I assume the Canary palm was willfully planted, but many of the more common California fan palms are volunteers. One of those rare native trees, California fan palms will also grow anywhere. A crack in the sidewalk is a favorite spot for propagation. They're in the center dividers along our freeways, growing at the base of the J-wall. I've seen them growing on top of bushes; I've seen them grow out of the sewer. People know they're palms, so they leave them to struggle on, no matter how ridiculous the scenario. My neighbors have a nice one growing out of the center of their lawn. Unplanned and uncared for, the palm continues to grow, gracing an otherwise indifferent sod landscape.
If you talk to people who love plants, who live plants, they tend to be stuck in their own gardens; the only reason they look outside is to promote their own views. We are a community that lacks what Tom Ham, senior landscape architect for Caltrans, calls an "intelligent force" that can direct our landscaping. If it doesn't grow without the help of thought, then it wasn't meant to be. In Texas, Ham says, people have the same attitude. "If God didn't put it there, then it wasn't meant to grow."
Ham grew up with a foot in two cultures; his dad's from Texas, mom's from the Philippines. He's sort of a jungle cowboy: he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt when I met him, and a pair of cowboy boots stood by his office door. (The boots were a gift from a maintenance worker who found them on a pedestrian overpass next to a pair of pants and a load of shit. The tagger they belonged to left in a hurry, and now the boots, which happened to be Ham's size, have a new owner.)
In his travels as a Caltrans employee, Tom's seen places that are worse than San Diego. In Gonzales County, Texas, for example, landscaping along the highway consists of a three-plant palette. Spaced 50 feet apart, planted by prison labor along the center median, endless miles of pampas grass, olive trees, and bottlebrush "delineate" the highway. An alternate arrangement, Ham and I agreed, might be olive trees in a row.
Ham said the Cabrillo Freeway that runs through Balboa Park was one of the first of two landscaped freeways in the state (the other was the Pasadena Freeway). This was back in 1948--49, when we were freer with our water spending. Parklike settings cost a lot of water; every canyon in San Diego can't be landscaped like the inland route downtown. Still, the road to Horton's Addition is a nice botanical accompaniment to San Diego's autoculture.
The sycamores planted in the grassy center median shade the road with their stature; near the Laurel Street Bridge, they're the dominant tree. You'll find a palm or two, some oaks, some shrubs mixed in. The Eucs are up on the sides, along with the pickleweed, the thick-fingered ice plant that's such a fixture on any highway landscaped before the droughts of the 1970s and '80s. That's when architects like Ham changed the way they did business.
Ground covers like pickleweed are heavy along the sides of these freeways. Pickleweed gained favor for its erosion-control benefits and its ability to bounce back when drivers sought alternate routes. Unfortunately, it no longer fits into Caltrans' low-water-use reality. Now you'll find Acacia redolens, lantana, prostate salvia, and shredded tree bark -- or the dry, brown grasses that take over when bulldozed hillsides are left fallow.
Drive the streets behind Mira Mesa High School, and the failure of planned landscaping is apparent. It goes back to the days when these houses were built, when giant tracts of homes were landscaped en masse. I mentioned this to Bruce Asakawa, who has a Western Gardening show Saturday mornings on KSDO. He reminded me that you don't have to go as far north as Mira Mesa; just look at Kearny Mesa or Clairemont.
Asakawa figured the cheapo development had its place in the postwar growth spurt that so affected San Diego. He hinted that today's buzz word is "sustainable landscaping," which, like the term "xeriscaping," naturalizes landscaping by using less water. What's natural for San Diego these days is sustaining sprawling growth. What we've actually sustained is the destruction of chaparral mesa after chaparral mesa. The day after we talked, I listened to Asakawa give good-natured advice to people with pet rhododendrons and azaleas. I turned the show off after an ad for Round-Up came on.
In 1974, the Marston family sponsored an advisory blueprint, written by landscape architects Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard, entitled "Temporary Paradise? A Look at the Special Landscape of the San Diego Region." Sent September 15, 1974, to then-director of the San Diego City Planning Department, James Goff, it detailed the lack of foresight driving city development and suggested remedies. Warning that Mira Mesa's growth was "too fast," they cautioned that the "people are unprotected from the sun. The plants struggle with drought and poor soil. The public spaces are barren; the resulting landscape is hot, arid, empty, and monotonous."
Wide streets and empty yards, dingy lawns, cypress and oleander if you're lucky, even the big Eucs dislike the lots in Mira Mesa. Blaming the people who live there is ridiculous. Inland development has bred problems that overwhelm our drought-challenged environment.
The emerging technologies for keeping plants alive with less water -- and getting plants that don't require as much water -- make all the difference. New buildings are landscaped with rock rose, acacias, salvia, sycamore trees, coreopsis, native irises, verbena, and tons of mulch. Drip systems that sense the moisture content of the soil, matched with small lawns, equals reduced water usage and better foliage. All this takes money, thought, and community leadership. But for many San Diegans, it's easier to get out the trailer, mount up the jet-skis, and get the hell out of Dodge. As Asakawa says, "People don't want to be tied to their yards."