“The summer is the most unfavorable time to plant,” a young mom writes down in a small notebook as her pigtailed toddler stomps on the gravel between the white Canyon Snow Irises and the Asclepias speciosa. The latter is better known as “Showy Milkweed”—a common host plant for the endangered Monarch Butterfly, and a source of food, fiber and medicine regularly used by the Native Americans.
“The soil gets too warm because of hot temperatures, and more often than not, the plants don’t survive after being transplanted into the ground at their new home,” says her friend who just finished speaking to an employee of the Tree of Life Nursery (TOLN), where the two women are shopping. “Apparently, planting in the fall is the best time for increased chances of germination if you’re growing from a seed. There’s also a better chance for survival after transplanting into soil during fall, too. Spring is the next best time to plant.”
A young couple walks past Casa La Paz, a gift shop loaded with literature by naturalist authors such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, other educational books on California mushrooms and how to cook with honey, and open-air style paintings of California landscapes done by local artists. They walk along a dirt path and wander over a small bridge past a sign warning of the possible presence of rattlesnakes.
The path leads to a remote area of the nursery, where a giant, deep-green leafy bush is sculpted into an arch. On the other side of the green gateway is a small sitting area with a garden bench. The perimeter of the nook is outlined with electric purple Monardella villosa, or Coyote Mint. Hundreds of bees buzz and crawl around the magenta petals, then fly to the next flower center, dropping off pollen, helping plants reproduce. A hawk flies above the nook, scouring for prey along the outskirts of Caspers Wilderness Park, which lies directly to the east.
Tucked in the hills of Ortega Highway, TOLN is a 40-acre oasis of California native plants. It’s more of a botanical garden/nursery hybrid than simply a place to purchase Golden State flora. Home to 500 different plant species, its gardens are specifically designed for customers to experience bees, butterflies and other pollinators as they fulfill their daily tasks.
A trip to TOLN is like traveling to an Orange County before Europeans came to Southern California, when the Acjachemen used whatever nature grew to establish villages and live with the land, instead of against it. The drive up Ortega takes visitors away from suburbia and plops them in stark, gorgeous wilderness (although developments keep creeping up every couple of years). It’s become a refuge for insects and animals driven away from city life—indeed, while swallows are now a rarity in San Juan Capistrano come springtime, they gleefully construct mud nests from TOLN’s rafters every year.
“This is like a little heaven,” says one longtime customer, who has transformed his house in Santa Ana into an all-natives showcase with plants from TOLN. “If everyone just ripped out their lawn and planted Tree of Life’s plants, we’d all just live a better life.”
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Prior to becoming a location teeming with yellow Sun Drops, red Dragon Snappers, purple Cleveland Sage and tall grasses, TOLN was a place where thoroughbred horses were bred, according to Mike Evans, the owner, whose brown- and black-haired Australian shepherd, Dakota, shadows him everywhere he goes. Born in Arcadia in 1954, Evans grew up tromping around Newport Beach’s Back Bay and adventuring into the mud at low tide. “I’d get really muddy—my hands, arms, feet, everything,” he says with a nostalgic smile while picking apart dried seed pods at his desk. “I’d get down on my hands and knees and try and catch the critters so I could inspect them closely. I’d look at the mud. I’d look at the plants. I was outdoors all the time.”
Always in touch with the ocean, Evans started surfing in his early teens, which became his passion throughout his four years at Corona Del Mar High School. Graduating in 1972, a semester before his peers, he started his own company making surfboards. “It was a little high school company,” he says, laughing. “I pretty much only made the boards for my friends and me. But it was great. We all had boards and surfed our brains out together.” Seventeen and restless, Evans yearned to see the world and experience freedom. His parents wanted him to go to college, but his heart and mind were set on barreling waves. “It’s not that I was a bad student,” Evans says, “I was just not in the mood for more school.”
When Evans came back to Newport after a four-month trip to Mexico’s Pacific Coast, everything looked different, he recalls. It wasn’t the same. The urge to surf real waves and soak in authentic Latin culture was overwhelming. He took off to Mexico again, fished, chased waves and lived on the beach. He was living the life many adults compounded with family and work responsibilities wished they were living. “I was pretty much a bum,” he explains. “But a young bum. I had to get it out of my system.”
While driving through the jungle one day, he recalls seeing a group of men who looked to be 19 or 20—the same age as he was. They were working on the side of the road with machetes. He saw a lot of young men responsibly working and engaged every day, either in the fields or tending animals. "They were busy working, while I was bumming around, not doing anything of real significance,” he says. "That’s when I had the epiphany that I couldn’t stay down there doing that anymore. I had to do something with my life.”
Back in Newport Beach, Evans rode his bike all over town on a quest to find a job that he could pursue with passion. He began applying to local nurseries—all of which told him they weren’t hiring. "In retrospect, I probably looked like a no-work type guy wearing shorts, sandals and a T-shirt,” he admits. "Which I still wear. But I had bleached hair then, and who knows if I was stoned when I’d go to ask for a job—I might’ve been. Looking back I can kind of see why they didn’t hire me without really asking me any questions.”
After pestering the staff for work, Amling’s Nursery—now the Armstrong Garden on PCH near Fashion Island—finally hired Evans to water the plants. "Ever since then I never looked back,” he says. "I started learning all the plant names and found out that it’s a whole language; it’s a whole world.”
Two older workers mentored Evans and recommended books that allowed him to fast-track his horticultural education. "They were old, wise sages who wore overalls [and] who helped me find my dedication. I was doing plant research on my own and working long hours. I was really, really into it.”
His love for plants made him want to explore the ecosystems and tropical plant species of Mexico—the country in which he left his heart. Mexico beckoned, but instead of chasing waves, he hoped to gather unique seeds that were native to the culture he loved. Evans started justifying short trips—three weeks, rather than six months— south of the border, returning with stashes of seeds and cuttings to plant and grow. Amling’s Nursery could tolerate Evans’ frequent trips only to a point; it wasn’t long until they separated ways.
Evans bounced around to other nurseries after that and landed a couple of growing gigs. He decided to go to college to get his teaching credential, which eventually got him a job teaching a gardening, nursery and horticulture Regional Occupational Program (ROP) class for high schoolers. “I wasn’t much older than the students I was teaching,” Evans recalls. “In the program I started to notice the old guy who taught diesel mechanics class was this old crusty [man]. The wom[man]o taught banking was a seasoned banker. The carpentry guy was an old-fart carpenter. I realized I didn’t have that kind of experience and needed to go get it. I decided to hang up that hat and maybe come back to it again in 50 years.”
Evans spent time up in the local mountains collecting seeds and cuttings of native plants and decided to start a business out of it. In 1978, Evans opened Tree of Life Nursery-Landscaping—a much smaller version of what the nursery is today. But his nursery started from clippings and seeds—not native plants that he purchased or took from another garden—no small feat considering TOLN’s 500 separate plant species.
By 1981, Evans brought on co-owner Jeff Bohn, the nursery’s plant grower, who has helped TOLN evolve into the oasis it is today. Bohn’s first tasks involved landscaping and sub-contracting under Evans. He had experience growing and using native plants in Ventura for slope stabilization and water conservation, so he was well versed in their benefits. As he’s watched the company blossom, Bohn has also witnessed a growth in interest for native plants. When he first started, however, homeowners and landscapers—TOLN’s core customers—didn’t understand their expansive utility.
“Natives are taking on even more significance because they provide a habitat to so many of the animals that Orange County and Southern California’s excessive development has taken away,” says Bohn. “They’re water conserving, meant to live and thrive here, and there are so many benefits to using them. We’re really excited about how engaged the public is now. It used to be that we really had to convince the public to use them, but people really want to use them now. . . . The retail side of our nursery has really taken off.”
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According to the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), a nonprofit that works closely with TOLN, the advantages of gardening with native plants go much deeper than just saving water—the benefit that most commonly sparks people’s interest, especially during drought years. The reason California native plants are ideal for water conservation, though, is because once they’re established—which takes three months after transplanting from flat or pot into soil—many native plants need almost no irrigation beyond normal rainfall, whereas most non-native plant gardens require watering every day. "Although we’re not in a drought anymore,” TOLN employee Sarah Bryant says, gesturing dubiously with hand quotations, "California still gets its water from other places. Water conservation is something we should always be concerned with here.”
Evans points out that water districts are still telling homeowners that they need to cut back on water use. "The first thing people realize is that they need to cut back on watering their gardens, which means that if they don’t use native plants, it’s going to be difficult to keep their plants alive. That’s usually when they come to us. Native plants create a lot of options for water conservation.”
Every Saturday morning at 9:30 TOLN hosts workshops designed to help people make the most of their gardens and bring the community together. The theme of August’s classes revolve around water conservation. Two weekends ago local watershed gardening specialist Jodie Cook led a workshop on how to use native plants to keep water in the garden, instead of letting it stream into gutters, and, thus, into the ocean. Watershed gardening not only utilizes water conservation tactics but also keeps toxins and harmful runoff from flowing into our waters.
Bohn explains that much of our natural landscape has been demolished by housing and business development, thus destroying native habitats. Using native plants gives these indigenous species a place to live, and thus thrive. "Our customers go deeper than just wanting a pretty or cheap plant,” he says. "They’re interested in more than just saving money through water conservation, too. They’re very conscious of how important they are to attracting butterflies, bees and birds. They’re conscious of the connection humans have to these critters and nature overall.”
Laura Camp, TOLN’s general manager, is the former president of CNPS on the state level. She explains that the mission of both TOLN and CNPS is the same. "The goal is to help people appreciate native plants because it’s a gateway for them to become interested in the nature that surrounds us,” she says. "It’s the ‘zoo effect’: When you see the elephant at the zoo, you become interested in Africa and the protection of elephants. When you have a native plant growing in your yard, you begin to see it from a new perspective. Before the plant was just on a hillside. But when it’s yours to take care of, it’s different. You cross the threshold of observation into interaction.”
California’s flora contains hidden medicinal benefits, too. For example, Milkweed, usually found in dry and moist soils all over California, can be made into a tea and used as an antiseptic wash. Modern herbalists commonly use the roots of Milkweed as a respiratory expectorant. Native American women also used the plant to make a decoction, or concentrated essence, through boiling in water to produce milk flow while nursing. Topically, Milkweed’s milk sap can help sores, and it’s strong enough to remove warts and corns. Prickly Pear Cactus can be made into a poultice, or a moist mass of plant material that when applied to the body with a cloth and kept in place, can relieve soreness and inflammation.
Late last year, National Geographic published an article titled "This Is Your Brain On Nature” by Florence Williams, an examination of how our brains are affected when we’re immersed in nature. Although EEG tests showed substantial reductions in cortisol (our stress hormone) and increased levels of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, what’s amazing is that connecting with nature has scientifically proven to help people lift from their depressions and anxieties and has even proved to enhance the healing process of those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This concept of "healing” also applies to gardening: 2,500 years ago, Cyrus the Great built gardens for relaxation in the busy capital of Persia.
As Evans gives a tour of his beloved nursery, Dakota by his side, he expounds on his natural-plant philosophy. "It’s important to us to spread messages about habitats and hummingbirds, bees, pollinators, lizards, the seasons and smells and usefulness in the plants so kids can learn,” he says. "They’re the most important ones.”
Evans leads the way to an organic peach orchard on the far side of the nursery. As he cuts a peach in half with his Swiss Army knife, his gaze scans the horizon. "In Japan they use Japanese native plants to design gardens that look like nature,” he says. "The whole thing of the Japanese garden is the experience. It’s not about looking at it, it’s about experiencing it—interacting with it. You walk on the little paths and you sit on the benches. You look at the reflecting pool, you go to the zen garden and see the raked gravel. They build them for people to be in, not just stand back and look at. We need to do this again in California and get this into our culture.”
In Williams’ National Geographic story, she notes that the entire country of Singapore aims to be a "city in a garden,” where indigenous green plants cascade from luxury hotels and high-rise buildings. Singapore’s foreign Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said, "A concrete jungle destroys the human spirit.” It’s upsetting to think about what that means for the people of Orange County, considering we, too, live in a vast concrete jungle—with hardly any cascading greenery at all.
"A garden is there for people to engage with and understand that it’s breathing life, just like us,” says Evans. "It’s a wonderful healing experience. There’s enjoyment in keeping your garden and plants happy and healthy, which is an activity that we’re almost losing from our society.”
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Remnants of the old horse stables and racetrack that occupied the grounds prior to TOLN still exist. The barn has been transformed into a kitchen equipped with a large wooden table, a microwave, toaster oven and coffee maker. A rustic five-arm chandelier hangs from the ceiling, above the beams, while a wooden set of stairs leads to a storage area. A painting of a California mission hangs next to a framed picture of a floral pattern.
While eating lunch at the kitchen table, the floral picture begins to move, as if one of Ortega Highway’s legendary road-ghosts had taken a detour into the barn. A choir of high-pitched click-squeaks sounds from seemingly nowhere. Within seconds a Little Brown Bat (yes, that’s actually the name) slimes down from behind the floral picture and bolts to the center of the barn, doing air-laps at panic speed. After completing three large circles, it swoops over the table, wings brushing the food, before it zooms back up behind the picture. "Don’t worry, the bats are harmless,” Evans says, laughing. "We don’t even notice them anymore. They live behind the pictures and we let them stay there because they come out at night, usually when we’re gone and eat bugs. They’re great.”
Along with providing a habitat to Little Brown Bats, the barn is where the TOLN’s seed sowing and propagation happens. Tables covered with mounds of lush, fertile soil sit toward the outskirts of the barn, a woman waters a rack of small sprouted plants ready to be transferred onto the grounds for people to purchase. Haydee (pronounced I-day) Rodriguez, who’s related to Evans’ wife of over 40 years, leads a group of women in the barn in planting cuttings and seeds, and nurturing them until they’ve germinated. Rodriguez, who’s worked at TOLN in the propagation barn for nearly 20 years, can almost predict whether flats of seeds are going to take sooner or later.
"It’s from the experience of working so intimately with the plants,” she explains as she packs a black plastic flat with soil and sprinkles Sambucus seeds over the soil. "Sambucus is the Spanish botanical name for Elderberry. These seeds need to be closer to the surface rather than planted in deeper soil. But that doesn’t mean it’ll grow. Just because something works this year doesn’t mean it will work again next year—even if it’s the standard process. It’s a different experience every time. It’s like raising a baby—they’re all different. Some things work and some things don’t and you have to figure it out.”
Rodriguez explains that certain seeds like Lemonade Berry and Sugar Bush are so hard that in order for them to grow they need to be exposed to alcohol, or acid, to break through the seed. "Those seeds only germinate after a coyote or deer eats them and it’s broken down through their digestive systems, so I have to simulate that environment in order for those seeds to grow,” she explains, covering the Sambucus seeds with a light layer of fluffy soil.
The soil that Rodriguez uses in plant propagation comes from a different area of the nursery, where a man named Ramiro Rodriguez (no relation to Haydee), oversees the soil mixture. Ramiro, known as "Ramo” by the TOLN employees, has worked for the nursery for 36 years. He’s become such a part of the TOLN family that when his wife was pregnant with his son, Evans threw a baby shower in the barn. When Ramo’s son grew up, he started working at the nursery and now has a career in soil work at another nursery in Texas.
The soil used at TOLN is a mixture of wash plaster sand (sand taken from deep in the ground), Redwood and White Fur shavings from a mill in Cloverdale—a Marin County city north of San Francisco. According to Ramo, they prefer to get their premium soil ingredients from Northern California because they want to avoid local plant diseases. "There are people who sell the materials around here, but we don’t know what’s on it,” he says. "If we use soil with disease in it, it will ruin the plants because we might get a disease into our soil mix. The place we get our ingredients from for the soil is very good and clean.”
The shavings are double- and triple-ground in order to obtain the proper fluffy texture. The Redwood grounds sit in a mound for four weeks (at minimum) getting watered—a method of being broken down—before it’s picked up by a tractor and blended with the White Fur and sand. The final product feels spongy, and looks light ashy brown. From there the soil’s taken in massive heaps to the barn where Rodriguez and her team of seed sowers begin their intuitive planting process. Once the seeds or cuttings have taken to the soil, they’re then taken out into the sun for the public to purchase.
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Evans and Dakota lead the tour to an off-road area of TOLN. Passing bushes and a bit of other chaparral, he stops at an area he calls "Redwood Camp.” A huge wooden table that Evans built sits underneath two massive, lush-looking Redwoods—trees that aren’t native to Southern California. But Evans has cared for them in such a way that they’re somehow thriving. "I planted these Redwood seeds 30 years ago,” says Evans, staring up at the skyscrapers he’s grown. "This is my favorite area of the nursery.”
A hammock hangs between the Redwoods, giving the nook a genuine Central Coast feel. "You have to tell a story with your garden,” Evans says, looking around the Redwood garden he’s created. "That’s how you’re able to build an experience out of it. Once you do that, it’s become an extension of who you are because you are the garden and the garden is in you.”