The California landscape of my youth feels like a pipe dream

The California landscape of my youth feels like a pipe dream

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Aug. 29. I’m Jeanette Marantos, a feature writer for The Times’ Lifestyle section who writes mostly about plants, landscapes and gardening.

Lately, most of our plant stories have focused on change — specifically the way wildfire, drought watering restrictions and global warming are forcing many Californians to reconsider what we grow in our yards and even on our balconies.

Native plants, once dismissed as weeds, are now a mainstay in my Ventura garden. I have fruits, vegetables and sunflowers growing in my front yard instead of lawn, and a drip irrigation system I’m still trying to understand. I don’t worry so much about curb appeal; I’m trying to create habitat for threatened insects and birds, grow food for my table and build a view that makes me happy when I look outside.

I didn’t come to this easily. I was born in Riverside into a military family, which meant we dipped in and out for a few years, first to Guam, then New Hampshire, but always returning to Riverside to the sprawling ranch-style house my mother adored.

When they bought the house in 1965, it was part of a new tract of homes. The developers rolled out lawn on every front yard — 3,000 square feet’s worth at our house — with a couple of stick trees propped near the curbs. As you looked up the street, it was a sea of unfenced green on either side. The backyards, however, were all sunbaked bare dirt tinged with weeds, and many houses, like ours, had a large slope rising above an expanse of flat ground.


My parents poured heart and soul into their yard. They were both avid readers of Sunset magazine, the bible of any and all gardeners in SoCal, and their improvements were mostly DIY, based on my father’s modest income and the necessity of keeping four children in shoes and Ding Dongs (an addictive hockey puck-shaped cake wrapped in foil).

Instead of a pool, we had a badminton court. We had a patio covered by a redwood deck that family friends helped my father build. My mother planted a rose garden with 20 plants. They tried and repeatedly failed to grow dichondra in their backyard — a round-headed grass that doesn’t need mowing but really thrives only in cool coastal climes — and quietly competed with everyone else in the neighborhood to have the greenest, lushest lawn out front.

Nearly every morning, I woke to the rhythmic swish of our Rain Bird sprinklers, arcing water across our wide, thirsty yard with the same soothing song — chu, chu, chu, chu chhhhhhhhh! Chu, chu, chu, chu chhhhhhhhh…!

My parents cajoled, bullied and eventually bribed their children to pull weeds from the hated slope, which they eventually covered in strawberries, citrus, jade plants and ivy. The covered patio became a shady oasis of philodendron and other tropical plants. Red hibiscus flourished along both sides of the house, a tribute to our stay in Guam. They kept those thirsty plants so well-watered that the ground there was always wet.

That was the California landscape of my youth. In retrospect, it feels like a pipe dream, given the reality of this region’s limited water and propensity for drought … a lovely memory that is no longer sustainable today. While I sometimes miss the Rain Bird’s song, I can’t justify the idea of wasting that much water on a SoCal lawn today — not when our lakes and reservoirs are going dry.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about the transition from lawns and nonnative ornamentals to native trees and plants that can infuse our neighborhoods with shade, fragrance, riotous color and — most importantly in these times of animal extinctions — sources of food and shelter for our birds, our butterflies and other threatened wildlife.

For now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Here are 13 amazing places in L.A. that you can get to using public transit. The Times’ travel writer Julia Carmel offers some positive personal insights into using buses or trains to get around Los Angeles, as well as a charming list of great local attractions to visit while letting someone else drive. Los Angeles Times

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California congressional Republican candidates have gone silent on a bill they introduced to ban abortion nationwide. Times intern Jasper Goodman reports that the Life at Conception Act was introduced in the U.S. House this year and “co-sponsored by more than half of California’s Republican congressional delegation — including three representatives who face highly competitive races in the November midterm elections: Reps. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach, Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita and David Valadao of Hanford.” But these candidates have gone mostly quiet on the issue since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade on June 24. Los Angeles Times


San Diego State University officials brought in a rape survivor to talk to campus groups, including Aztec football team members accused of rape. After SDSU officials learned that police were investigating members of the Aztec football team regarding allegations of gang rape, Jenny Bramer, an SDSU executive associate athletic director, asked Brenda Tracy, a gang-rape survivor turned public speaker, to come to the university, writes Alex Riggins of the San Diego Union-Tribune. A lawsuit filed Thursday accused three SDSU players, including punter Matt Araiza, of gang-raping a 17-year-old high school student at an off-campus party. Araiza has since been released from the Buffalo Bills. Los Angeles Times

An early-morning fight led to shooting that wounded six in a Boyle Heights bar. Early Sunday, a fight broke out at the Holiday Bar in the 2400 block of Whittier Boulevard. A man pulled out a handgun and began firing into the crowd, injuring four men and two women, all in their 20s. The suspected gunman was taken into custody and a handgun recovered at the scene, according to the LAPD. Los Angeles Times.

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Roll up your sleeves; Omicron-busting booster shots are nearly here. My San Francisco-based colleague Rong-Gong Lin II covers coronavirus and COVID-19 developments like a blanket, from the early days of the pandemic in 2020 to the newest variant BA.5 and all the intrigue and drama along the way. His latest story addresses the new Omicron booster shots, which could be available in a few weeks — just in time to protect against infection in November and December, when case numbers traditionally surge during the holidays. Los Angeles Times

Yes, it was cooler over the weekend, but more triple-digit heat is a-coming, just in time for Labor Day. Expect temperatures to be “an oppressive 10 to 15 degrees above average” starting on Wednesday and continuing through Sept. 5, The Times’ Laura Newberry reports. It’s not too soon to follow our tips for heat-stressed plants. At a minimum, do whatever deep watering you can now around trees or vegetables and consider pulling out some shade cloth or even an umbrella to shield plants during the hottest part of the day. Los Angeles Times

Dozens of sick and disoriented sea lions are showing up in Ventura County. Sea lions aren’t an uncommon sight along the Ventura and Santa Barbara coastlines, but they don’t usually plant themselves on popular public beaches in obvious distress. Since Aug. 15, the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute has been “deluged” with calls about sick or dying sea lions. On Friday, the institute reported treating 61 sea lions, mostly from Ventura-area beaches, with reports of four new victims. Researchers believe the culprit is domoic acid, a naturally occurring toxin in algae. Ventura County Star


The steel guitarist who helped create country’s “Bakersfield sound” was found dead with his wife on a dusty desert road. Octogenarian Larry Petree was found behind the wheel of his car on a dirt road in a remote desert area east of California City. Betty Petree, his wife of 60 years, was found leaning against the car’s rear tire. The couple were longtime residents of Bakersfield, where Larry Petree helped introduce a more twangy rock-‘n’-roll sound to country music in the 1960s with the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Family and friends don’t understand what the Petrees were doing out in the desert, so far from home, but authorities say there were no signs of foul play. Los Angeles Times

In a hometown tribute to Larry Petree and his legacy, friends and family noted that Betty was a painter with her own interests, and the two were “inseparable.” Larry was still performing regularly and driving to gigs. His cousin, Laurie Sanders, said he’d gotten lost on his way to a gig a few weeks ago. The Bakersfield Californian

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Los Angeles: Sunny, 81. San Diego: Partly cloudy, then sunny, 75. San Francisco: Partly cloudy, then mostly sunny, 67. San Jose: Sunny, 80. Fresno: Sunny, 98. Sacramento: Sunny, 94.


Today’s California memory is from Joan Morris:

I grew up in Northern California in the 1950s, and each summer we’d head to White Cottage Ranch. This family-run ranch above the Napa Valley included a vast parcel of land and five rustic cabins. We spent glorious days riding bareback on trails over grassy hillsides, along shady creeks, and stopping to explore past relics we’d find strewn over the land. Later, we’d gather at the lake for swimming, fishing and barbecuing, and glimpse deer in the meadows as we returned to our cabin at dusk.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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