Sunday, May 31, 2009 | In 1892, a dauntless woman named Kate Sessions convinced the city of San Diego to lease her 30 acres in old City Park for her thriving nursery business. In exchange, she’d plant 100 trees a year there and grow 300 more for the rest of the city. Those were the roots of Balboa Park; Sessions is considered the mother of the regional icon.
In 2009, horticulturist Crystal Ritchie drives a white city truck through the park, monitoring the thousands of trees, plants and shrubs in her purview. Immersed in the park’s plant life, Ritchie seems to sense — even more than she sees — the places in a given radius where the current flora could be replaced with more drought-resistant plants. A dying tree presents an opportunity: what should we plant next?
It’s a question shared in dry days across the San Diego region.
“We’re all owning up to our climate — we’ve been in what I think they call ‘zonal denial,'” she says.
As the city wrestles with its water use and promises to lead by example, the park — a central, huge expanse of city land — is adopting some new plans and policies. Ritchie sees the park as a place to experiment with sustainability without sacrificing the beauty of landscapes. The horticulture crew tries to replace every tree and strategizes in overarching plans about the future of the park, projecting how much water will be needed for the plants that will typify its landscape in the coming decades.
On a weekday afternoon, Ritchie checks up on a landscape her crew just completed at the front of the historic Fire Alarm Building where the city’s parks director has her office. Ritchie had been asked to completely replace the front turf with drought-resistant landscape. So, in a bed of mulch and decomposed granite, she planted some bright red and yellow flowering plants, some sage and Engelmann oaks, Ritchie’s favorite.