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Sustainable Landscaping: 1830s La Huerta Style
updated: Oct 15, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Jerry Sortomme has done more to promote sustainable landscaping in the Santa Barbara area than anyone I can think of. As the chair for the Environmental Horticulture Department at Santa Barbara City College for twenty-two years, Jerry taught, mentored, and regaled thousands of students. Many of "Jerry's Kids," as some affectionately call themselves, have moved on to careers in environmental science, horticulture, contracting, design, and other green professions.

I met Jerry not long after I started working for Parks and Rec in ‘87. From the start, I knew he was a force to be reckoned with. Aside from his bottomless storehouse of horticultural and environmental knowledge, his sense of advocacy for his horticulture program made him and his students frequent partners on City projects, with a double bonus of having his classes get their hands dirty in real- world projects while doing a good turn for their town.

Well, Jerry might have retired from SBCC in 2003, but he's still eyebrow-deep in very historic, very local dirt. He stepped out the door of room A-162 and right into a volunteer position as project manager and consultant for La Huerta Historic Garden at the Old Mission Santa Barbara. The goal of this unique project is to "exhibit era-specific plant materials, revealing horticulture art forms, techniques, and the science of the Spanish mission-era."

Huatza Huerta?

Simply put, La Huerta (Spanish for ‘orchard') is an extension of the Old Mission's museum (under the direction of Tina Foss) but moved outdoors. This project, begun in 2003, is literally bringing back to life a side of California's Mission era many people don't know about, especially visiting third- and fourth-graders studying California history. (This is the year when their parents pull an all-nighter, finishing the Mission San Juan Capistrano model - complete with a holographic projection of returning swallows - that's due tomorrow.)

No Choice But Sustainable

I'm always encouraging people to take a planet-gentle approach to gardening, considering the impact that modern practices and materials can have on the environment. Well, what better way to learn how to garden with an infinitesimal footprint than by seeing how folks made it work centuries ago when supplies and resources were scarce?

We're talking SoCal living 250-plus years ago, when Trader Joe's and home pizza delivery were at the bottom on Father Junipero Serra's to-do list. Starting in 1769, each of the California missions had to quickly become a self-sufficient agricultural outpost in the Alta territory that stretched from San Diego to San Francisco. That meant not only providing much of their own food in the form of vegetables, fruit, livestock, and herbs, but also plants of medicinal value, feed for the livestock, and utilitarian and ornamental crops.

La Huerta categorizes plants as stone fruits, pome fruits, grapes, citrus, subtropicals, exotics, perennials, herbs, utilitarian, and ornamental.

Getting Past the Doorman

Visit La Huerta and at first glance most of the plants will seem very familiar: citrus and pomegranate and fig trees, corn, squash, bananas, and grape vines are just a few.

But look a little closer and you'll see the more primitive, simpler ancestors of today's foodstuffs, before Darwinian selection and hybridization became the norm. Orange trees sport vicious spines along the twigs; corn kernels traverse the cob in chaos.

If you're a plant and you want to live at La Huerta, let me warn you -- it's a very exclusive club. Plants must show that they were full citizens of Alta California on or before 1834. The date is de facto, but correlates with when, after successfully revolting from Spanish control, Mexico took church land holdings in 1833 and divided them into ranchos. The socio-economic changes to the area, and to agriculture, were significant enough to serve as a dividing line.

Opuntia cacti are hosts to scale insects that secrete cochineal, a valuable red dye (sometimes called ‘tuna blood') and major export from the Spanish New World colonies to Europe and Asia. It takes 70,000 insects to produce one pound of dye.

The More the Merrier

La Huerta is 100% volunteer staffed by "Huerta Folks." There's something for everyone, whether you enjoy grubbing around in the dirt, serving as a docent for curious kids, designing graphics (or better yet, developing a web site, which is sorely lacking), or poring over old reference documents to uncover more tidbits of history.

"This is Maria Cabrera, a top-notch La Huerta Gardens volunteer," says Jerry.

So what lures people from all segments of the community to get down on their knees and dig in the dirt every Wednesday between 9 and noon? The day I visited, Edwin Hale told me in his distinctly British accent, that after being raised on a farm in England, he's "entertained ambitions of being a country squire. I'm the Bolshevik wing of Traditionalism." Hale's passion is researching historic plants of the Mission Era, "Especially the ones we can trace back to England via Captain George Vancouver," he says.

I'd love to see La Huerta gain the support of the community (the Orfalea Foundations pays for the buses that bring the school kids), since none of the funding comes directly from the Mission's budget. If you're curious about what's going on, the best place to start is by contacting Tina Foss or Jerry Sortomme and schedule a visit (no drop- ins). If you're smitten and want to get active, ask about all the programs and opportunities and see if there's a good fit for you.

It's clear from the monthly Huerta Happenings newsletter Jerry sends out that there's a strong community aspect to volunteering at La Huerta, and a relaxed pace. A recent edition included this Lake Woebegon-esque snippet:

"A pleasant, mild sunny day made for a nearly perfect morning to be gardening with folks & friends. Garden critters flit by and scurried about including California Jays, some crows and other feathered creatures, one or two chipmunks, lizards here-and-there and those wild things hidden from sight, or too small to be seen easily."

Throw in a bowl of Mission era acorn gruel and a non-fat caramel latte and I can't think of a nicer way to spend a Wednesday morning.

Note: Pick up the September issue of Edible Santa Barbara Magazine to read an article by Helena Hill, with photos by Steven Brown, about the school programs at La Huerta.

:: :: :: :: :: ::

Contact info:

Jerry Sortomme: Ph 805.388.1921, E-mail: professorsortomme@hotmail.com

Tina Foss: Ph: 805.682.4713 ext. 150, E-mail: sbmission@aol.com


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