By Traude Gomez Rhine
At a recent open house for the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Garden’s Ranch Garden, Kyra Saegusa flitted about the site greeting visitors, answering botanical questions and offering up samples of “Golden” beets, “Cocktail” pommels and edible plants that she plucked from the thickets, shrubs and stalks growing around the garden’s pathways.
“You can eat these beets raw?” asked one visitor there for the self-guided tour.
Saegusa assured him that everything growing in the half-acre garden site was instantly edible, from the beets and escarole to fennel and kale.
Created in 2008, the Ranch Garden is an urban agricultural project that explores and interprets optimal approaches to gardening in regional ecosystems and, in particular the semi-arid landscapes of Southern California. The site, formerly a construction parking lot for the Chinese Garden, includes a mixture of edible landscapes, native shrubs, perennial herbs, and reseeding annuals. Many of the fruit trees – both within the garden‘s half-acre boundary, and outside in a mixed oak-fruit forest – came from the South Central Farm, an urban garden in Los Angeles, that was razed in 2006.
Taking these orphaned trees actually led to the birth of the Ranch, which provided a return to the Huntington’s original agricultural roots. Jim Folsom, the Huntington’s Marge and Sherm Telleen Director of the Botanical Gardens has stated that Henry Huntington’s interest in productive horticulture got left behind as the institutional emphasis shifted to ornamentals and rare tropical plants. The project allowed a way back to the agriculture that Henry Huntington planted as well as provided a way to rethink how Southern California grows food in the 21st century.
As Ranch Garden coordinator, Saegusa is tasked with actually implementing this mission, which involves researching varieties of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees that thrive with little care and less water in the hot and arid climate of Southern California.
“I don’t want to put precious resources into something that are not going to blow me away with flavor,” she says, adding that she jettisons plants or trees that won’t thrive without a lot of work or water.
Since Saegusa is the only full-time staff member fully dedicated to the Ranch Garden, she focuses much of her time on building networks and brokering connections with gardeners, native plant enthusiasts, landscape professionals, educators and researchers throughout Southern California. Part classroom and part laboratory, the space has regular educational programming for the general public as well as for professionals.
“I think of myself as a hub that links people with professional development, resource and information sharing,” she said. “Open houses are a good way to make that connection with the community and gather people curious about food, gardening and nature.”
Public open houses take place every fourth Saturday, March through October. The next open house is Saturday, April 23, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Ranch Garden is not open otherwise to the public on a daily basis.
A trip to the Ranch Garden can provide a bounty of tips for home-based gardeners, such as how native plants can serve as pollinators or why planting onions beneath apricot trees can benefit both the onions and the tree.
Saegusa also wants gardeners to remember that Southern Californians live in a Mediterranean (not desert!) climate with a number of eco systems that include riparian, chaparral, scrub and alpine, and that gardening involves understanding and managing microclimates on a site-by-site basis.
Saegusa will be delighted to answer specific gardening questions at any future Ranch Garden open house or public event.
For those intrigued by eating wild plants, professional forager Pascal Baudar will discusses a contemporary culinary approach to cooking with wild plants in a talk drawn from his book “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir.” The Huntington event titled “Wildcrafted Cuisine: Flavors of the Local Landscape” takes place Sunday, April 17, 2 p.m. No reservation required. Included with general admission.