Mayita Dinos' soft hands belie the fact that she's dug through acres of stubborn subsoil on a one-woman crusade to mulch, harrow and hoe as much of Los Angeles as possible. She's a key influencer in the band of pioneers who introduced sustainable gardening to this arid land, helping turn low-water landscaping into a major trend.
Dinos' 12 years as a bilingual education teacher in New York gave rise to her appealing blend of dreamy optimism and political urgency. But then she left the job she loved to move with her actor husband to L.A. in 1998.
"Moving from east to west was like language immersion -- I surrendered myself to this climate, and to growing things in it, body and soul," Dinos recalls.
She had studied landscape architecture earlier at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but ultimately earned two degrees in bilingual education. Here, she learned more in a course at the Los Angeles Arboretum and began attracting clients, with her gardens featured in Elle Decor and other magazines. She began competing at gardening events, and in 2006 her "outdoor rooms" delighted viewers of TLC's While You Were Out. Now the landscape designer is involved in the local Association of Professional Landscape Designers and chaired its sustainability team.
She cheerily disarms those who cling to their lawns. Dinos describes a typical yard as a series of unseen ecological disasters: "Most people give their lawns three times more water than they need," she says. "Lawns get compacted very, very quickly -- a key problem! -- caused by mowing and watering. It compacts the earth! That eliminates the air pockets in the soil, so the organisms that keep the soil alive die off. So people add water -- the water rolls off and into the street. So now we have another big problem! Your fertilizer washes right into the ocean!"
Dinos wants people to stop repeating the urban legend that Los Angeles is a desert. It is not. "Pasadena gets 15 inches [of rain] a year; where I live" -- in Culver City -- "it's 13. We are in a Mediterranean climate. West Hollywood is Zone 23 -- do you know how much grows there? L.A. is not a desert."
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Dinos urges L.A. residents to divert their roof drains to the garden, not the street; to remove the grass on parkways "so water seeps into the soil"; to throw succulent "pass-along" parties; plant a tree that's "well-researched and well-placed in your yard"; and, above all else, "mulch, mulch, mulch."
Two of her most beautiful projects are Arlington Garden in Pasadena and the rooftop at exclusive Petit Ermitage in West Hollywood, where butterflies and birds hum through a low-water fantasyland on the formerly tarred roof. At Arlington Garden, Dinos planted 48 sickly orange trees rescued from an art exhibit. The trees found a secret water table and began churning out thousands of oranges; the nonprofit garden's board sold out 1,200 jars of marmalade at $10 each.
Now, Dinos would love to take a crack at the Occupy L.A.-ruined lawn at Los Angeles City Hall. The city need only ask.