The Roots of San Diego
By Ron James
California Garden Magazine: Chronicling 100 Years of San Diego Gardening
The San Diego Floral Association celebrated 100 years of continuous publication of its California Garden Magazine a few weeks ago in the lath horticultural building in Balboa Park. Although a century of continuous publishing in itself is a remarkable achievement, the affect it has had on our city and the history behind it is even more fascinating. The formation of the Floral Association and the birth of our Uptown neighborhoods in the dawn of the 1900s is no coincidence.
The very reason for the formation of the Floral Association in 1907 was to beautify the dusty streets of a growing San Diego. The premier event for the young organization was a civic flower show designed to show the residents the kind of plants and trees that would grow in this semi-arid climate.
The association offered homeowners free seeds, plants and cuttings that would thrive in San Diego. The giveaways had mixed results, mostly because many of the residents were from other climes and didn’t know how to care for their new plantings. To help novice San Diego gardeners in their horticultural efforts, the Floral Association decided a regular printed publication would help solve the problem, and the published the California Garden Magazine in July 1909.
Kate Sessions and A.D. Robinson, two world-famous giants of San Diego’s horticultural history, led the nascent society through several of its early decades. Sessions — who also founded Mission Hills Nursery in 1909 — is known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” and Robinson is famous for growing begonias and his Rosecroft Gardens in Point Loma.
One of the Floral Association’s most significant projects was to beautify the streets and residences of San Diego and its new park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Sessions and Robinson’s wife were on the Exposition committee and led a coalition of prominent wives to donate specimen plants and trees from their gardens to plant in Balboa Park. The Prado featured over 3,000 ferns that were grown by Floral Association members. Their efforts were so successful that the exposition unofficially was called the “Garden Fair.”
Robinson, who used lath houses at Rosecroft nursery, wrote an article in Sunset Magazine that promoted the idea of an enormous lath house for the Exposition. The idea caught on with the public resulting in the beautiful Botanical Building brought to fruition by architects Carleton Winslow and Bertram Goodhue and now is one of San Diego’s most famous landmarks.
There were many positive things that came out of the Floral Association’s work for the Exposition. One that still affects San Diegans to this day is that they convinced the city to offer free trash pickup for homes so that the city would look clean for visitors. Today the legacy of that effort, for better or worse, is that trash pickup services remain free in the city of San Diego.
The Floral Association remains a vital force in our community to this day, and California Garden Magazine is now the oldest continuously published horticultural magazine in the United States. Marking the centennial of the magazine, the association has published a collection of the best articles over the last century, called California Garden Centennial Compilation, edited by Thea Gurns. Though some of the features are many decades old, the articles are as relevant and interesting as they were the day they were published.
Copies of California Garden Magazine ($4.00) are available at Mission Hill Nursery and Walter Andersen Nurseries.