1 Mar 2001
Meet Your New Member-At-Large, Bob Burtscher
Once again, I was anxious to meet Bob Burtscher and see his marvelous garden early last year. In October 1998, the Palm Society of Southern California had conducted a Board Meeting there with a tour of his garden for the membership. While the Board (I was then Membership Chairperson) thrashed out its problems indoors, the rest of the members got the pleasure of viewing his spectacular offering outdoors.
Makes It Look Easy
My wife, Louise, told me the best item on the agenda was the personal tour Bob gave to those interested in his special injection fertilizer system and the highly involved French drains that carry water away from the property. Louise reported to me her observations (recall I attended the Board meeting). She noted that Bob was careful and deliberate in explaining his system—all you had to do was pay attention and you could go home and easily replicate his methods. She urged me to return and visit Bob and take that personal tour so I could learn from a master. In fact, she told me I need not go elsewhere to learn about liquid fertilization of palms, and I quote Louise, “he really knows how to do it, and it doesn’t look like it is very expensive to install. For goodness sakes, he uses simple 30 gallon plastic garbage cans to hold the fertilizer!” At that time I had tried slow-release (solid) fertilizers and the Siphonex™ liquid fertilizer method but, frankly, they were so exhausting I could never maintain a consistent regimen. Have you every tried to fertilize 100 palms with a Siphonex™? Yes, I was looking for the “answer”.
Well, Bob had the answer, and it was easy. This reminds me of a saying I learned from an electrical engineering professor, “It’s always easy when you know the answer”. But until you know the answer, the task is formidable. So how do you learn the answer?
Of course, if you’ve been successful in life and can afford professional help then you can have all of this done in a “turn-key” manner. By the way, “turn-key” is an expression that means someone else does all the work and all you have to do is turn-the-key and it starts. I suspect that Bob would not have a financial problem hiring professional help, but this simply isn’t his way. He is the definitive “hands-on” guy. Of course, he first does a thorough job of research, that’s the smart thing to do. What sets him apart from the common crowd is that he rolls up his sleeves and put his hands on the problem and gets started. Mistakes? Sure, but why be afraid? Mistakes are part of that learning curve—and eventually he has it under control. Some people who do things themselves look at it another way….it might be too much trouble to ask another to do something that you know precisely how to do yourself. Well, it is clear that Bob has chosen this endeavor as his labor of love, so it really doesn’t matter how much work it is.
Many of us went home after that meeting in 1998 with an awareness of plants we had never seen before. Bromeliads, tillandsias, orchids, platyceriums and the exotic Black Mondo Grass (a lavender-black Japanese grass that grows in tidy little decorative clumps) are wonderful “fillers” that give the palms and cycads visual support, balance and contrast.
The lesson we learned from Ms. Ganna Walska’s Lotusland is that it is important to create a point of focus, something very special, when you create each garden. The sight of his multi-colored slate driveway, reminiscent of slate roofs in Europe, is the initial center of focus that takes you by surprise when you first enter this property. Then you glance to the right and note a large bank of rare Encephalartos cycads that stand in an amazing choreographed but au natural form. The first time I visited Bob I didn’t understand why this arrangement of plants was unusual—certainly I knew something about it was special. The second time I visited, Bob explained WHY this looked different than most other kinds of plantings. His explanation: Don’t simply place plants into the ground—first, bring in soil and create many contours and slopes, he calls it mounding, as you might find in the wild, then arrange your plants well for maximum visual impact, so the best features of each plant are displayed, and finally, carefully fill in and dress off the area with colorful Bromeliads and the like. Well, I never understood Art, and I run away from Interior Decorators, however this is different! Or is it? Well, this is Art, in its purest form, as far as I’m concerned.
A Consummate Collector
This garden is quite advanced, with about 150 species of palms from every corner of the earth, from Africa to New Caledonia. You will probably see the largest of Dypsis’ in southern California, the healthiest Clinostigma for such a cool area, and more silver in his Brahea decumbens than you’ve ever seen this side of the Huntington. The list is extensive, and you can’t really absorb it in one or two visits. In less than 13 years, Bob has created something most of us cannot accomplish in 25 years.
Tricks of the Trade
I list only a few of the tricks Bob has learned to produce a spectacular garden. Fertilize well and on a consistent basis using the Dosatron™ non-electric proportional liquid dispenser (obtain information about this from McCalif Supply or online at www.dosatron.com). Send straight water to the plants for a while, then send the liquid fertilizer mix. Fertilize to satisfy the weakest of the plants, the Palm. Increase the amount of concentration until the palm tips just begin to burn, then back off; this amount will actually be less than what the Cycad wants but that is the compromise for a serial fed system. Throw away the irrigation timer and do it manually as a function of the weather—you need to be involved with these plants to know how they are doing. Never water in the winter unless you first go out with a citrus spade and actually turn some soil over and find that it is dry. Don’t assume anything—take soil samples once a year, a cheap investment at $85. How many of us have lost several 85 dollar palms? Insure good drainage; install drains if necessary to guarantee that water is carried away. Use steamed bone meal occasionally in lieu of the liquid fertilizer to give the ground a rest from salts. Use “shrub head” spray nozzles with a 5 to 15 foot radius for irrigation; this allows the use of adjacent filler plants that will thrive. In addition to this spray system, also have a separate drip system going to the Palms—they need more water, deeper. Don’t fight rigid spray nozzle heads—install a swing joint that will allow it to swivel and not break when it is occasionally bumped. Watch carefully each day, summer and winter, the path the sun takes; observe each plant and how it receives this light. Learn the light requirement for each plant and “hide” it if necessary behind another plant that is more sun tolerant—even the bromeliad can take on awesome red and purple colors when presented a maximum, but not excessive, amount of light.
The Fellow You Should Know
This is the Bob Burtscher I know, a gentleman and a scholar. Please introduce yourself to Bob at the next palm meeting and let him know that we are glad he is our new Member-at-Large for the Palm Society of Southern California.
David W. Minks