to be a true believer," Stoller said, disagreeing.

Stoller is the truest of true believers. She has lived in Mar Vista all her life, ever since the city was just a bunch of celery fields. Her native-plant garden was one of the original gardens on the tour. In the early days of the tour, she and another volunteer walked every single street in zones 1 through 4 of the city, looking for recruits. She poked into backyards, peered through fences and logged her findings into Excel spreadsheets. In five years, the tour has grown from 40 gardens to 100, mainly private residences.

These days, word has pretty much gotten around; people approach her, wanting to participate. Stoller no longer pounds the pavement. And besides, she said, "We're tired."

Nevertheless, the organizers were still ironing out some kinks. They still hadn't been able to shake certain philosophical contradictions. Walking, for instance. If you wanted to admire the edibles at, say, 12307 Dewey St. in zone 2, and then check out the composting situation at 4060 East Blvd. in zone 5, you'd be in for a serious, two-mile cardio workout.

Instead, people were burning serious fossil fuels driving from garden to garden, which seemed contrary to the spirit of sustainability.

"Though maybe they're all driving Priuses. I don't know," Stoller said.

In any case, she decided, next year they would focus on creating clusters.

"It sounds great, but it's political," Millman said. "You need to put gardens in every one of those zones so the zone directors elected for each of those particular zones feel represented."

Stoller shook her head and said, "My perspective is, I just want to get sustainable gardens and have a wonderful time."

"You have to check out Lou's house," she added.

Louis King lives in one of the oldest houses in Mar Vista, a sort-of-deco/sort-of-Spanish place on Mountain View Street. He bought it in the 1950s for $17,500. He was 28 then. He is 92 now. The bamboo and elephant ears he salvaged during freeway construction have grown huge. Every square inch of his garden is occupied.

There are plants in King's backyard that he collected in the 1950s, when Caltrans was demolishing houses to put in the 405 freeway. "And the inside," Stoller explained. "I've never seen so many Navajo rugs. He's partial to antlers."

For a while, King was into clocks. "But none of them had the same time."

Visitors drifted in and out of King's garden throughout the afternoon. They admired the old clawfoot bathtub King converted into an elegant water storage tub, with the rain chain dangling down into it and nasturtiums bursting out from underneath. "So far this is No. 1," a visitor said.

At other residences, there were gardens conceived by drip-irrigation enthusiasts, and by drought tolerant–plant enthusiasts, and by people "transitioning" into eco-consciousness who weren't quite sure yet what to be enthusiastic about. There were backyards resembling scrubby Italian hillsides and Zen Buddhist rock gardens and English fairy-tale cottage gardens, none of which had seen a hose in God knows how long. There were "ocean-friendly" rain gardens, with native perennials tucked into small, strategic depressions in the ground. The depressions catch water that runs off from hard surfaces such as sidewalks, gutters and driveways. The vegetation filters pollutant-laden rainwater, preventing it from entering storm drains.

Over on Inglewood Boulevard, M.A. Bjarkman filled her swimming pool with dirt and turned it into a cactus garden. She discovered succulents a few years ago and "fell under their spell." For two months, she'd lain in bed at night, picturing it: her perfect garden, the crassulas and graptopetalums and sempervivums arrayed like a coral reef above ground, alive with texture, shape and color.

Six months and 11 dump trucks' worth of dirt later, it has become reality. Now there is a bench where a diving board might go. Bjarkman sits on it in the evenings and admires her handiwork. She does not miss her pool in the slightest.

David Rosenstein, over on East Boulevard, no longer uses dirt at all. He set up an aquaponics system. His plants eat catfish poop, and the catfish live in water cleaned by the plants. Rosenstein was up to his ears in vegetables. Everybody who stopped by wanted to know how he'd done it.

"This is great," said Sharon Commins, director-at-large of the Mar Vista Community Council. And by that she meant great for Mar Vista: "We're not the place people drive through to get somewhere else, anymore."

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