I never promised you a rose garden

Students from the horticultural program at Saddleback College assembled an English cottage garden using drought-tolerant plants and flowers in the middle of South Coast Plaza. (Adam Jones)

Adam Jones

Last week, South Coast Plaza’s usual tile and mortar was transformed into a colorful English cottage garden. Instead of flora that would require the cool and dreary climate of the British Isles, all the plants and flowers used were drought-tolerant, adapted for their native semiarid climate of Southern California.

About 40 students in Saddleback College’s horticulture program competed in the week-long 22nd annual Southern California Spring Garden show at the Costa Mesa mall against approximately 400 others with self-proclaimed green thumbs.

Saddleback students worked tirelessly during the set up. Beginning Monday evening, students brought in heavy bags of mulch and soil as well as the masonry needed to house their garden. By 2 a.m., the majority of the students were overcome with fatigue and left, but a select few stayed on for another hour.

Tuesday was a day off for the student competitors. With Thursday’s judging looming, the participants arrived Wednesday morning, refreshed and anxious to build their masterpiece. Working energetically into the evening, the spoils of their efforts resulted in the finished garden, in the middle of the mall between the the Apple and Fossil stores.

“This is just like being back home,” a mall patron visiting from rural England told Larry Ward, one of the horticulturists. She was excited to see what the garden would look like when it was finished.

Glad to have some well-deserved rest, Michelle Mareks, a grey-haired 50-something horticulture student returned home for a few hours of sleep after working through the night on Wednesday making final touches and preparation. The judging would begin the next morning.

Patty Nelson, a contractor in charge of the gardens inside South Coast Plaza, helped coordinate certain elements of the event. She explained that the judges were generally local “plant people,” such as garden writers, teachers, landscape designers, and other experts, qualified to be judging a competition of this nature.

Promptly at 11 a.m. Thursday, Saddleback horticulture instructor Robert Farnsworth ripped off a note card that had been covering up Saddleback’s name and logo on the display. He proudly donned his faculty name tag and began to speak to mall patrons.

The theme of the show this year was international gardens. Farnsworth took his own twist on the theme by designing the garden after an English cottage garden, and then planted it with drought tolerant plants, to make people think about responsible, water-wise gardening. The majority of the plants were California natives.

Jamie Durie, an award-winning landscape designer, television host and founder of the internationally recognized Australian company PATIO Landscape Architecture and Design, hosted a seminar as part of the Spring Garden Show. After the crowds had dispersed to some degree, he toured the garden displays to give feedback and observe.

“It’s great work,” said Durie, in regards to the Saddleback entry. He complimented the students on their use of drought-tolerant plants that he knew from his native Australia, as well as some plants he had not seen before.

He especially liked their use of a Catalina Ironwood, a small tree known for its rusty red bark. Durie documented the Ironwood on his iPhone so that he could keep it in mind for his future work.

Leslie Mowers, along with Ward, showed the newly completed garden Thursday morning. After the judges finished their rounds on each of the displays, guests quickly began to approach the table to ask questions about the college, its programs, and the garden itself.

Mowers told patrons about her business as a rose care specialist and gardener while speaking about the care of the plants in the garden. Ward, more interested in the design side of things, was quick to give recommendations to people interested in renovating their yards. Both students are eager to expand their professional careers.

Elementary school students toured the gardens in groups with chaperons. The students were eager to call out the colors they saw and the names of flowers they knew.

“Look at all the orange,” exclaimed the children as they oogled all the California Golden poppies.

The students were proud of their work, and were quick to tell mall patrons what classes they had taken and learned from. Many of the students were from HORT 20, Introduction to Horticulture, and spoke highly of their classes and instructors.

“It’s the best class,” Bradley Andrews, 23, psychology, and Connie Ribuado, 22, undecided, said, referring to Introduction to Horticulture. The pair found the class while searching for a transferable science course. They were surprised by how involved they became in the program, and recommended the class to anyone in need of a science course.

“I have never been this involved in any class before,” Andrews said. “For this competition we helped set up, tear down, and spoke to [patrons].”

Students of HORT 7, Introduction to Landscape Design showed off the design of the garden and explained placement of plants and features, while students of HORT 106, Landscape Computer Aided Design, HORT 113, Soils and Fertilizers, and HORT 201, Professional Practices of Residential Landscape Design, also participated in the show and helped with the set up and tear down.

On Friday and Saturday, students took shifts caring for and talking to the public about their garden. Many students were eager to take a shift at the garden, and it was staffed throughout.

“I am very proud of my students and their work,” Farnsworth said at the end of the event. “They put on a great show.”

The designer of the garden that won the professional competition at the show, Angela Woodside, is a former student of Saddleback’s horticulture program.

Saddleback took second place in the college competition at the show, with Orange Coast College taking first place among the colleges.

Last year, Saddleback took first place with OCC taking second. The two schools have turned the competition into a friendly rivalry.

“It’s a learning process, it’s all about teamwork. All of us learned the different plants, and worked as a team on the construction side,” Mowers said, in regards to the Saddleback team and the competition. “This was my third year in the competition.”

The dismantling of the garden started at South Coast Plaza at 6:30 p.m. with the students departing for the Saddleback campus by 8:30 p.m. The 150 plants and assorted materials used in the garden were then taken back to the greenhouse and organized for future use. At 9:30 p.m., the final student left campus, their project complete.

“It was fun. It was cool to see the display come together, and how creative the whole department is,” said Regina Rodriguez. She helped curate and dismantle the garden. “I definitely enjoyed being a part of it.”

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