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History of San Diego’s Landscape

Approved Home Pros follows the story of how Kate Sessions, the mother of Balboa Park, helped establish the landscape that all of San Diego enjoys today. She founded Mission Hills Nursery in order to share her passion for plants with the public.

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Tiger: Mission Hills Nursery was founded in 1910, by the Mother of Balboa Park, Kate Sessions. She was a woman in history, that helped horticulture develop into what it is today. A woman back in 1910 developing a nursery, a business, and in an industry mostly driven by male figures, is pretty impressive. There’s even a statue of her at the entrance of Balboa Park, what’s known as the four corners, as you cross the Prado Bridge, there’s a statue of her standing there, looking at Balboa Park, almost overseeing what she created, hundreds of years later. Mission Hills Nursery was born of Kate Session’s dream. She was a landscaper, a horticulturist, a plant hunter. And to develop her own nursery, where she can have these plants, and then share them with the public, is, I think, her ultimate goal and dream in life. If you had walked onto this property in 1910, you would have seen a small green house kind of at the back corner of the property, with a little land in front, and it would have had plants all around it, in different states, whether it be young plants, or mature plants. When Kate Sessions was influencing San Diego’s landscape, she was focused on trees. When you were here in 1910, San Diego doesn’t have a lot of native trees. We have sycamores, and we have some pines, and we have some oaks. But all those were dedicated to our foothills, or our creeks or our coastal areas. So when they thought about what they needed, they thought about trees. A lot of the trees in Balboa Park, the Morton Bay figs. The pines that they have there, the eucalyptus trees that they have there, those were all foundation plantings, because one of the things that they found early on, is they needed to create a canopy that other plants can live under, because San Diego was such a dry area, that the plants that they planted, if they didn’t have some protection, wouldn’t survive. After the canopy was established, this was really exciting, because this is where people can put the plants that they dreamed of, into their landscape.

In San Diego we’ve seen a big shift in our landscape. It’s because, back in the day, we dreamed of having this tropical oasis. Well, that’s not always a reasonable request for San Diegans. We go through years of drought, we go through years of freeze and cold weather, that sometimes those tropical plants don’t fare well here. Our climate aligns with a wonderful array of other climate areas. And because of that, we have this wonderful variety, or array of flora and fauna here. Some of those plants are seen all throughout San Diego County now. The one that I can think of the most at this moment in time, is the jacaranda tree. That’s not native to here. That came from Australia, and parts of Asia, and it was brought over here, but it also does really well here. The magnolia tree, it’s another tree that was brought over here, and does fabulous here. It is an evergreen tree that produces flowers, which is a very rare item here in San Diego County. Last I’ll say is the bougainvillea. It’s the flowering vine or bush, that everybody sees and wants to have in their yard. If you’re in central San Diego, and you have a large tree on your property, trees usually reach maturity after about 50 years. So, at least 50 years ago, that tree was planted. And, if you think about what was happening 50 years ago, or you think about when your house was built, in what era, or what age it was built, that’s the people that influenced the landscape at that point in time. East coast people had an influence. People moved here from the East coast, so therefore, what people had on the East coast, they wanted here when they moved to San Diego. Even though it wasn’t the right area for it, they still wanted that. My family took over the nursery 26 years ago. And we purchased the nursery from the Atonicelli Family. And they worked for Kate Sessions, so it was a natural transition for them, and then my Dad, being in the industry, it was a natural transition for him to take over a nursery and be able to run it himself. So, one of the ways I describe Mission Hills Nursery, when people have never been here, is it’s situated in the middle of the community. If you look on all sides of us, we’re surrounded by homes. There’s really no businesses next to us, they’re all blocks away. There’s a school located just across the street, so it’s nice to have this feeling of being in this urban oasis where, you’re situated in the middle of the city, if you didn’t drive here, you didn’t know this even existed.

I tell people whenever they’re thinking about what is native to San Diego, just go to the Miramar Landfill, or Miramar Naval Base. Go to our mountains, look at that landscape that’s left untouched. That’s the San Diego landscape that’s true to San Diego. The palm trees, the birds of paradise, those are all influences that people have brought over here through the ages. That’s San Diego in general. I have some great tips for your yard.

You can create an oasis in your own backyard, by having a large protecting tree, and then underneath it, you can incorporate a wonderful variety of plants like: hydrangeas, azaleas, rhododendrons, and all kinds of plants that aren’t necessarily native to here, but will do well here in the right environment. A common trend right now in the landscape, is edible landscapes. And this is the use of trees or shrubs that actually produce something, whether it be a fruit, or a vegetable, or a berry. But, it’s an established part of the landscape. This is something that’s going to be there year after year, and produce for you year after year. Such as, blueberry bushes. They’re a wonderful bush, that you can incorporate into your landscape pallet, but they actually produce blueberries afterwards. Also, citrus trees. They’re wonderful patio trees, or small shrubs that you can incorporate into the landscape, that take up space, but then produce limes or lemons or oranges after that. Another plant that people overlook, is the artichoke. This is a wonderful architectural plant, that grows up with rigid spines, and looks very unique. But, it produces the artichoke. At Mission Hills Nursery, there’s two major ways that we can help you. The first is, come into the nursery, let us walk you through, and show you some of the plants that you’ll love to have in your yard. When you’re planning a landscape, you need to think about a couple of important things: number one, what do you want out of your yard? Is it going to be just something pretty to look at? Is it going to be functional? Or are you going to want to produce something, like a fruit or vegetable. Also, be realistic in where you’re located. Are you in East county San Diego? Are you coastal? Are you in the mountains, or are you in a valley? Because that’ll help determine, what plants you can grow, and be successful. Another major benefit of working with Mission Hills Nursery, is that you’re working with plant experts. Having a business that’s over 100 years old, gives us the experience and knowledge, to make sure that the landscape is what you want it to be.