Twenty years ago this month, plans were being finalized to found a new horticultural group which started with an important vision: of a friendly group, sharing information and the joy of gardening with gardeners of all skill levels and interests, from beginners to highly trained professionals. This vision very quickly became a reality, and the San Diego Horticultural Society now has over 1300 members, about ten times as many as most garden groups. We’re one of the largest and most active garden groups in the United States. We owe a big THANK YOU to our founders, who had the foresight to sow the seeds of our Society: Don & Dorothy Walker, Steve Brigham, Diana Goforth, Laurie Bussis, Linda and Bill Teague, Adele Snyder and Kathy Musial.
I wasn’t involved with the founding of the Society, but I saw an invitation to the first meeting of a new garden group in September 1994, and it really spoke to me. I was living near San Diego State at the time, and driving up to Encinitas seemed like a trip to Canada, but I’m so glad I went! Some of the people I met that night are still good friends.
Don Walker, a Los Angeles native, had been very involved with the Southern California Horticultural Society for 20 years. He and his wife, Dorothy, had moved from Torrance to Vista in 1989, and he spent 3 years designing and building his garden. He said that he realized he needed to get out in the plant community and meet other gardeners, so he volunteered as a design gardener at the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe in Vista and also at Quail Botanical Gardens (Quail) as curator of the stream and waterfall area. He served on the board of the Quail Foundation for one year, and stepped down to form the Hort. Society. He and some friends met at Bill and Linda Teague’s house, modifying the by-laws from the Southern Cal. Hort. to meet our needs. To announce the first meeting, they did a mailing from the Buena Creek Gardens customer list, thereby reaching dedicated horticulturists and enthusiastic gardeners.
Don held the meeting at the Ecke Building at Quail. (Actually, any time Don did anything, Dorothy was also on hand, helping, often in the background, to ensure things went smoothly, and she served ably as our treasurer for many years. They're both in the photo at left, taken in 2006.) The building was being renovated, and he had to run an extension cord from the gift shop to bring power for the projector, etc. There were no doors on the bathrooms (making for some interesting logistics), and the lighting was a little dodgy, but the room buzzed with the enthusiastic camaraderie that still is one of the best things about our meetings.
There were tables loaded with interesting plants (mostly from the gardens of Don Walker and Steve Brigham). There were about 100 people there, none of whom I had met before, and all of them were loving talking to each other about plants. I’m sure that Don made warm opening remarks, but what I remember most was how many people were using the Latin names of plants, none of which I knew. I recall rolling my eyes at that, as did the gal sitting next to me, Bobbi Hirschkoff, whose extraordinary Encinitas garden has been on many tours over the years. Little did I imagine that 2 years later Bobbi and I would have new houses (and new gardens) about ½ mile apart and become plant shopping buddies.
Our speaker that night was Steve Brigham (who later would write our tree book), and his topic was New Plant Introductions for Southern California. I don’t remember his talk, but I do remember his enthusiasm and his friendliness. He owned Buena Creek Gardens, so he was a nursery professional, but he seemed so approachable, as did the other folks I met that night. About 3 years later I started working for Steve at Buena Creek, the best job I ever had, and I stayed there about 4 years and it was like total botanical immersion ‘cause I learned so much. Plus, at my request he paid me in plants – which was where all my salary was going anyway!
I learned years later that Don worried there wouldn’t be much of a turnout at that first meeting. In fact, 44 people joined that night (including me and Jim Bishop). Within one month the Society had 100 members, and we outgrew the Quail meeting room in 3 months. In January 1995, we started meeting at the Fairgrounds.
One of the features of our early meetings, which I miss a lot, was our Plant Forum, where an expert – Steve Brigham, at first, and then very ably followed by Tom Piergrossi – would talk about plants that people brought in from home. Some months there were nearly 100 plants on display! As I was a transplant here from the East Coast, the vast majority of these plants were new to me, and it was invaluable learning about them. I remember that for many years, Steve and/or Don brought in the 18” long x 12” wide flowers of the Aristolochia gigantea, when it was in bloom, which Steve would sometimes wear as a jaunty cap while he told stories about the plants. When Tom was doing the plant forum, I recall he once said, to general hilarity, “Oh yes, I am familiar with this plant that so-and-so has brought in – I’ve already killed it twice.”
A few months after our founding, in Spring of 1995, we had the first local tour, visiting the amazing Escondido research greenhouses that plant hunter and hybridizer, Fred Meyer, used for his breeding program. We saw thousands of amaryllis of every imaginable color – but were so disappointed we couldn’t buy anything because they were either still being tested or were contracted for sale in Europe only for the cut flower trade. Fred was an amazing guy – both a hybridizer of all kinds of plants and also a plant hunter who frequently went to South America (especially Peru and Chile, I believe) in search of new species. Sadly, he died just a few years later, while only in his early 40s, and we honored his memory in 1999 by naming our first college scholarship the Fred Meyer Memorial Scholarship; it is given to a student at MiraCosta College. [In the photo above, we see (left to right) Kathy Musial, Fred Meyer, Steve Brigham, and Don Walker. All except Fred are founding board members.]
That same spring we also had our first local garden tour, visiting North County gardens. Local tours have continued ever since, and in 2011 we started our Featured Garden visits so we could get our garden voyeurism fix each month. We’ve visited gardens in almost every area of San Diego County, seeing every kind of plant imaginable, plus garden railroads, Japanese landscapes, succulent meadows, native plant paradises, subtropical oases, herb and veggie gardens, grape vineyards, koi ponds, and colorful foliage extravaganzas. To me, this fabulous access to inspired gardens is worth the annual dues many times over.
Our first out-of-town garden tour (in Spring, 1997) was a very ambitious day-long bus trip to Santa Barbara. We met at the Quail parking lot at 5AM so that we could make the 4-hour drive north (having breakfast on the bus) and have plenty of time to see gardens. We visited the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Lotusland, AND two exceptional nurseries. We got back after 9PM, pleasantly exhausted.
On our 1999 San Francisco tour – the first one held as a 5-day trip away from home – we had a wine & cheese party at the home & garden of Roger Raiche and David McCrory – two plant-crazy guys from the Bay Area group that calls itself the Hortisexuals – and their garden included some exceedingly phallic ceramic faux-bamboo poles made by Marcia Donahue, whose own garden featured a twisty pathway paved with cemetery headstone rejects. We stopped at the Berkeley Botanic Garden and they were having a plant sale. Our tour guide, a plant fanatic and nursery owner, leapt off the bus ahead of all of us and when we called after him to ask what time we needed to be back at the bus he gleefully shouted, “Who the hell cares, it’s a plant sale!” as he ran off. I especially loved visiting and meeting garden designers I had been reading about for years and seeing their personal gardens.
Each year since 1996 we’ve honored a Horticulturist of the Year for their many years of work serving the horticultural community in San Diego County. Our first honoree was Chuck Kline, who created the marvelous gardens at Sea World. Our members put together a fabulous Mediterranean feast and we ate it at the gazebo lawn area at Quail, laughing with delight as Pat Welsh (standing in the photo at the left) put on a one-woman “roast” of her dear friend Chuck (seated in the photo at the left), complete with a bag full of props! A few years later Pat was the one getting lightly roasted,.
In 1995 we began participating in the San Diego County Fair, starting with an information booth set up by Don & Dorothy Walker. I got my favorite question when a young couple asked me how often they should fertilize their marijuana plants and what was the best fertilizer to use. I declined to reply, but it sure beat the more common question I was getting, which was “Where’s the nearest restroom?” [Founding member Bill Teague is shown at the right, next to his award-winning Fair garden in 2005.]
For our tree book, Ornamental Trees for Mediterranean Climates, Don Walker started photographing trees all around San Diego in 1999. Steve Brigham wrote the text, and the first edition was published in 2003. It sold out in a few years, and was expanded and reprinted in 2005. Don was justly proud of this book, which has been used in college courses as a text and is in frequent use in many nurseries and by members and other home gardeners.
Over the years, and especially as I became more involved with the Hort. Society, I’ve come to know a great many members who have poured their hearts and energies into expanding and enriching the scope of what we do. It’s been a great joy to meet so many passionate gardeners, to visit their gardens and swap plants and cautionary tales about gardening. So many of our members are leading horticultural professionals, but they remain enthusiastic gardeners at heart, happy to answer questions and provide guidance.
At the end of the day, just about everyone I’ve met through SDHS is a plant nut, and these monthly meetings have been one of the highlights of my life for the last 20 years. I plan vacations around our meeting dates, eagerly anticipate the annual garden tours, and my library is filled with books by our speakers. I’ve been privileged to have visited hundreds of gardens, and have learned something from each of them, and from the generous gardeners who shared them with all of us.
I’m looking forward to the next 20 years of the Hort Society, and hope you’ll all be there to share them with me.