Written By – Steve Aranda
On a wooded corner in the residential foothills of Altadena, there stands a fortress of greenery. The top of a two story home peeks out over a hedge of junipers, elms, and deodar. Bird song is rampant, and as you step up off the street to pass through the wooden gate out front, you feel as though you have just been transported to a different biome.
Beneath a canopy of trees, the temperature noticeably drops. The abundance of growth provides shade, medicinal herbs, aromatic flowers, and food. There are over 40 fruit trees on the property. Wildflowers interspersed with vegetables run alongside winding paths that lead nowhere.
In addition to its Eden-like qualities, there is something that makes this garden even more unique. Namely, here in Southern CA, the land of perpetual drought, this lush landscape gets watered at most only once a week, and frequently not at all.
The owner and creator of this amazing green-space is Leigh Adams, Altadena’s own “Water Harvesting Guru.” As a consultant for LA County Parks and Rec, and Public Works, she has been responsible for not only her own green wonder, but many others like it. These include installations at the LA County Arboretum, the main branch of the Altadena Library, and the new park being built at the corner of Lake Ave, and Altadena Drive.
Her gardens are the result of a lifetime of work and study in the fields of permaculture and water harvesting. They are in harmony with the native landscape, and intentionally decorative. Most interestingly, they are the climax of an ongoing story, one that began over 40 years ago in the least likely place for a master gardener to make her start – in the Mojave Desert…
In 1975 Leigh owned a large tract of land about 20 miles North West of Joshua Tree, when a fire tore through the area. The landscape was devastated. Pinyon pines, and manzanita, were burnt away, and what wasn’t destroyed was bulldozed in order to create a firebreak.
Adams recalls that after the fire, the landscape was transformed into a dead zone reminiscent of a Tim Burton nightmare. In an effort to convert the skeletons of trees, and shrubs into an homage to their former life, she chopped down the burnt remnants, and arranged them on the earth in patterns, along with rocks.
Time passed. Children came. She and her husband built a cabin and planted trees on a small portion of the land. The rest – over 10 acres – was largely left alone.
And then one day, almost 15 years later, a friend asked Leigh if she would like to go up in his plane and see her property from the air. She jumped at the chance. As they flew over the location however, she became dismayed. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I must have given you the wrong directions.” Looking down from the plane, she stared at a lush huge rectangle of green where there should have been only desert.
As unbelievable as it seemed, the directions she had given to the pilot were completely accurate. The oasis they were viewing from above was indeed her land. A mysterious transformation had occurred. When Adams laid those first dead tree trunks and branches on the earth and surrounded them with stones, she had unknowingly taken her first steps into the word of permaculture.
It turned out that logs, and stones had a different heat capacity than the air around them. During the cold nights and hot days in the desert, condensation formed due to the temperature difference, and dripped slowly back to the soil. Also, moisture was trapped beneath rotting wood, and alongside boulders, which provided shade from the sun.
Since then, Leigh spent her life exploring that mystery. She later added to it the crucial component of reclaiming storm runoff by taking the concept of parkway drains and turning it on its head; Instead of using the drains to push water off of her property, she used it to pull water onto it.
Today Leigh Adams’s work is a joy for all to experience. Her eco-friendly installations are some of the most progressive, responsible, and beautiful in the San Gabriel Valley. Her efforts to educate youth, and the public about water reclamation and conservation here in Southern California are tireless.
As Artist-in-Residence, and an Interpretive Horticulturist at the LA county Arboretum, Adams, until recently was in charge of the Crescent Farm, a man-made ecosystem that relies primarily on harvesting for its water. It also offers an artistic, native and sustainable alternative to traditional Socal sod.
Over an acre of lawn was removed to install the Crescent Farm. With Adams’s direction “new and ancient water conservation practices” were used to make this a living example of her work, and a great way to spend an afternoon. Recently John Latsko has taken the reigns, and the Farm continues to thrive and represent the values, they both worked to achieve.
I recommend a visit. The farm is a wonder to behold, and classes on permaculture are offered. But the real treasure is a visit with Leigh Adams herself, a fountain (pun intended) of knowledge, a true citizen of the earth, and someone Altadena can be honored to claim as a resource, and a resident.