Sunday, May 31, 2009 | In 1892, a dauntless woman named Kate Sessions convinced the city of San Diego to lease her 30 acres in old City Park for her thriving nursery business. In exchange, she’d plant 100 trees a year there and grow 300 more for the rest of the city. Those were the roots of Balboa Park; Sessions is considered the mother of the regional icon.

In 2009, horticulturist Crystal Ritchie drives a white city truck through the park, monitoring the thousands of trees, plants and shrubs in her purview. Immersed in the park’s plant life, Ritchie seems to sense — even more than she sees — the places in a given radius where the current flora could be replaced with more drought-resistant plants. A dying tree presents an opportunity: what should we plant next?

It’s a question shared in dry days across the San Diego region.

“We’re all owning up to our climate — we’ve been in what I think they call ‘zonal denial,’” she says.

As the city wrestles with its water use and promises to lead by example, the park — a central, huge expanse of city land — is adopting some new plans and policies. Ritchie sees the park as a place to experiment with sustainability without sacrificing the beauty of landscapes. The horticulture crew tries to replace every tree and strategizes in overarching plans about the future of the park, projecting how much water will be needed for the plants that will typify its landscape in the coming decades.

On a weekday afternoon, Ritchie checks up on a landscape her crew just completed at the front of the historic Fire Alarm Building where the city’s parks director has her office. Ritchie had been asked to completely replace the front turf with drought-resistant landscape. So, in a bed of mulch and decomposed granite, she planted some bright red and yellow flowering plants, some sage and Engelmann oaks, Ritchie’s favorite.

“Oh good, it’s flowering,” she says as the yard comes into view. “This was just a lawn — very boring and very water-hungry.”

But Ritchie says they’re not in the business of ripping out huge lawns on a wholesale basis in the park, especially considering how often she sees families and school groups sitting on the grass for picnics, or people playing a game of Frisbee. “Turf is a valuable thing,” she says. “We don’t want to remove too much turf.”

One of about 100 city employees assigned to the park, Ritchie is responsible for all of the landscape in the 300 acres that form the central mesa of the park. She is a gardener, a planner, a researcher, an experimenter, a budgeter and a diplomat. It’s certainly not all soil and trowel — on a typical day Ritchie spouts rebar specifications and negotiates with fire extinguisher contractors in the botanical building.

She’s held this post for nearly two years, previously managing research greenhouses in Berkeley and working on conservation efforts in the Tijuana River Estuary. She went to school for biology and horticulture.

Ritchie has her hand in many pots — overseeing or advising on everything from the orchids to the towering, swaying eucalyptus trees, from the basils and sages grown for use in flowerbeds to the daffodils in the medians. She strategizes about soils and concrete, forests and walkways.

Ritchie lives for plants. She spent her holiday last weekend in Santa Barbara, pulling her fiancé along to visit parks there, just to see how they do things, she says. And, she admits, she spent some time spying on Santa Barbara’s ficus macrophylla — a Moreton Bay Fig tree listed in the state’s index of 318 big trees. Balboa Park’s own such tree, north of the Natural History Museum, was planted a couple of decades later and while it is slightly taller than Santa Barbara’s, the northern city’s has a much wider canopy.

“Ours will never catch up, I’m sad to say,” Ritchie says wryly.

Sessions planted cypress, pine, oaks, pepper, eucalyptus and jacaranda from seeds sent from around the world. Ritchie keeps up that tradition with her colleague, the lively Mike Rasmusson, who oversees the nursery where the park’s plants and trees are nurtured from seeds. Now there are more than 380 species of trees in the park.

The nursery, off of Pershing Drive, has several rooms and climates for plants. Some orchids recuperate from their time in the spotlight in the park’s botanical building. Oaks grow roots in pots and planters. They’re growing some acer, commonly maple, trees that came from seeds from Harvard that are a rare plant from the Mediterranean region of southern France.

One of Ritchie’s current tasks is to oversee a project near the lily pond. Crews are working to build ramps to the botanical building so that wheelchairs and strollers won’t have to be pushed over the lawn. She’s also working to recreate the front bed of the pond, with some low-growing and colorful shrubs. “Hopefully, if we put a bed there, that’ll keep people out — in a nice way,” she says.

Ritchie’s using the work near the pond as an opportunity to plant some cycads and palms — with an eye to the fact that the central spot serves as the backdrop for countless photo shoots.

“I’m recently engaged, so I’m in the wedding mode,” says Ritchie, whose middle name is appropriate: Rose.

The park’s common access for everyone in San Diego bubbles up often in Ritchie’s conversations. As opposed to several of the region’s pay-for-entry horticultural hubs — which have wonderful collections, she emphasizes — Balboa Park is open to all.

“It’s the horticultural heart of San Diego, and it’s free and open to the public,” she says.

The flip side of that is that Ritchie’s crews’ handiwork is often subject to the accidental trample of the throngs of people who visit the park each week. One bed near the Kate Sessions statue has seen the bottom of some running shoes. She examines the plants and starts thinking out loud about ways to wall the bed in that would still be inviting — some shrubbery perhaps, or a seeded retaining wall.

About 2:30, Ritchie’s phone rings. It’s the landscape architect on the lily pond sidewalk project, calling with some concerns about the way the molds for the concrete have been built. Ritchie talks about rebar and contracts, revisions and redlined plans, and says she’ll go back to her computer to double-check the plans.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about hardscape,” she says, driving back toward her office. “Sidewalks, irrigation, drainage — and nine problems out of 10 are connected to that.”

Her office well reflects the juxtaposition of old and new. In a corner of the former Navy hospital, Ritchie’s desk is surrounded by both yellowed and current photographs of the park’s landmarks. A drafting table in the corner holds colored pencils and computer blueprints and plans for future gardens. Her shelves are filled with flora books: “Australian Native Plants” and “A Flora of San Diego County, California” and “Modern Roses XI,” “Field Guide to Eucalyptus.” Plants and pine cones perch on desks and filing cabinets.

The innovations of the last century have left Ritchie with some tools that Sessions didn’t have — GPS technology to plot the precise coordinates of trees and colored spreadsheets to track the seeds she’s ordered, for two. She shows a visitor a map of the park’s Trees for Health garden.

The spot never had a master plan, she says. With the help of park rangers and an intern, Ritchie logged the GPS coordinates of each of the 112 trees in the spot, then mapped a lime green circle to show the circumferences of the canopies of each tree at full maturity. The map looks quite crowded; the trees are sure to overlap each other in the coming decades. With that, she could start to thin the plot so that each tree would have adequate space.

That kind of record-keeping and planning has so far taken a lesser part of Ritchie’s time at the park, though she says she plans to do more of it. She has made her focus the physical landscape of the park — what do the beds and the forests look like? “That’s what the public sees,” she says.

Still, Ritchie has a handle on recent changes in the lives of plants across hundreds of acres.

She recently took out giant birds of paradise and will replace them with palms. She points to a spot near the bridge into the park where several three- and four-foot young trees are planted in a mulch bed.

“We lost a eucalyptus tree here last week,” she says. “It just fell over.”

Ritchie’s favorite tree is the Engelmann oak, a roundish tree native to the foothills of Los Angeles and San Diego, “which is not a great place to be native to,” Ritchie says, because of the sprawl and urban infringement on the trees’ habitat. It’s been red-listed, a horticultural tag for an endangered species. Because of the tree’s drought tolerance, Ritchie hopes to plant more and more in the park.

She demurs when trying to identify a favorite garden among the park’s myriad — including the gardens named for cacti, palms, butterflies and roses. “That’ll make my gardeners upset,” she says. “I can’t do that to them.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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