As a sapling, John Hiatt always had colorful gardens and fruit trees to explore and harvest. Watching his father tend to those gardens unconsciously planted a passion for horticulture in him. It’s a passion that has blossomed into a career as Cal Poly Pomona’s gardener specialist.
Hiatt (’85, ornamental horticulture) oversees a wide variety of plants that inhabit campus. With a deep understanding of the intricacies of plant life, he is the go-to guy in Landscape Services for all hard-to-manage species.
Hiatt’s dedication goes beyond a career in the care and cultivation of plants. He occasionally teaches classes in his community about rose gardening. Hiatt also likes to explore new nurseries with his wife, Julie.
For 25 years, Hiatt worked and managed retail nurseries in Southern California before becoming a gardener for CPP in 2003. He became the gardener specialist four years ago and has raised different plants and trees, such as bush poppy or the Kashmir cypress, and donated them to Cal Poly Pomona. Some of those plants and trees were transplanted near University Plaza and the University Library.
With California enduring another withering drought, Hiatt offers advice to the campus community about the care of plants and yards amid tightening water restrictions.
How do you prepare plants for droughts and dry seasons?
One of the keys is to water more in the wintertime. A good reservoir in the soil can help carry them through the drier periods. We have areas on campus that get nothing but rainwater and if it rains sufficiently, in the summertime the plants will look just as they did when it was rainy.
What is some advice for maintaining lawns and plants during a drought?
One thing to remember is that a lawn is replaceable, trees are not as easily replaceable, so make sure the trees get priority for water. Younger trees don’t have an extensive root system, so they’re going to need more water. Older trees need to be analyzed to see whether they can adapt, and a lot of them will do just fine when turning off the water. It’s amazing to find out what survives on little to no water.
What about caring for potted plants?
If you put the pot inside a slightly bigger pot, and then fill the space with gravel, bark, or moss, that will keep the roots in the pot cooler. Cooler roots mean less stress on the plant and less water usage. If you cluster potted plants, they will make a little humid microclimate underneath all of them, because as they use water some of it evaporates, and they will dry out less.
What are some alternatives to eliminating lawns?
Organic mulch on top of soil will keep root zones moist and cooler. Cooling things down means less stress and less need for watering the plants and flowers. When you cut back on water, plants are not going to look like they did when you were regularly watering them. They’re going to grow less, they’re going to flower less, and the flowers are going to be smaller and fewer. Replacing a lawn with California native plants such as California fuchsias or coyote bush is great, too, as you can water them about once a week.
What kind of drought-tolerant plants and landscaping would you recommend?
There are the prickly ones – the agaves, aloes, succulents, and cacti. Then there’s the matilija poppy, monkey flower, bush poppy, and California holly, which grows vigorously and blooms profusely. It has red berries in the fall and winter that feed robins and king birds. There’s a whole other range of different plants to use to make a Mediterranean low-water landscape, especially using California native plants. Adding climate-adaptive grasses and perennials can make your yard look like a little English cottage garden and almost everything will bloom just about all year long because they’re climate adaptive.
Do you have any tips for people getting started in drought-tolerant landscaping and gardening?
Though a common choice to use, gravel and rock reflect heat back into the air and warm up the air around the plants, making it hotter for them. So that’s something to think about when landscaping outdoor space. Overall, do your research. Look for “getting started in Southern California gardening” or “Southwest gardening” kind of books and articles. “Sunset Western Garden Book” has been the bible of gardening in California since the 1940s. You’ll find information on types of plants, techniques, and tools. If you’re new to gardening, it’s extremely helpful. Don’t be afraid to just go for it and don’t panic about any mistakes made along the way. I always tell people that as long as the stem is still there, it’ll grow back. Plants are a lot stronger than we think.