Southwest Regional Reports

An Edible Garden With a Twist

Learn how this Southern California ranch became a sustainable wildlife haven

medowscaped border
Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis, Zones 7–11) arches from a meadowscaped border along a gravel path. Photo: Cara Hanstein

Within the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, where I work, there lies a secret, lesser-known garden. The James P. Folsom Experimental Ranch, named for the beloved, newly retired director, is a regenerative gardening wonder.

Apricots and plums in buckets next to wildflowers
Apricots and plums are harvested as colorful wildflowers bloom nearby. Photo: Cara Hanstein

All the edible gardening SoCal has to offer

This garden was designed with the intention of exploring the edible possibilities here in Southern California. With a mixed fruit tree orchard, a traditional vegetable row garden, and additional fruit trees laced throughout the landscape, this garden does just that. Exploration, experimentation, and education are the goals of this space.

beans wind up trellises
In the veggie garden, beans wind up trellises between rows of basil. Photo: Cara Hanstein

A visitor- and pollinator-friendly design

With only 1½ acres, this garden packs a punch with dense plantings, curvilinear paths, and multiple gathering spots. In addition to the edible plants, the garden is enveloped by pollinator-attracting California and Mediterranean natives. The integration of these plants encourages water-wise ecological education for visitors.

Perennials and wildflowers
Perennials and wildflowers bloom among scattered fruit trees, attracting pollinators. Photo: Cara Hanstein

Seeds attract animals

The wildlife is robust at the Ranch Garden. This is due not only to the diversity of plantings but also to the way maintenance is handled. Flower seeds are allowed to set, wildflowers are sown, and a wilder look is encouraged. This garden is not formal, and nature feels at home here.

large pile of compost
The compost used at the Ranch Garden comes directly from plant materials grown here. Photo: Cara Hanstein

A healthy garden starts with healthy soil

As gardeners, we understand that a successful garden starts with healthy soil. The most impactful gardening activities at the Ranch Garden center around taking care of the soil. Gardeners apply mulch and monitor the density of plantings to ensure that the soil is covered and protected. Walking in beds is discouraged to reduce compaction, and composting efforts are prioritized. Composting returns the garden’s bounty to the soil for an enclosed, regenerative approach.

gravel and dirt pathway through garden
The winding paths through the garden are made from gravel pressed by passerby into the dirt. Photo: Cara Hanstein

Accessible hardscaping

This garden, established in 2009, feels mature at only 12 years old. That is an inspiring feat considering this space was once used as a parking site. Visitors can leave feeling empowered, as everything done to this garden is doable at home. The gravel pathways, rock edging, and recycled-concrete raised beds were all used with the intention of making this garden feel like an accessible Southern California backyard.

Reflecting on design and technique

My biggest takeaways from visiting this garden are that (1) wildlife love diversity, so don’t be afraid to mix it up; (2) native plantings are beautiful and can anchor a shifting edible landscape; and (3) adding organic material to the soil boosts garden health. For more on the regenerative gardening practices discussed here, check out Regenerative Gardening Practices in Southern California.

—Cara Hanstein is a head gardener at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

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