Seeding the Future with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

September 23, 2013

Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk

By Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist | 

That’s when I head to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where I can treat myself to botanical eye candy. When I popped over recently, I found a little less eye candy than usual, but lots going on behind the scenes.

The garden’s entrance attraction — the wildflower meadow — is an eye-pleaser each spring. This time of year it typically looks a bit past its prime, even with buckwheat flowers and other late bloomers trying their best. This year’s low rainfall makes for a particularly dry look. Moreover, the meadow is undergoing a major renovation. Its appearance portrays the construction site that it is.

Beginning with Bermuda grass in 1929, the meadow underwent many overhauls. The traditional goal has remained to display low, showy gardens in front, beckoning the eye to the mountains beyond. This look has been implemented in various ways, from the Bermuda grass to a homogenous field of poppies and lupine. More recent meadows have been mixed grassland. This time the goal is broader: to dovetail spring color and year-round interest with a sustainable landscape that is less labor- and water-intensive.

The horticulture department, headed by Betsy Collins, has begun implementing the transformation. Weed abatement is in full swing, and will eventually encompass several methods including solarization, grow/kill cycles, hand-weeding and some herbicides (mostly for whatever still survives). Completion will be timed for the 2015 spring wildflower season.

The current executive team gives research a new prominence in the meadow renovation. Executive Director Dr. Steve Windhager is a grassland ecologist, while conservation manager Denise Knapp is a restoration ecologist. Their expertise in weed abatement and maintenance strategy are proving invaluable in creating a sustainable display garden.

The research-based approach extends to all aspects of the garden’s work, including outreach. Knapp is directing a hedgerow habitat project that is implementing research about native habitats as a way to increase both agricultural efficiency and sustainability. The technique involves planting native habitat as edging around farmland, and also in hedgerows within.

The native habitat attracts native bees, which not only are more efficient pollinators for some crops such as tomatoes, but also work longer than European honeybees. Native bees tend to work earlier and later in the day, and also longer in the seasons. Native bumblebees are “buzz pollinators,” according to Knapp. Their buzz frequency, a middle-C note, releases pollen — a trick honeybees can’t do.

The Botanic Garden, in cooperation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, will oversee native habitat installation at three Santa Barbara County farms. They will serve as a model for Southern California. High school students and college undergraduates will be involved in the project, allowing them practical science education opportunities.

The expanded conservation research and renewed and expanded garden displays are part of an initiative called Seed the Future. The capital campaign also aims to actively raise the garden’s endowment — an eye toward the financial future. Seed the Future is no less an eye towards Santa Barbara’s future, empowering us to learn how to plant sustainably for a changing climate future. Eye and brain candy for us all.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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Read more about the SBBG Meadow Revival Project