Gardening for the Greater Good

Sustainable Gardening and Agricultural Best Practices from Santa Barbara’s CEC and Lotusland

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent. Credit: Neslihan Gunaydin / Unsplash

The benefits of sustainable gardening and regenerative agriculture took the spotlight at a recent sustainability salon featuring Community Environmental Council (CEC) climate resilience program director Sharyn Main and Lotusland sustainability manager Corey Welles. Here are some of the nuggets they shared at the gathering in Belle Hahn’s beautiful garden on the Upper Eastside.

1) Change Can Happen:  After 32 years at Lotusland, Welles certainly has the dirt on the esteemed garden’s best practices in plant healthcare. “Lotusland wasn’t always a perfectly organic operation,” he admitted. “In the very beginning, it was completely conventional, and they used pesticides. If you were an organic farmer walking in, you would have been horrified.” But the will to become more environmentally sound was there, and they worked to find the way.

“We literally cracked the code; we stopped listening to the conventional minds and started listening to biologists,” he said. “Fertilizers caused 80 percent of the diseases at Lotusland. Once we got the pesticides and chemical fertilizers out of there, we never went back. It was a moment of taking responsibility ​— ​if something’s wrong, you take responsibility for it.” And it worked. The first year, they had a 70 percent reduction in pests, and it increased from there.

2) More than No Pesticides:  A sustainable garden involves more than just getting rid of chemical pesticides. Other key principles include using natural materials such as alfalfa meal, sea kelps, and organic nitrogen sources to feed plants and the soil.

Building up insect ecology is also important. While it may seem counterintuitive, Welles shared that increasing the number and variety of insects in the landscape and providing a habitat for beneficial insects helps control invasions of plant pests. Native plants are especially good for this.

The other key sustainable practice at Lotusland is recycling all of the plant material removed from the garden back in the form of compost teas and mulches that are reused in the garden.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent. Credit: Courtesy

3) Demonstrate the Way:  Lotusland wasn’t yet open to the public when Main was a teenager in the 1970s, but she confided that it didn’t stop her from sneaking in to explore. As one of the first wave of environmentalists working for CEC, Main and her colleagues had an organic demonstration garden at the organization’s first offices on the Mesa in one of the earliest green buildings in the country. They had composting toilets (“the cutting edge for energy efficiency”) and a green rooftop with plantings to help cool the building, and they taught people about organic agriculture and gardening while discouraging the use of pesticides. She even co-wrote a book called BUGS (“Beneficial Urban Garden Strategies”), which was published in both English and Spanish.

“That garden was super important to our program,” said Main. “We talked a lot about the value of using native plants to protect biodiversity and improve soil health as part of an organic food garden.”

4) Regenerative Ag:  One of the ways CEC is working to reverse the climate threat today is by encouraging regenerative, climate-smart agriculture. “These practices ​— ​like applying compost on working lands and planting native plants along edges of fields ​— ​can actually help sequester carbon from the atmosphere. By restoring a natural balance in this way, plants respond by pulling more carbon from the air (through photosynthesis) into the ground, where it’s beneficial to the soil and plants,” said Main.

Carbon farming, a land-based, natural solution to climate change, is a way to transfer excess carbon out of the atmosphere ​— ​where it is causing a lot of harm ​— ​and store it in the soil, where it does a lot of good.

CEC is actively working with ranchers and large landowners, said Main. “If we can apply compost to just 10 percent of our agricultural lands, we could offset the emissions of the entire agriculture sector in Santa Barbara County. So this is doable. This is actually a reasonable thing we can achieve.”

5) Everyone Can Compost:  One of the simplest ways for people to help at home is by making and using compost, said Main. Mow or trim weeds instead of pulling them out at their roots, and compost instead of landfilling yard waste and food scraps.

6) Watch Your Water:  Last but not least on the path to sustainable gardening is the importance of carefully managing water use, a key factor that was mentioned by both Welles and Main. Water conservation is made much easier when pests are under control through the promotion of pollinators and beneficial insects, natural materials are used to feed plants and soil, plant materials removed from the garden are recycled into compost or mulch, and native species are primarily what is planted.

Following sustainable practices includes avoiding polluting chemicals, preserving natural resources, and reducing waste whenever possible. Sustainable gardening is not just about growing plants and maintaining a garden; it’s also about growing a greener future. As Welles said, “You don’t have to sacrifice beautiful, breathtaking gardens to be responsible.”

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent. Credit: Courtesy

Santa Barbara Independent, May 19-25, 2002. ON THE COVER: Madame Ganna Walska, taken c. 1958. Photo by J.R. Eyerman/Lotus- land Archives. Design by Ava Talehakimi.

Originally published in the May 19-25 issue issue of the Santa Barbara Independent. To see the story as it originally appeared click here.

The Lowdown on Lotusland

Montecito’s Eccentric Garden Paradise Comes to Life in New Book

Underneath the canopy of towering dragon trees (Dracaena draco) is a large, candelabrum-shaped Isolatocereus dumortieri as well as eye-catching clusters of golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii), which were some of Madame Ganna Walska’s favorite cacti. | Credit: ©Lotusland by Rizzoli, New York, 2022. Image ©Lisa Romerein

Show business ran deep through the veins of Madame Ganna Walska, so when the time finally came to showcase her legendary garden in book form, the pressure was on.

And like the creation of Montecito’s extraordinary 37-acre public garden extravaganza, it took a whole cast of characters to bring the new, 288-page coffee table book Lotusland: Eccentric Garden Paradise (Rizzoli, 2022) — stunningly photographed by Lisa Romerein — to life.

Architect Marc Appleton, a longtime supporter and former trustee of Ganna Walska Lotusland, had unsuccessfully tried to drum up support for a book project for years, but the stars never quite aligned until 2019, when the “Book Committee” — comprised of Appleton, current trustee Dorothy Gardner and former trustees Suzanne Mathews and Alex Morse — was formed.

Lotusland is sited on a gently sloping hill and spans 37 acres. With the area’s coastal Mediterranean climate — and almost 300 days of sunshine per year — the property has been a testing ground for experimenting with new types of tropical and subtropical plants since 1882. | Credit: ©Lotusland by Rizzoli, New York, 2022. Illustrated by Janice Blair

The county permit limits the number of visitors to the garden to just 15,000 people a year, so it’s always a challenge to share Lotusland with as many people as possible

“We raised independent funds from subscribers to establish a publication budget, and we were off and running,” said Appleton. 

“Everyone said yes, which is kind of remarkable and a testament to their relationships. It really was volunteer driven and that’s important to appreciate and highlight,particularly in this town where so many volunteers do so much,” said Executive Director Rebecca Anderson.” 

Curator Paul Mills, Historian Rose Thomas, Jeff Chemnick, Mike Furner, Corey Welles, Founding Trustee Arthur Gaudi, Eric Nagelmann (who designed the cactus garden) and Madame Walska’s niece Hania Tallmadge (who recently passed away) were but a few of the many people involved in this team effort.

The book has a lot of ground to cover — and it does. Anderson explained, “while it’s meant to focus on the garden today and our future, it’s meant to be a garden book. It’s not meant to be a retrospective of how the garden began. But I really appreciate that we were able to get in there the people who created this place because without a little bit of that it’s not a complete story.”

Indeed the dramatic flair and inimitable spirit of of Madame Walska is woven throughout the book and the world-renowned horticultural showplace, which is home to more than 3,400 types of plants, including at least 35,000 individual specimens, 

Another important factor Anderson emphasized is “making sure that people not only have takeaways about inspiration and ideas for design or knowledge of particular plants in that index in the back but also that they understand that this is all done with

organic materials and sustainable practices.” 

With such a large scope of the gardens to be documented, Curator Paul Mills worked with photographer Lisa Romerein and her assistant Dean Courtois to shoot over the span of a year, “to try to catch as many moods and happenings in the garden as possible.” Mills said, “Lotusland really is not a ‘flowery’ garden, it’s more about bold and dramatic presentation of plants. But each season does present different opportunities to capture and I would help guide them to these.”

Madame Ganna Walska picks fruit from the lemon arbor, c. 1958 | Credit: J. R. Eyerman, Ganna Walska. Lotusland Archives

He continued, “Every plant on the property has a story, but I would try to lead them to the ones that are more intriguing for one reason or another – a cycad that is now extinct in the wild and only exists in gardens like Lotusland, a dragon tree that dates back to the 1880’s when Kinton Stevens had his nursery on the property, a cactus that is endemic to the Galapagos Islands and rarely seen in botanical collections. The first shoot was in summer, so the main goal was to catch our namesake plant, the sacred lotus, in all its glory. Winter had to focus on the Aloe garden because that is when those plants light up with their torch-like inflorescences and also on the Japanese garden which really shows that season with the golden carpet of Ginkgo leaves and shapely, dormant maples. I would scout the garden before their arrival but so many times we would just happen across things – a flowering bromeliad, a fern leaf unfurling or the perfect lighting for an overall shot.” 

With 19 distinct gardens to spotlight, choosing a favorite is like choosing a favorite child, but when asked which section of the book he’s most proud of, Mills confided, “I would have to say the chapter on the Dunlap cactus garden. It’s my favorite garden on the property, not only because I was so involved in moving the collection to Lotusland and helping to oversee its installation, but because of the story behind it. Lisa was also very drawn to this garden so it got a lot of attention and amazing photos in the book.”

He continued, “We’d often be on the cart heading to a different garden, passing by the Dunlap garden, and Lisa would shout, ‘Stop!’ because she saw something looking just right. This garden was installed after Madame Ganna Walska had passed away, but the project actually started in 1966, when Merritt ‘Sigs’ Dunlap wrote to her wanting to bequeath his cactus collection to Lotusland. She saw this as something great and accepted. Luckily Sigs turned it into a donation and we moved the collection in 2001 and built the garden in 2003 where he celebrated his 97th birthday. We know Madame Ganna Walska would approve of this garden – she loved cacti and dramatic landscapes and its completion signified the fulfillment of her and Sigs’ wish.”

Credit: ©Lotusland by Rizzoli, New York, 2022

“Making the book happen in the right way was challenging, and there were ultimately a lot of interests to entertain along the way, ” said Appleton, who worked on a somewhat similar project with Rizzoli for Casa Del Herrero in 2009, and wrote the introduction to Lotusland. “But I think the book will have a long life as a fairly comprehensive presentation of Lotusland and  why it is such a special garden. Lisa’s photos are amazing, and capture its magic.”

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Limited spots are available for a Luncheon on the Lawn to celebrate Lotusland: Eccentric Garden Paradise on Saturday, May 21 at 11:30 a.m.  

In addition,Lotusland’s 2022 season is now open to reservations through August. Admission is $50 for adults and $25 for children ages 3 to 17. For more information and reservations, visit lotusland.org.

Lotusland: Eccentric Garden Paradise is available at local retailers as well as through the onsite gift shop and online at lotuslandshop.org

Santa Barbara Independent, May 19-25, 2002. ON THE COVER: Madame Ganna Walska, taken c. 1958. Photo by J.R. Eyerman/Lotus- land Archives. Design by Ava Talehakimi.

Originally published in the May 19-25 issue issue of the Santa Barbara Independent. To see the story as it originally appeared click here.