Green Scene Grows Up: After 43 years, the Fullerton Event is More Than a Flower Show

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A few dozen gardeners are waiting to be released on the grounds of the Fullerton Arboretum, and they’re bent for the bromeliads.  Most of them have their own wheels. Rusted-out Radio Flyers, dairy crates on carts, fold-up utility trailers, or giant gray plastic bins—a fleet of wagons, lugged from home, soon to be stuffed with unusual plants.

This month the arboretum hosts its annual Green Scene plant sale, which began 43 years ago as a modest flower show. Now the event draws crowds from throughout Southern California, has about 80 exhibitors, and supports plant conservation, environmental education programs, and the gardens of the arboretum.

Years ago, I arrived early and waited with my red wagon at the back of a small crowd. Because the most exotic plants disappear first, the initial hours of Green Scene are when gardening becomes a contact sport.

Ricardo Arribillaga of Ricardo’s Nursery. Photograph by Matthew Gush.

As our family grew to include three little ones, I typically arrived at a later hour, my red wagon stuffed with kids soon to be evicted in favor of apricot mallow and sage. It’s an engaging place to take children—over the years we’ve enjoyed bug safaris, a working children’s garden, and crafts and cooking demos (with samples) using food from the garden.

One of our favorite places is the Geraniaceae booth, where we’ve snagged geraniums that smell like chocolate mints and others that look like pansies.

Green Scene is also where I
discovered how specialized gardeners can be. There are avocado people, cult composters, tropical growers, permaculture gurus, master gardeners, bamboo enthusiasts, palm lovers, heirloomers of the rose and tomato variety, water conservationists, citrus citizens, tree druids, vegetable cultivators, native plant experts, soil chefs, fertilizer formulators—all of them under the Green Scene canopy.   

“You see people you haven’t seen in a long time,” says Donna Myrdal of Fullerton, whom I run into at the Arboretum Native Plant sale in November, her arms cradling a few lemonade berry plants she hopes to use for a natural screen. “It’s like a farmers market for gardeners.”

“I love the variety,” says Jessica Solis of Anaheim, her hand-painted green wagon stuffed with yarrow, hummingbird sage, and Santa Barbara honeysuckle. She likes to talk to plant sellers and volunteers so she can learn more about the plant she’s buying.

“I’ve been to Home Depot, and sometimes they don’t even know the name of the plant,” she says.

The sale provides a rare social outing in a solitary hobby. It turns out gardening is not as popular in O.C. as I had thought.

“I’m from the Northwest, where people with considerable sums of money actually go out and work in their own gardens,” says Greg Dyment, director of the Fullerton Arboretum. “You can see it in San Diego, too. For some reason in Orange County there’s a big void. … A lot of us here don’t actually garden. We (O.C. residents) have a guy who drops by once a week with a blower. On the weekend when we have a couple hours of idle time, it typically doesn’t involve gardening.”

Hang your head low, Orange County. You delegate your digging. But somebody has to acquire the plants in the first place. And that’s you, Orange County, elbowing your way through Green Scene.

“I like the diversity of all the people sharing what they’ve grown over the years,” says Yolanda Villalva, clutching a white sage. She likes to get her hands dirty: “When I’m stressed and overwhelmed, a half-hour in a garden fixes me right up.”

Among the sages, I hear a guy talking about the beer-batter chips he makes with “big Cleveland sage leaves.” Dan Songster even has the wine pairing selected: a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, preferably from the Marlborough region. I tell him I found sage hiking and tried it in the Thanksgiving turkey one year. It was terrible. It made the kitchen stink. Oh, he says, wrong kind of sage—must’ve been black sage.

Songster worries that someday places like the Fullerton Arboretum might be all that’s left of the green space in Orange County: “We went from oak woodland and rolling grassland to agriculture, and now we’re losing the land. We’re paving everything over. Everything that grows is considered expendable. We keep saying we’ll plant more, but we don’t. It’s not until you get to a certain stage that you say, wait a minute, we’ve lost more than we thought. We blinked, and it was gone.”

Dyment wants to make sure this doesn’t happen. He’s on the hunt for new plants that can adapt to drought—and hopes to bring that knowledge to the public.

“If we don’t figure out how to garden properly, we’re going to see a lot more asphalt and concrete replacing the green areas,” he says.

Any irony here? Many of us choose to live here because it has the benefits of an urban environment, but it still has some green spaces. From the beginning of the naming of this county, we’ve been sold the farm—even if it had already been chopped into lots, no longer measured by the acre but by the square foot.

How odd that we love our green space but we’re not enthusiastic about gardening. Not what I’d guess when I’m fighting the crowds at Green Scene.

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