I went on the Theodore Payne garden tour this weekend. The tour features a number of gardens all across Los Angeles with beautiful landscaping that incorporates a minimum of 60% native California plants. Gardens ranged from dreadful to delightful, but none topped the garden I visited in Cudahy.
Where is Cudahy? Right next to HP and South Gate. Where is that? Okay, that means you’re not Latino. Almost nobody has heard of Cudahy, 1 square mile of Los Angeles that has its own teeny tiny school district. It also boasts the lowest per capita income west of the Mississippi. There is one school in Cudahy called the Elizabeth Learning Center. The school is K-12 and has a whopping 98% graduation rate, which is higher than almost any other district in the nation. The school is so astounding that it prompted a visit from Al Gore during his campaign.
Elizabeth Learning Center (ELC) has an AP Environmental Science class. Teaching the class is George Nanoski, an LA Native with roots in Baja California, Poland and the Ukraine. He has been teaching in Cudahy for several years now. In 2006, he found out that the school was going to tear out a big concrete flag circle to make way for something ugly and uninspired.
George saw opportunity where few would see more than an eyesore. The concrete bowl, approximately 30 feet in diameter, was filled with trash and weeds of the non-native variety, such as European mallow, clover dandelion and foxtail. In honor of Earth Day, George put his students to work clearing the trash and yanking out all of the weeds. George turned off the irrigation system to ensure that they wouldn’t return; and George’s class began their first experiment – the Coast/Chaparral garden.
George collects seeds on all of his trips to nature, and he had handfuls of Channel island plants and seeds to give each student, who threw them, much like a biblical mustard seed, to see which grew, which died, and which thrived. The resulting garden includes a native Ash nearly 30 feet tall after 9 years, local mallow, pyrophilic manzanita, penstemon, and a gaggle of California coastal shrubs I had never heard of or even seen because they live on the Channel Islands and not the mainland.
To survive drought, many of these plants go through a dormancy period, and suddenly wake up when there has been a good amount of rain, like LA had in December and January. The garden was wide awake, with some species competing for resources with others. The Indian Paintbrush, a beautiful orange brushlike plant with green bristles, is a semi-parasite. It requires other plants nearby to break down the food, so it can feed off of their roots. It does however photosynthesize, so it isn’t considered a complete parasite.
When this garden was completed, the next was a desert habitat that was built after some grass had to be torn out to make way for a handicapped ramp. George jumped on it, turned off the irrigation (a critical factor in Environmental Science learning gardens) and planted species native to all of the Californias, including Baja and Baja del Sur. As George talks about the garden, you can see that glimmer of native plant geek in his eye. He knows more about native plants than most of the people’s gardens I visited. He probably knows more than some of the botanists at the Theodore Payne nursery, and he definitely knows more than any other nursery owner I have ever met.
George’s most recent experiment with his students is the “Vernal Pools.” These are ponds that I remember from my childhood, that would warm up in Spring so you could swim, but they were only about 3 feet deep at their deepest point. By the end of summer, the pond was dry and many of the plants appeared to have died, only to come raging back to life as the Autumn rains began to fall. The class created three pools – shallow, deeper, and deepest. The first two were dry, and the third was home to tadpoles and fairy shrimp – a close relative of the Sea Monkey. These are species of freshwater beast that can survive in egg form for over 100 years until they are submerged in water, when they hatch and continue their cycle of life. The whole cycle lasts a few weeks for many species, so they must be born, reach sexual maturity, and lay eggs before the water dries up. According to George, there are only two vernal pools left in Los Angeles besides the pools he and his students created. The rest have been paved and parked and landscaped out of existence. George has one of the rarest vernal pool plants in existence, the elusive Otay Mesa Mint, growing on the edge of the deeper pool.
The visit to Elizabeth Learning Center made me cry. My good friends know I’m a bit of a cry-baby anyway, but this was unexpected. What I realized as George was showing me around the beautiful gardens he and his students had lovingly created from seed, there was a specter looming over them. One was poverty. The cycle of poverty had led some students to come to the school in June 2014 and destroy the gardens. Some plants were the only ones left, and they are gone forever. That made me cry.
But what also made me cry was George’s un-daunted determination to continue the work he is doing, because he knows that it is the right path for him. As someone who has wandered down wrong paths lured by glittering toys and lurid vice, I envied George’s single-mindedness of purpose, and his determination to change the lives of these children whose only wealth may just be the education that they receive from him.
What made me cry the third time was when I asked how many visitors he had that day, and he changed the subject, remarking how “almost nobody knows where Cudahy is.” I think we may have been a very small subset of the chi-chi garden set who chose to seek out the learning center and discover its vast treasure trove of California gold. How dare that crowd go to Santa Monica and Huntington Beach and skip the most important, most amazing, and most beautiful set of gardens in the whole Southland! They will never get to see Otay Mesa Mint.