The Coast News Group
Crews work to remove toppled trees at the San Diego Botanic Garden this week. Last week’s storm caused severe damage to a number of trees at the grounds. Photo courtesy San Diego Botanic Garden
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El Niño wreaks havoc on garden

ENCINITAS — The El Niño storm that caused death and devastation throughout San Diego County over the weekend took a major toll on the San Diego Botanic Garden, and highlights the fragility of the garden’s aging tree population and the measures the garden and gardens across the country are taking to protect the public as well as the trees.

High winds that downed dozens of trees across the county also downed two rare Torrey Pines — including one that destroyed a popular location within the garden — and forced the garden to cut down one of its oldest and tallest eucalyptus trees.

Botanic Garden CEO Julian Duval said the damage sustained over the weekend might be the worst the garden has ever faced due to a storm.

“It certainly was way more damaging than any storm has been during my 21 years,” Duval said. “Given the trees we lost it may have been the storm of the century for us.”

One of the Torrey Pines that toppled during the storm destroyed the Waterfall View Deck, a wooden deck in a secluded area in the park that overlooks the garden’s three-story waterfall. Built in 1978, the deck has been a popular setting for intimate weddings.

Shortly after the storm, crews also noticed that the eucalyptus, which Duval said is likely the oldest planted tree in the garden, was teetering dangerously and needed to come down before it toppled. Had it fallen, Duval said, the garden’s gift shop, the snack bar and coffee kiosk it recently dedicated and the lawn gazebo area might have all been destroyed.

“That would have been devastating,” Duval said. “We had to euthanize it, as it were, to protect the rest of the garden because you could tell the tree had been weakened at the base.”

Duval acknowledged that as the garden tree population advances in age, garden officials must prepare for incidents such as this to keep the public safe. One of the ways it does is preemptive park closures if high-wind events are in the forecast.

“We err on the side of being cautious,” Duval said. “We have dealt with high winds on numerous occasions before, this one we just had was unique in its ferocity, but the response and the preparation is the same.”

To prepare for the El Niño season, Duval said the garden crews installed sandbags and permeable berms around the park to slow the flow of water in the paved areas such as the vehicle access roads. The slowed water is funneled to the non-paved areas, where it can be absorbed by the ground and be put to use to nourish the foliage and trees.

“We want to keep the water in the garden as much as possible, so when it rains, we want to make sure we capture as much of it as we possibly can,” Duval said. “When you talk about how other agencies prepare for El Niño, the big difference is that they have so much hardscape, and we for the most part, have naturally exposed grounds and a lot of plants hold the ground in place, but still accept the water. That is Mother Nature’s way of being prepared, and in some senses, the garden is more naturally prepared for El Niño.”

But Duval said the garden is constantly monitoring the health of its trees, cataloging changes and consulting with certified arborists about trees that might be older or present a potential hazard to the public.

Across the country, public gardens are faced with similar challenges of weather and climate-change management, said Casey Sclar, the executive director of the American Public Gardens Association, of which the Encinitas garden is a member organization.

In addition to preparing for major weather events, gardens must also plan for the long-term response to climate change, such as having succession plans in place for species that might not adapt to changing conditions.

The steps the San Diego Botanic Garden has taken in both short-term responses to long-term management go above and beyond the best practices the national organization recommends to public gardens.

“A tree-management plan is a huge undertaking, and we see gardens all across the country and the world doing that,” Sclar said. “We see that at the San Diego Botanic garden in their response to the storm, as well as the management plan they have in place for the long-term challenges that come along with climate change. These best practices make gardens like the great places that they are to visit.”

Even with the preparedness, Duval said that events like the weekend’s storm and the damage to the garden have saddened everyone involved with the garden. But officials there are also trying to make the best out of the situation.

A professional miller will be on site Friday to salvage the three fallen trees into usable lumber that Duval said they plan to use to furnish the historic Larabee House, the 1940s-era home named after the garden’s founders.

“We are hoping to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “There is a lot of sadness that goes with what happened, but if you deal with living things, you realize that they do eventually meet their end, and we have to accept that. But hopefully we are able to harvest a little bit of brightness out of the sadness.”