How Descanso Garden’s Horticulture Team Keeps the Flowers Blooming

Rachel Young, director of horticulture and garden operations at Descanso Gardens, and her team keep the flowers blooming.

By Brandon L. Black, Photos courtesy of Descanso Gardens

As an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota studying biology, Rachel Young took a summer internship conducting field research in Puerto Rico. She quickly discovered that being surrounded by and working in nature suited her. It was a far cry from the previous summer, when she interned in the colorless confines of a lab, devoid of any interaction with Mother Nature.

The Puerto Rico experience catalyzed Young’s decision to pursue a career in horticulture, a decision that would eventually bring her to Descanso Gardens—first as an intern in the plant records department, then as a full-time staff horticulturist moving from one collection to the next over six years. She became director of horticulture and garden operations in July 2013.

Young worked as a field botanist with the National Parks Service in the Santa Monica Mountains for two years. While finishing up her graduate studies in ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, she took an internship at Descanso Gardens, the renowned, 165-acre botanical retreat in La Cañada Flintridge.

“What I love about Descanso is that I can reach a lot of people and help them protect our environment,” Young says, noting that she’s able to impart to visitors the importance not only of preserving places like Descanso Gardens, but of “preserving resources in their home gardens and creating habitat for wildlife in addition to better habitat for people.”

Young is responsible for a team of 20 when at full staff, split between horticulture and maintenance. “I work on the tulips to the toilets,” she says, tongue in cheek. “I’m very lucky that I have an amazing team. They really have a passion for the landscape, the plants and the gardens themselves.”

More than 3,157 plant varieties contribute to some 11,765 plantings that make up the gardens, which welcome an estimated 650,000 visitors annually. Three horticulturists each independently manage a section of the collections, while camellias are shared. With such a vast collection, the issues requiring attention are as diverse as Descanso’s flora and fauna. For instance, when 23,000 tulips—pre-chilled from Washington State—arrived at Descanso in January, display horticulturist David Bare knew this is was an “all hands on deck situation.”

“Tulips [need to be] planted immediately or else they’ll mold if they sit around too long,” Bare explains. Making the job even more challenging, during the month of January Southern California had seen wild fluctuations in temperature and weather patterns, which impacts the bloom cycle for tulips and many other species of plants, flowers, and trees. “You never know if it’s going to be cold, raining, or hot, you just have to deal with whatever comes your way,” Bare says. “Between volunteers and staff, we can get [tulips] planted in a day in a half.”

Layla Valenzuela, who is responsible for the 20-acre Oak Woodlands and California Natives garden, has her share of challenges as well—including from the local deer population. Deer, however aesthetically pleasing, are known to cause significant damage, particularly in the rose garden and portions of Valenzuela’s native garden, limiting the variety of species grown such as wildflowers and poppies. Like deer, invasive and insidious weeds are a constant threat to the 5-acre rose garden under the care of horticulturalist George Claridge. With some 300 different species and 1,600 roses, this requires hours of laborious work for Claridge and his crew.

Clearly Young and her team have their work cut out for them, but they just as clearly relish the task. While no two days are ever the same for Descanso’s horticulturists, one constant remains the same: planning for the future. “The garden that you see today is not the work we did today or yesterday. It’s the work we did six months ago or a year or two years ago,” says Young, whose team is preparing for significant projects including building a garden that utilizes recycled water and planting the next generation of camellias.

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