Articles

California Native Garden
Heart of the Garden
New Volunteer Center

by Dan Songster

New volunteer shed for Native GardenCall it what you want, volunteer shed, volunteer office, or volunteer center, we want to thank everyone who contributed books, tools, time, or money-for your help in replacing our volunteer’s little home in the Garden!

After its loss in June 2011 it took a few months to acquire enough donations to help purchase our new headquarters for the volunteers. It took even longer to wind our way through the paperwork needed to have it installed-But it’s here!

A sincere thank you to all who have given your hard earned money to help us purchase this. Hand tools were given to us by individuals, volunteers, and companies. Many of the Books were replaced by publishers and others who heard of our loss and sent replacement copies. Special thanks to Sarah Wallbank who donated some of Rod Wallbank’s plant related books-he was our Garden Co-Director for many years and passed away in October of 2010. A chair and desk were provided by old campus surplus, and shelving was built in place. There is more we need to add to this little structure but it is mostly done.
So now when the volunteers come in on Tuesdays and Thursday mornings they have a place where their tools and seed can be safely stored, jackets can be hung, and volunteer log and other paperwork done.

Please stop by and see what your donations helped purchase and be sure to tell the volunteers about your generosity-they will want to thank you!

Heart of the Garden

Image of the Damaged and new Shed for Native GardenLate Thursday afternoon, June 2, 2011, the volunteer center in the GWC Native Garden caught fire and burned down. I received the call at home after 5:30pm and besides all the normal thoughts about HOW this had happened, I wondered what might still be there. The fire department had been there and done its job so perhaps the hand tools survived. Books were all on the south wall so it was conceivable some of them made it although there would certainly be water damage from the fire fighters effort. I was sure the seed collection was gone. As my wife Elizabeth and I drove to the College that evening we made a list of what I remembered being in the shed—a list of what we most probably lost—it was something to do as we drove.

When we got to the GWC Native Garden a blackened charred vacancy was all that remained of what had once been a home of sorts for our group of community volunteers. I could recognize the little desk and filing cabinet that had been pulled out along with blackened wall sections by the firefighters to make sure all hot spots were exposed and put out before they left. Everything else was pretty much ashes or melted. Our extensive lending library of books related to native plants and botany was gone or nearly so. A few sodden pages were still legible. On the floor a pair of volunteer’s rubber rain boots was a puddle of blackened rubber, nearby lay the metal heads of the shears and loppers, handles burned away.

The physical loss of the volunteer center and its dozens of books -all frequently used, a nice seed collection, various hand tools, propagation equipment and many supplies, is one thing. But somehow there is more to the loss. This is where we hung our coats when warmed by our work, where we stored the seed we painstakingly collected and processed, where we listed the plants we grew and made our labels, where we noted our day’s events and efforts, and where a comic strip apropos to gardening was tacked to the wall for others to enjoy. It was where I sat in the quiet and cool of the early morning and made a list of work suggestions for the volunteer’s workday. Without being aware of it, this simple little building became the heart of the garden for those of us caring for the Native Garden. It was packed full of tools and books and memories.

I don’t want to make this out to be more than it is. I know people who have lost homes in fires and this is of course nowhere near that level of loss. Still there is a disturbance in our work and in the pulse of the Garden’s work crew. Currently, the sad black area of ash and debris has been cleaned up. The charred trees on either side pruned. Time has passed and we are ready for a new building and a new beginning for our community volunteers!

If you would like to help us create the new Volunteer Center with its needed contents, and assist with the continuing care and development of the Garden, please consider making a monetary donation (of any amount), towards the effort. Donations of $100 or more will be thanked with a special tee shirt. If on campus you can visit the very nice people in the Golden West College Foundation Office which is located on the south end of campus adjacent to the President’s office, or Call them at 714-895-8316. You can also mail donations to the GWC Foundation at Huntington Beach, Ca  92647-3103. Make checks out to “GWC Foundation” and write “GWC Native Garden” on the memo line. All donations made to the Garden’s account (through the GWC Foundation) are tax deductable.

Please consider giving and mentioning it to others. Thank you very much!

Dan Songster
Director, Golden West College Native Garden

Questions about the Garden?
Contact Dan Songster at dsongster@gwc.cccd.edu

Rod Wallbank: Reflecting on a Friend
Rod Wallbank
Reflecting on a Friend

by Dan Songster

Rod Wallbank laughingIt is early morning and the rain begins to fall in earnest. The dark skies have been dripping of an on during the night but now there is lightning and thunder and I am near the Garden watching the rain drop, making the plants shine and knocking leaves from the sycamore tree that Rod and I planted. Rod loved this sort of day, the english blood (or whatever it was) would stir and he would be especially cheerful with umbrella out and open. “Let’s go get a cup of coffee.” So we would often head over to the cafeteria, get a cup and talk of wide ranging subjects. What a pleasure. Rod Wallbank was my workmate on the Grounds Crew at Golden West College and Co-Director at the GWC Native Garden for well over two decades. He was also a husband, mathematician, philosopher, adventurer/investigator of life, and a friend to many. Rod unexpectedly passed away October 2, 2010.

Rod was involved in exploring many aspects of life and with Rod there was no dabbling. If he invested his time in learning something-he did it well and he enjoyed the ride however long that process would take. So varied were his interests that no consideration of Rod’s life would be complete. It’s not every day you run into a guy who has spent decades in fruitful study of philosophy and mathematics, hitchhiked the Trans Canadian highway, surfed Ray’s Bay near Seal Beach back in the day, lived in a commune in Oregon, and did not own a television but instead read out loud with his wife Sarah at night. “Have you ever read the history of the Nile? Right now we are starting a two book set…”

Rod Wallbank on CampusBut for myself and others I know, it was his love of a useful and imaginative landscape and California native plants that was our main connection, although philosophy and math and everything else interesting to either of us made it seamlessly into the conversations. Happily, what started out as a discussion about the dimensions of the not yet constructed Garden amphitheater would somehow find its way to the Parthenon in Athens, and mention of the hefty tome, Munz’s Flora of California might lead to talk of the unrivaled library in ancient Alexandria.

When Rod came onto the GWC Grounds Crew in the mid-eighties he had questions about the partially developed garden near the Math/Science Building. I explained about how I had started a native garden for the Science Department in 1975 but for various reasons its progress had stalled. The idea of California native plants being put together for an outdoor lab for our science classes, a Garden that could provide a sense of place, provide better habitat for our local birds and butterflies, and take less water and other resources made complete sense to him. There was no need to talk Rod into this-it made sense and he became enthused and excited. Rod jumped into the Garden with both feet and I had a partner.

Together, we went to early symposia on native plants, took the GWC grounds crew to various campuses all over California (Rod drove), visited nurseries and gardens specializing in natives, and talked to people who designed native gardens and who grew native plants. Generally we had a blast. We joined organizations like the American Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboretums, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the California Native Plant Society, and others. In a short time we accumulated a greater understanding of designing a native garden and of actually growing natives, compiled an extensive list of native experts and contacts throughout the state, and obtained an excellent library on natives and on horticulture in general.

Rod Wallbank in the Native GardenHe and I (and many volunteers over the years) basically built the Native Garden here at Golden West College on a shoestring. The Garden was and is an oddity on campus, overseen partially by both the Grounds Department and the Science Department and it is unfunded other than contributions. With almost no budget it was often Rod’s “can do” attitude that got us through. Every need and challenge was met with a deliberate and thought out plan mixed with a bit of Rod’s charisma, humor, arm twisting, hard work, and extreme resourcefulness.

When we needed rock and boulders to use in our natural style landscapes, Rod found someone who worked in a quarry in Irwindale. He borrowed a district dump truck every Thursday and filled it up (usually by hand) and returned to the campus dumping one load each week, week after week. When he discovered the City of Huntington Beach had a surplus of its beautiful old 1904 cast iron street lights he arranged (with the help of Peter Green) to buy them for the Garden for $1 each. Sandblasting and powder-coating were arranged as a tax write-off for a local company and those lights now stand on each side of the Garden amphitheater and back by the Astronomy pad. We needed a lath house, so when a court referred worker revealed he was a carpenter Rod put him to work and in days we had our lath house. Extending the Garden? Rod received permission from then President Judith Valles, and arranged for a Birkenstock wearing, excavation and grading contractor named Bud Greenleaf to donate hundreds of cubic yards of soil and the grading equipment to create the topography existing today-Rod even got to drive a piece of the monster equipment, a story he would tell with a smile. There is almost no feature in the Garden that Rod did not have a hand in.

Rod Wallbank in the shopThe years flew by and Rod retired, but even then he stayed on part-time to make sure the Garden kept advancing. It was only after was confident the Garden was being taken care by our community volunteer core that he really retired-but would still come by and check on what was blooming and chat with appreciative Garden volunteers.

In 2009, the GWC Native Garden hosted a symposium on growing native plants. This was something Rod and I had planned for years but had just never got around to until then. With help from the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society we hosted the “At Home with Natives” Symposium at Golden West College. It was at this sold out event that Rod was presented with the Garden’s first Oak Award for “for outstanding service to the Golden West College Native Garden and hence to the College itself.” Rod had during his career won awards for classified staff of the month and of the year, been featured in magazine and newspaper articles, and honored for his academic efforts but I hope that the Oak Award from the GWC Native Garden that he helped create was one of his favorite honors. Here is some of the text from the Award:

 “This award is presented to an individual of engaging character, contagious humor, and inspiring leadership who, for over last two decades has been responsible for making the Golden West College Native Garden a truly unique place on the Golden West College campus. Rod’s accomplishments as Co-Director of the Garden are far too numerous to list. His hard work, imagination, and vision are seen throughout the Garden.”

It continues, “Although he has retired it is hoped he will remain an ambassador of the Garden and continue to inspire faculty, staff, and all Garden visitors. His regular presence in the Garden will be missed but we remember him each time we stroll the pathways he laid out, use the amphitheater he built, or admire the grove of Engelmann Oaks he planted.”

Those Oaks will grow, reaching towards the sun as the “Rod Wallbank Grove” and the Garden will be there for those who are curious and who want a place to learn, to paint, stroll, inhale, ask questions, or have a cup of coffee and tell a story.

Thanks for everything, Rod

A Young Rod Wallbank in the workshopA bit more: With his large store of knowledge and personal experience it is important to note that Rod deliberately became a mentor to many grateful students throughout the years. If only I had a quarter for every time I heard him ask a student what their major was, or what they were studying, or where they thought that would take them. Then he make some very practical suggestions regarding  paths for study, what books would lead them to a more complete understanding, what teachers, what counselors, what universities might  be a good fit for them. Later I would see him talking to the same students in an encouraging way, always promoting education and learning and personal progress and adventure.

Whether as a student, a college, or friend, whenever you spent time with Rod you always knew there would be fun, investigation, a pushing of the envelope, understanding, humor, attempts at accents, food, drink, and stories. Always a story. Stories that would start with Rod saying “Did I ever tell you about a guy I used to know?” and off you would go into a commune in Oregon, or a chum in La Mirada High School, the sands and surf of Seal Beach, or a bookstore in Santa Monica. If he found out you enjoyed a drink now and then he would ask, “Do you know who makes the best martini?” After your response he would go into a pretty good tale of who does make a very good martini, who he heard this from, the Maxfield Parrish art on the walls, what the bartenders are like, the name of the bartender who served him, the history of the establishment (and it did have to have history) and any other details that would make you wish you were in San Francisco at that moment sipping a martini at the Pied Piper Bar of the Sheraton Palace Hotel even if you really prefer beer. I remember him saying when he knew I was going to Boston, “Do you like oysters?” and off he went on a story about the Union Oyster House near Faneuil Hall in Boston where Daniel Webster sat eating oysters back in the day at the very heavy wooden bar that is still there today. “Get a pint of ale and a dozen oysters-You can’t go wrong.” Of course he was correct.

Talks of the 9th century Islamic world’s role in algebra, old movies like “Gunga Din” or “The Four Feathers”, equally old British mysteries like Lord Peter Wimsey or Sherlock Holmes, grounds crew exploits, explanations for algebra that made sense (even to me), who the best Volkswagen mechanic was (Han’s), the best bookstore in Berkeley (Moe’s), quotes of particular merit (“The Gods have coffee-stained teeth”), and spirited morning greetings are sprinkled through the years like good deli’s on the highway of life.

Sometimes we forget what a wonderful world this is, but Rod helped remind us.

Garden Contact: Dan Songster at dsongster@gwc.cccd.edu

Fremontia, The Journal of the California Native Plant Society - VOL. 36, NO. 2–3 • SPRING/SUMMER 2008

VOL. 36, NO. 2–3 • SPRING/SUMMER 2008
GOLDEN WEST COLLEGE NATIVE GARDEN: A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
by Dan Songster

[PDF] version of VOL. 36, NO. 2–3 • SPRING/SUMMER 2008

Fremontia, The Journal of the California Native Plant Society - VOL. 33, No. 4 October 2005

VOL. 33, No. 4 October 2005
MUSING ON LEAF AND TWIG: NOTES ON WINTER PRUNING OF NATIVE TREES
by Dan Songster

[PDF] version of VOL. 33, No. 4 October 2005

A Few Winter Chores for Native Gardens
California Native Plant Society
Orange County Chapter

November/December 2004

A Few Winter Chores for Native Gardens

By Dan Songster

As the weather cools and plant growth slows we often have time off from routine garden work. So rather than sit and sip a hot mug of whatever (while leafing through promising seed catalogs), we choose not to ignore our gardens. Instead we find this to be an ideal time to get our gardens ready for the coming spring, a season full of other pleasant but demanding distractions. I hope you find the following suggestions for Winter garden activities useful.

Pruning: For those natives that benefit from trimming, this is the very best time to prune, shear, or in some cases hack away in your garden. Plants such as Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis); Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicanum); Water Birch (Betula fontinalis), and False Indigo Bush (Amorpha fruiticosa) often lack structure. During winter they are bare of leaf, making it much easier to select and prune out unwanted crossing and cluttering branches. These cuts you make in winter will direct spring’s new growth.

Shearing about one third of foliage volume suits plants such as Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii), Island Snapdragon (Galvesia speciosa), and Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa). This helps create a more compact plant that is more densely flowered in spring. Lighter shearing (if any), is used on plants such as Chaparral Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus), Hollyleaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), and Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum).

Some plants are a bit too vigorous for our small home gardens, but we can’t resist their beauty. Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri), Coast Sunflower (Encelia californica), and Wild Rose (Rosa californica) fall into this category. These do well with a severe pruning, to the ground, every year or two. (With the Romneya it’s every year for sure). California Fuchsia (Epilobium californica) also can be treated in this manner. These plants are fast growers and with the exception of Encelia, spread quickly by underground rhizomes. Care should be taken in placing these aggressive plants in your garden.

Some mature grasses and grass like plants benefit from a close cropping every year or two. The Needlegrasses (Nassela sp) and Melica Grass (Melica imperfecta) are good examples of graceful but eventually messy plants. Fresh growth is promoted by such trimming accomplished with either a sharp pair of hand pruners or a weed-eater. I have found mature Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), to respond nicely as well, though it really isn’t needed to remain somewhat tidy. Not all grasses or grass-like plants benefit equally from such artificial grazing. Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), Purple Three-Awn Grass (Aristida purpurea ), and the lovely blue colored Red Fescues (Festuca rubra) are three which can be left alone and still look presentable. But to look really fresh in the spring perhaps a semi-annual “haircut” is warranted.

Vines: Now is a great time to trim and train your native vines. Heart-Leaved Penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia) lacks the tendrils needed for solo climbing but looks excellent along a fence. The use of adhesive discs with twist ties helps bring their blooms up to eye level. Remember, it prefers cool roots, so mulch or perhaps plant inside a shrub such as Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), allowing it to grow up through the foliage and its blossoms to cascade down in late spring and early summer. Both of our California grapes (Vitis californica& V. giridiana) enjoy a good pruning about now. I usually take about a third off of young plants, just above a growth point. Older, established plants can usually be trimmed back as hard as is needed without harm. Vines pulling away from the fence or arbor should be held in place with stretch tie. Virgins Bower (Clematis sp.) looks best hanging from the lower branches of a small tree or draped down the side of a large shrub. Disobedient runners should be wound up through its “host” plant before the new, tender growth of spring sprouts.

Transplanting: Winter’s cooler temperatures and higher humidity mean less shock to the plant you are moving. Often such moves can stimulate new growth and vigor in a plant that was unhappy in its prior spot. Have the new hole dug to the right depth before carefully lifting out the plant from its old home and gently setting it in place. Install with root crown slightly above surrounding grade. Unless rain is imminent create a basin and water immediately. Do not fertilize transplants.

Wildflowers: If you have seeded your garden with wildflowers it is probable that they share their seedbed with several non-native annuals  (or what I refer to as weeds). It is best to weed these areas while these weeds are small and easy to pull, and before they begin competing for the nutrients and water the wildflowers need. This is much easier if you know what wildflower seedlings look like, (as opposed to germinating weeds). Sow a small amount of each seed in a flat and label accordingly. You will see what the immature plants look like and what not to weed. Unfortunately, snails and slugs seem to prefer wildflowers, especially Lupines (and many of our young bulbs as they emerge!) So be prepared to attack them either with a bait or some home remedy you know of.

Stem Rot: One of the most important duties of the native gardener regardless of season, is an inspection of root crowns. There should be NO mulch up against plant stems (or tree trunks). Even more important, no soil should be washed up against the plants stem or trunk. This happens most commonly on inclines when a watering basin cut into the hill fills with soil washed from above. It can also occur in level situations if plants are installed too low and surrounding soil slowly washes in. Such conditions provide just the right environment for stem rot, almost sure death for the plant. Scrape away soil until you get to the surface roots of the plant. This is especially important with woody perennials and trees. If the plant is too low, raise it. Oh, and remember to knock away the front rim of hillside watering basins in the winter to allow soils and mulches to wash out instead of piling up around the plants stem.

Propagation: As the season progresses you will notice seedlings from various native plants in your garden. No, these are not weeds! Monkeyflower, Buckwheat, California Lilac, Blue-eyed Grass, Columbine, Douglas Iris, Chaparral Mallow, Lemonadeberry, and others drop seeds that will germinate unattended in the garden. They can be carefully dug, potted up, and planted in the fall in suitable locations, or given to worthy friends. Don’t forget—spring is also the time for cuttings.

Support: A bit of movement is a good thing to thicken and strengthen the trunks of young trees or shrubs, but flopping back and forth in the winter winds often causes roots to be torn from the trunk. Lightly tie your trees or shrubs to a pair of stakes placed on either side of the root ball. This gives them room to bend and flex, but limits extreme movement. When the plant’s root system is secure, untie it from the stake.

Wet Soil: Yes, there is always plenty to do in a garden; even low maintenance natives need some care. Unfortunately, during the wet season we must be cautious not to ruin the structure of our gardens soils. Most importantly we should avoid compacting our clay soils by trampling around on them when too wet. What is too wet? Here is Dan’s Test for clay soil workability. Dig out a shovel full of soil from your garden, raise it to a height above your knees and slowly turn the shovel upside down. If the soil stays stuck to shovel blade: Forget it. If it hesitates before falling: Forget it. If the soil releases from the shovel upon being turned, but does not break apart when hitting the earth, you are close, but should probably wait a day or two longer if you can. Obviously, the best case would have the soil breaking apart when hitting the ground. That’s when you dance happily into the garden, trimming, transplanting, and doing other winter chores, ahead of or in-between winter showers and getting ready for the spring.

Garden Journal: Don’t you have one? Now is a good time to start a garden scrapbook whether electronic or the old fashioned kind. (Yes, while sipping on a mug of hot whatever). Fill it with photos, plant information, the date the first Humboldt Lily blossom opened, bird arrivals, strange weather, new gardening books you have read, plants you have killed, those you have revived, recipes involving native plants, and Dan’s Soil Test results. Of course nowadays it can be most easily done on computer with digital photos, etc., but I still love the written journal with its informal sketches and ideas, taped-in plant labels, and spontaneous observations, misspellings and all. By hand or computer, a journal is one of the most useful tools for the garden and is also a lot of fun!

Garden Contact: Dan Songster at dsongster@gwc.cccd.edu

A Garden that's Alive!
California Native Plant Society (CNPS)
September/October 2001 Newsletter

A Garden that’s Alive!By Dan Songster

“Once a garden comes alive ecologically, it displays a humor and richness of meaning that have been missed by narrow views of horticulture. Significance expands. Meanings multiply. Each plant or planting becomes much more than what nurseries believe they sell, or gardeners suppose they grow, or visitors would notice.”

Noah’s Garden,
by Sarah Stein

We are in love with the wilderness. Such vibrant spaces speak to us saying, “Wander in me, discover my secrets, drink me in, inhale me, I am real.” Our state’s natural areas are rubenesque in their fullness and diversity, richly endowed with color, scent and texture. And they are alive! Birds are everywhere eating berries and seeds, hummingbirds sipping nectar, native bees, flies, dragonflies, and butterflies in various stages of development, many animals busy with their daily (or nocturnal) activities, along with the not so obvious fungal and bacterial alliances operating silently in the soil itself. How can we not be in love with such active landscapes? Whether it is the shady oak understory, the gray-green tapestry of our coastal sage scrub, or the elfin forest of chaparral, they are all magnificent. A small plateau of native grasses saturated with the purple of Brodiaeas and bordered with the shaded apricot of Mimulus. A grouping of boulders long ago rolled to where they now lie half-buried, with Dudleya and Coffee fern beneath and between, a cloak of dark green Coffeeberry above. A simple bank of rusty Buckwheat blossoms against an amber sandstone background. How many miniature gardens do we find on a single hike in the nearby hills? Hundreds of glorious scenes worth stopping at to take notes, sketch, photograph, or simply gaze. And each of them provides some benefit, often essential, to the animals that live there.

So it is only natural that slowly (even here in lawn-carpeted western landscapes) we would wish to incorporate these native plants into our gardens and invite such critters into our landscapes. Of course there will be differences between our gardens and the real thing. In our nearby wildlands the plants grow because a seed washed up behind a boulder and stopped long enough to germinate. Dead plants serve as a perch before slowly decomposing into mulch. A few dry years in a row? No additional water is added. Gardens, however, are by definition a controlled environment. Even those gardens designed to imitate some natural association of plants we have spied in the wild are still designed and so require some maintenance. Rather than growing as chance dictates since space is often very limited, individual plants are carefully placed, overly competitive plants may be thinned or removed, dead plants, rather than slowly becoming mulch, are simply removed, and water can be provided when rain fails. Still the overall concept follows a natural pattern and its maintenance is relatively low, and most importantly, the gardener is more than rewarded by the forms of life that adopt the garden as their home.

So how do we go about designing and installing such a garden? Research for such a landscape is now easy as numerous books and magazines present practical guidance on this now (deservedly) popular trend. Native gardens such as Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and smaller ones such as the Golden West College Native Garden provide blueprints for what is successful (or not) and can also be a source of practical installation advice. Field trips into our local hills provide glimpses of many of the plants that can be used and the interesting combinations in which nature arranges them. By selecting plants that remind you of a hike in the local chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, or even along our coastal bluffs, you bring a bit of that adventure into the environment surrounding your home. It is a structure that invites interaction both by you and the animals it attracts, as opposed to the conventional landscape of lawn, hedge, and rose with its routine upkeep and its singular purpose of being viewed.

And so these plants are familiar but wild, tamed but not entirely so. The garden is designed but is allowed and expected to change. Its structure is a framework for plants that invite the nearby birds, butterflies, and insects to join into a landscape that is full of life, a garden that pulses with the cycles of seasonal change. Once we arrange and install the garden’s “ingredients” we then need only wait to receive our visitors. That is when the garden becomes truly alive!
Garden Contact: Dan Songster at dsongster@gwc.cccd.edu

GWC California Native Garden (The Inspiration of Dan Songster and Rod Wallbank)

Garden Contact: Dan Songster at dsongster@gwc.cccd.edu