Articles,  Features

Park Sand Set by Europe Grass (Part 9)

Friday, January 22, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the ninth of a series of intimate articles describing the life and work of Uncle John McLaren, “father” of  Golden Gate Park. The articles were written by J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman.

By J. Lawrence Toole

Creation of Golden Gate Park, in John McLaren’s opinion, and in the opinion of world famous arborealists and horticulturalists, was, essentially, an unprecedented horticultural experiment on a vast scale.

Success of this gigantic experiment, to which John McLaren devoted more than half a century of his life, is pictured in the surpassing beauty of the park today, and reflected in the summer and winter glory and luster in its innumerable flower dells, its lakes, and lawns and woodlands, its forested hills and waterfalls. 

“We had everything here by the soil and the water without which plants and trees can’t live,” said McLaren, the master gardener. “I’ve told you how we got the water and what we did with it. Every bit of soil had to be made for the biggest part of the park, pretty near all that part of it beyond Strawberry Hill, which in a way had always been there. West of it there was just sand.”

Soil Hard to Get

In the beginning when the Panhandle and the park east of Conservatory Valley were laid out and placed under cultivation by the first park commissioner, William Hall, before John McLaren’s coming, the Liam essential for the nourishment of plant life was nearby, within easy hauling distance. 

“But even when I came here in 1887,” McLaren would tell you, “good loam was getting harder to get and its cost was getting prohibitive. It had gone up from 25 to 90 cents a cubic yard, and when you figure 1,600 yards were needed to cover an acre of land a foot deep you’ll see what it cost to get loam to the park. And at that time, as I have good reason to remember, the state government, which had control of the park, was not much interested in Golden Gate Park and was allowing only about $38,000 a year for its development and upkeep. That was before we’d touched the western end of the park at all.

“Fortunately there was fine set of park commissioners then, as there always have been; William H. Dimond, R.P. Hammond and Joseph Austin; I remember when Hammond and Austin went to Sacramento and managed to get a bigger appropriation for the park. Every year after that, the commissioners got the park money increased until, in 1900, it passed out of the hands of the state to the mayor and supervisors of the city. Since then, it has not been starved for money.”

Gardens on Sand

Changing the shifting sand that stretched between Strawberry Hill and the ocean into grass land and soil was a problem that had baffled park commissioners before John McLaren came to the park, thought some progress had been made. Barley and lupin had been tried, but the commissioners found they did not hold the sand, which shifted with every wind.

“Reclaiming sand dunes, as I’ve told you,” said McLaren, “was no new thing to me. I had a lot of experience in that business before I left Scotland., and had seen beautiful gardens grown on sand dunes. I knew that sea bent grass was the only thing that would hold the sand together. The grass is a native of the European coast, especially that part along the Mediterranean, where it has been grown maybe for hundreds of years to bind the sand and make soil for forests and gardens. Sea bent grass doesn’t require much water or manure and is a wonderful catcher and holder of sand.”

And so, to shorten a long story, the park commission imported quantities of sea bent grass seed from Europe and found the problem of the shifting sand dunes solved. 

The grass performed the initial work of holding back the drifting sand until, in the soil created, the Monterey cypress and other trees of the pine family could take root and carry on the work of reclamation. In time the meadows of sea bent grass were sown with Kentucky blue grass, and on the sandy hillsides madrone, manzanitas, laurel and other native trees were planted, took hold and flourished, transforming the central and western area of the park into its flowered and foliaged beauty of today. 

“It wasna done in a day, nor in a year, mind you,” said John McLaren. “It took years and years. But bit by bit the sea bent grass did its work.”

Progress Report

Ten years after his coming to the park in 1887, John McLaren was able to report to the park commissioners of that year – A.B. Spreckels, Frederick W. Zelle and W.H. Metson – that the work of reclaiming sand was almost completed, and that thousands of trees and flowering arboreal plants had been set out. 

“No public park in the world,” he said, “has a greater variety of trees and flowers growing in the open air.”

Always after he came to the park, flowers held a top place in McLaren’s interest and affection.

With what a master touch and knowledge of trees and flowers McLaren planned his wonders is demonstrated in this bit of a report he was able to make to the park commission about a decade after he started work:

More Work Done

“Many thousands of trees of great variety have been set out during the year. Fine collections from many different countries have been made, including Linden Sweet, gum, maples, hawthorns, oaks. Large groups of Pittosporium… as well as thousands of varieties of evergreen acacias, Ceanothus and Romneys Coulterii. The last two named it is the intention to plant extensively.

“Many more of our native shrubbery are being experimented with, with the view of testing their adaptability to producing arboreal effects in park work. New plants from foreign countries are constantly being used and tested for this work. Many of these which have proved successful have been introduced from Japan, the Australias, Chile and Mexico. The camellia of Japan, the rhododendron of India and the Azelia Indica are all growing vigorously and create striking color contrasts. In early spring, the camellias and rhododendrons, opening their flowers in early February, vie with the masses of acacia bloom. 

“No park in the world has as good a representation of these plants as Golden Gate Park, but much more should be done.”

The “much more that should be done,” and a thousand times more, was done by John McLaren in the years that intervened. Multiply by 5,000 the trees and flowers and plants and grasses he reported in the young park. Then you have some slight approximation of the park today.

All through his half century and more at the park, John McLaren maintained perfect cycles in the planting and growing of plants and flowers.

In most other parts of this country and continent parks and gardens fade or die and disappear in summer. Here the brilliant color of the park never seems to lessen, not only because it is now plentifully supplied with water, but because of the constant care and nursing and art of McLaren and his helpers – because most of all of John McLaren.

“Shucks man,” he’d say to anyone who told him that. “It’s the climate, the San Francisco climate, the grandest in all the world.”

(Continued Monday)