Garden Master

It is Vincent Lazaneo’s job to answer any question about a fruit, vegetable, herb, flower, or ornamental shrub that a San Diego gardener might ask. How many plants is that? “It’s a little mind-boggling,” he says. And the fact that Lazaneo has lost his sight and that he blew off his hands in an accident more than 35 years ago might seem to complicate it. Yet this is a man with a knack for organization.

When he started working as the urban horticulture advisor for the local Cooperative Extension office in 1977, he says, “It became clear to me fairly quickly that my single resource” (that is, Lazaneo himself, working alone) “wasn’t going to be adequate.” He tried writing articles about topics like pest management and sending them to radio stations and newspapers. He also answered phone calls from the public, an activity that proved unpredictable. “If you’re talking to somebody and they need a straightforward bit of information, it doesn’t take very long. But if it involves an explanation of how to grow a plant, how to plant it, what kind of things to do…calls can back up. Some people have this whole laundry list for their landscape.”

In 1980 Lazaneo heard about a pilot program starting in Riverside and Sacramento. The idea was to provide extensive training to a cadre of volunteers. They would earn the title “Master Gardener,” and in return for the expertise they gained, they would devote at least 50 hours during the following year to helping the public learn more about gardening. In short order, Lazaneo became convinced that such assistance could help him spread information.

So in 1983 Lazaneo recruited his first class of San Diego County Master Gardeners. Today, 3 of the original 32 people continue to hold the Master Gardener title, along with another 159 who’ve received the training since. (After the first year, those who stay in the program obtain more education and volunteer a minimum of 25 hours annually.) The retention rate has turned out to be so phenomenal, in fact, that Lazaneo has only been able to train new participants every two years or so. For the last class, given in the spring of 2001, about 150 men and women applied to receive the five months of training. A selection committee of experienced Master Gardeners reviewed the written applications, whittled them down, then interviewed each remaining aspirant before selecting 44. Lazaneo says some of those chosen are members of plant societies, experts in, say, roses or camellias. Almost all have local gardening experience. But most important, Lazaneo says, is having the time and willingness to share whatever they know.

“I think I can safely say that the Master Gardener organization in San Diego is the best in the state. It’s incredible!” exclaimed gardening authority Pat Welsh. Author of the comprehensive Southern California Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide, the Del Mar resident is a zestful character who seldom makes feeble pronouncements. Welsh offered an explanation for why San Diego County may produce a higher caliber of gardener than is found elsewhere in the state. “We have a wonderful growing climate here, with zone 23 next to zone 24 along the ocean. In Los Angeles, they’ve got zone 22 next to zone 24. So the Los Angeles climate is not as mild as ours. That’s why they talk about the Los Angeles Basin — it freezes down in there! But we’re not in that situation. We’ve got a milder, warmer climate, and it’s good for many tropicals and subtropicals. And as a result of having such a good growing climate…we’re more plant-oriented.”

Nowhere else in California, Welsh asserted, do the Master Gardeners (who now exist in 36 counties) organize a gardening seminar like the one presented every spring in San Diego. The daylong event features talks by experts on dozens of horticultural topics, and attendance has grown every year since the first seminar in 1991 drew 350. By 2001, more than 700 participants were packing into the University City High School campus; organizers had to turn away an additional 150. For that reason, they shifted this spring’s seminar to a new venue, the Marina Village conference center on Mission Bay, and some 800 people attended. The seminar organizers also have inaugurated a series of smaller fall seminars. They’ll take place September 21, 26, and 28 at University Towne Centre.

“I think that all goes back to Vince,” Welsh declared. “It’s beautifully organized, that whole program. I once heard it said that Vince without eyesight is better than most people with eyesight. He’s an amazing man.”

When Lazaneo makes his way to the podium at the start of each year’s seminar, he doesn’t appear to be sightless. Nowadays, Lazaneo wears dark glasses all the time. At 54, he carries little excess flesh on his tall frame. His dark hair is graying, but his laugh is boyish. Asked about his vision, he explains that he was born with an infection called toxoplasmosis. “It’s basically a little protozoan parasite that damages the retina. I acquired it during my mom’s pregnancy, and there was very little known about the disease at the time.”

Lazaneo grew up in San Jose. As a very young child, he was thought to have “a lazy eye or something. So I wore an eye patch for a while. That sort of thing.” Not until he was starting school did an eye specialist in San Francisco identify the correct explanation for the boy’s poor sight. “They were able to treat the disease with steroids — cortisone — to make it stop an inflammation episode. But the medication could not eradicate the organism completely,” Lazaneo explains. “It would form a resistant cyst, and after two or three years, I’d have another episode where the disease would become active and damage the retina. So I had episodes basically all through my childhood.”

When he was 11 or 12, his vision was still sufficient for him to cast a critical eye on his family’s back yard. Only a lawn and some tough shrubs grew there, but Lazaneo knew that more could be coaxed from the earth. Both sets of his grandparents had produced food. “On my mom’s side, they actually homesteaded a farm in North Dakota.” On “an occasional summer, we were able to visit them. They had raspberries and gooseberries and all kinds of lettuce and peppers and everything that would grow there.” He smiles at the memory of strawberries.

His father’s parents lived in Los Gatos, but they always had fruit trees, and Lazaneo’s father for some years had cultivated a garden of edible and ornamental plants. “I remember benefiting from the garden, the produce, certainly. Being able to help pick. We had a grape arbor, and I remember going out when the grapes were ripe and plucking them and spitting out the seeds.” His father died, however, when Lazaneo was ten years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his four younger siblings. “So then she didn’t have too much time to mess around in the yard.”

On the brink of his adolescence, Lazaneo decided to cultivate the garden. He and two of his sisters found navy beans and popcorn, which they planted. “And lo and behold, they actually grew! We were able to harvest beans and popcorn, and with that encouragement, I continued to plant gardens every year from then on.” In his plot, he tended tomatoes, sweet corn, lettuce, radishes, carrots. He “ventured out into the front yard, where we had mostly just the standard lawn and hedges and shrubs, and there was a section between the two properties where I developed an ornamental flower bed. I put in a variety of annual flowers throughout the years.” As a teenager, he visited nurseries, bought transplants, started specimens from seed.

The freedom that he had to experiment kindled his lifelong passion for horticulture, Lazaneo suggests. But his curiosity also cost him his hands. This happened one day when he was 17. “As my wife would say, it’s a guy thing.” A chuckle hints of embarrassment. “I’ve never talked to any women who have played with explosives, but I’ve talked to several men who had close encounters.”

Somewhere he learned that he could make gunpowder by mixing charcoal and saltpeter and sulfur. “At the time I thought this was kind of neat.” So he got the ingredients at a drugstore and tried it. “Then I got a little more carried away,” Lazaneo recalls. “I had taken a chemistry class, and I had access to some phosphorus, which I found out later is quite unstable.” He had also gotten hold of some potassium chlorate. He mixed it with sugar and added the phosphorus. “Well. Any combination of potassium chlorate and sugar is not that stable if it’s agitated or impacted. And the phosphorus made it even less so. I was aware that it was a powerful explosive. I’d detonated some of it with friends. You know, as boys you blow things up. Whatever. But I wasn’t aware that it could go off spontaneously.”

That’s what happened to the few tablespoons of the mixture that Lazaneo had stored in a baby-food jar. He says it wasn’t so much the explosion but rather the shrapnel that caused the most damage. “The glass just totally splintered. I was holding it in my right hand, which got taken off at the wrist.” The impact also destroyed most of his left hand. He was rushed to the Stanford Medical Center, where a surgeon salvaged part of one finger on the left hand as well as Lazaneo’s left thumb.

Today Lazaneo acknowledges he was lucky the explosion didn’t kill him or some other innocent party. “I kept this stuff in my room, in a bottom drawer.” His mother or someone else in the household might have come upon it, he reflects.

Recovering from the accident caused him to miss the first half of his senior year, but he was back in class during the second half. “I’d gone to summer school some, so I had enough units left to graduate with my class.” Subsequent surgeries helped to rehabilitate the left hand. He learned to use a hook to replace the right one. He enrolled as a math major at his local junior college, but after one year, his interest in math waned. Finally a nurseryman suggested he study horticulture, so he enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “And in my first quarter down there, I realized this was something I really loved.” Although the explosion had severely damaged the cornea of his left eye, he had some vision in his right one. With magnification, “I could focus on books. Holding them fairly closely, I could read. Even in college, I was able to use a microscope for bacteriology class. I could view an insect collection and other things of that sort. I was fortunate having good enough reading sight to get through my education.”

With his bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture, Lazaneo moved back to the San Jose area and worked in a retail nursery. He says he enjoyed taking care of and learning more about plants, but after six months, “I realized that what I really liked best was interacting with people — helping them select plants and understand what they needed to do to have success with them.” Reasoning that he should become a teacher, Lazaneo wound up getting a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California at Davis, with a secondary credential in vocational education.

He had married by then, and after his graduation from Davis, he moved to Sacramento, where his wife was working. As he hunted for a job, he says he “ran into a bit of a catch-22.” Most of the high schools wanted to hire teachers who could drive, something that Lazaneo’s vision prohibited. “Also, because I had a master’s degree, they would have had to pay at a higher scale,” another strike against him. Community colleges, on the other hand, didn’t require driving skills, “But they typically wanted teachers who had had some experience in high school.”

One day Lazaneo was rebuilding a fence at the back of the property that he and his wife were renting when he began chatting with the neighbor behind them. “He took an interest in me and asked if I wanted to go downtown and talk to one of the county supervisors about finding some kind of a position.” Assuming that the older man wielded political connections, Lazaneo agreed and was surprised to find that his patron was making a cold call. “But he played up my strengths,” Lazaneo says, and the result was his winning an internship at the UC Cooperative Extension office for Sacramento County. When the internship ended, he applied for and got the job in the San Diego County Cooperative Extension office.

Lazaneo says people often express confusion about the Cooperative Extension. “It’s really a cooperative program between three levels of government, which is quite unique in the United States, or anywhere. Typically, if you go to any organization, it’s either federal, state, county, local, or private.” In contrast, “We do this balancing act here.”

He says the concept originated at the beginning of the 20th Century, when Congress saw a need for research to improve America’s agricultural practices. So federal legislators permitted the states to sell federal land in order to raise the money to start colleges where agricultural studies would be conducted. Some years later, Lazaneo recounts, the lawmakers realized that knowledge being developed at the “land-grant” colleges wasn’t reaching the farmers. So Congress created the Agricultural Extension service (later renamed Cooperative Extension) to help disseminate the research findings.

Lazaneo says today there are Cooperative Extension programs in every state. “It’s become a very successful model that many other countries in the world have tried to copy.” San Diegans often assume that the office is part of UCSD, but this is incorrect. “We’re part of the university’s statewide system.” The administrative headquarters is located in Oakland. State money pays the salaries of all the “farm and home advisors,” while the federal government contributes funds to support specific programs. The County of San Diego provides a building (at the County Operations Center at the end of Overland Avenue in Kearny Mesa), along with secretarial support, supplies, and county cars.

When he was hired to work in this office in 1977, it already had farm advisers who specialized in commercial floriculture, avocados and citrus, vegetables, landscape trees, and other subjects. But Lazaneo was the first person ever given the job of communicating University of California research findings exclusively to home gardeners. Unfortunately, he “had a couple of episodes of the [eye] disease, and in 1980, it actually caused enough damage in my right eye — which was the only eye I was seeing out of at that time — that it caused the retina to detach.” Rendered totally blind, Lazaneo says he got “mobility training,” and his doctors also took another hard look at the eye that had been damaged in his explosives accident. They found “there was a little bit of retina still functional, so they did a cornea transplant and allowed the light to get in, so I could see a little bit with that.”

He could no longer discern the shapes of letters, but the university agreed to provide him with assistance so he could continue to do his work. Three women share the job of serving as his reader. Two days a week, Joanna McClure attends to this. A good-natured, energetic woman with short dark hair, McClure first met Lazaneo when her husband, Lew Gary, enrolled in the Master Gardener class of 1989. Gary had retired the previous year, and he and McClure were up to their ears in a gardening project. In 1985, they had moved into a new home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Rancho Bernardo. It sat on compacted fill. “You couldn’t dig anywhere without a pick or a digging bar,” McClure says. When she and Gary hacked their way into the hard, barren clay, they discovered an amazing assortment of rubbish.

Today in the compact front yard, a riot of roses, irises, daylilies, and various annuals erupt under an eastern redbud tree, while an ornamental plum tree shelters a rock garden planted with succulents. The lot is shaped like a slice of pie, much bigger in the back, and there McClure and Gary have created an exuberant horticultural wonderland. Thirty or 40 camellias fill one long bed on the north side of the house, while three or four times that many rosebushes thrive all over the property. Hanging baskets hold rat-tail cactus, hoyas, and epiphyllum. Other containers cradle epidendrums, a tiny orchid that hummingbirds adore. In two ponds, fish live among grasses, zephyr lilies, papyrus. About five years ago, Gary added a complicated modeltrain layout that runs around the ponds and through the back yard. “We like whimsy, so there’s a lot of little things going on,” McClure acknowledges. At one point, for example, the track passes a miniature farmhouse, complete with tiny laundry hanging on a tiny clothesline. Nearby a little plastic wolf chases a little plastic cat, which in turn is chasing a little plastic bird. McClure has planted bonsai — Japanese elm, leptospermum — and the scale matches the scale of the model trains. Every May, columbines spring up and tower over the scene.

A former middle school vice principal, McClure retired in mid-1996, after that year’s Master Gardener class had already started. She enrolled in the next one (held in 1999), but by then she had already begun working for Lazaneo, a situation she describes as the ultimate educational experience. “What’s in the man’s mind is tremendous,” she comments. “We’re all in awe.”

As his reader, “You’re his hands and his eyes. Like for example, he gets a telephone call and he’ll say to me, ‘Would you look under such and such?’ I’ll pull it out, and he’ll ask, ‘What does that say regarding management?’ So I’ll read that to him. Then he’ll ask me to make a couple of copies and get material together to be mailed out.” Or McClure will read website screens aloud. Longer material, like books, she sometimes takes home and records on tape.

Tape recorders have become a powerful tool in Lazaneo’s mangled hands, according to Gary. When the gardening adviser lectures, he dons a headset connected to a tape recorder that holds his notes. On his desk at work, he relies upon similar aids. “When you sit at your desk, you’re looking at your computer screen or you’re looking at reference material,” Gary says, explaining that Lazaneo, in contrast, knows what’s on each tape in each of the three machines on his desk. “He’ll say, ‘Oh, So-and-So called,’ and he goes and touches this tape recorder and he finds that message.”

“In the morning,” McClure chimed in, “he gets there at eight o’clock.” In the half hour before his reader arrives, “He’s getting messages off his voice mail, and he puts all his notes into a tape recorder. Then he returns some of the calls if he can.” When McClure arrives, he might ask her to find a phone number. “So she’ll go to the Rolodex,” McClure’s husband explained. “But Vincent will have already dialed nine,” and he’ll be waiting for McClure to read off the number so he can punch it in.

In addition to being Lazaneo’s reader, McClure was just re-elected president of the Master Gardener Association. Her husband held that job in the early ’90s, and he still devotes countless hours to the group. It was Gary’s idea to start the spring gardening seminar, and every year he chairs that event, overseeing the work of a dozen or so lieutenants. He says Lazaneo somehow keeps track of everything that each of the organizers is doing, and sometimes the farm advisor jumps in and attends to problems himself. “We had trouble, for example, with flimsy easels at the seminar for years,” McClure stated. “Well, last year Vincent got plywood and other lumber and piano hinges.” Using his hook, one thumb, and one finger, he built a half-dozen big sandwich boards. “And they look really nice,” McClure exclaimed. “I mean, the guy does everything!”

She and Gary say Lazaneo also organizes research projects. On two occasions, he’s gotten Master Gardeners to collect soil amendments from nurseries all over the county; then he sent samples of each to UC Davis for analysis. “And then he publishes this research paper which tells you what the electrical conductivity is, what the salt content is,” Gary said. “You can look at the chart and figure out which soil amendment you want to use.”

“But he doesn’t just open the bag and take a few handfuls,” McClure interposed. “We empty almost the entire bag in a wheelbarrow, and we totally mix it up.”

“And [samples] go into refrigerators so they won’t go bad until we can ship them.”

They say Lazaneo in the past has organized field trials of numerous plants. With the aid of the Master Gardeners, he has tested hot pepper spray on ants. McClure hooted at the thought of yet another recent Lazaneo brainstorm. She explained that a question had arisen regarding decollate snails, a predacious mollusk that gardeners sometimes release to control the ubiquitous plant-eating brown garden snails. Although the decollates are known to devour the brown garden snail eggs and babies, “Nobody seems to know whether they also will eat slugs,” McClure said. Lazaneo had consulted with various snail experts but failed to get a satisfactory answer. So she took him down to Home Depot, where they bought four ten-inch flowerpots. “He’s going to plant radish seeds; then he’s going to get some decollate snails and a slug for every one.” He plans to devise some way of keeping them all from escaping, “And he’s going to study this, darn it! If he can’t find anyone to tell him, he’s going to find it out for himself.”

Whatever he finds out about the slug-eating capacity of the decollates he will pass on to the Master Gardeners. They will then have an answer when someone calls the hot line to ask if the snails eat slugs. This hot line is a remarkable resource. You can dial 858-694-2860 and pose a gardening question 24 hours a day. If you call at 3:00 a.m., you’ll have to leave your query on an answering machine, but from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every Monday through Friday, Master Gardeners report in person to return the messages and field new calls as they come in.

This task frightens some of the volunteers, says McClure, who adds, “This is understandable. You’re supposed to be a Master Gardener and know everything, but you get questions, and sometimes you don’t have a clue.” The crowded office where the volunteers staff the hot line is a rich repository of gardening wisdom, however. Bookshelves along one wall hold volumes with titles such as Begonias, Edible Weeds, Vegetable Diseases and Their Control, The Hive and the Honey Bee, Weed Science, The Hoya Handbook, Flowering Trees of the World, Cacti and Other Succulents, The Art of Flower Arranging. Binders labeled “citrus,” “avocado,” “vertebrates,” “invertebrates,” “turf,” “landscape ornamentals,” “containers,” and other topics stand within arm’s reach of the phones. Bulletin boards display lists of arborists, poisonous plants, sources of mulch.

Kathryn Kremer was on duty on the spring morning when I came to observe the hot line in action. Kremer got her initial Master Gardener training in the second class ever given, back in 1984. A Del Mar resident, she has a slight, boyish figure and short-cropped silver hair that sweeps back from her face in a graceful wave. That day she wore jeans, white running shoes, a ribbed red sweater, and a gray cardigan, and every time the phone rang, she answered it with the sweet, soothing voice of a librarian: “Master Gardener. May I help you?”

Often two volunteers work the hot line at the same time, and the veterans say there are days — typically in spring or fall right after a warm and sunny weekend — when both phones ring nonstop. On a dreary Wednesday in December, in contrast, there might be only one or two calls all morning. On Kremer’s Monday morning shift, she fielded a steady but manageable flow of questions. Her first caller asked for advice on fertilizing citrus and avocado trees, and Kremer offered to mail out instruction sheets written by Lazaneo. Next someone had heard that it was good to apply sulfate of potash to roses but didn’t know where to buy it. (Try Butler’s Mill or Home Depot, Kremer suggested.) Then a young man called to find out when the next Master Gardener training would be given. (Not until January 2003.)

Around 10:00 a.m. Kremer found herself talking to a lady whose ice plant had started dying about two years earlier. She had tried to replace it as it died, but still the damage had continued, and the woman had been informed that the problem was root rot. Now she had a wedding coming up in her family, and she wanted her landscaping to look its best for the occasion, three months away. She wanted to know if one of the Master Gardeners could confirm the diagnosis and recommend another ground cover. “I would think it probably is root rot,” murmured Kremer, sympathetic. “That’s very, very frustrating.” Unfortunately, she told the woman, the Master Gardeners were unable to make house calls, but she suggested that perhaps a landscape designer might do so.

Moments later, Kremer was listening to another tale of root-rot woe, this one from a man in Fallbrook. The water-mold fungi had caused an oak tree on his property to topple over, and he was thinking of replacing it with an incense cedar. But he wanted to know if this variety of cedar would also be susceptible to root rot. Kremer grabbed a copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book and looked up the tree but found no discussion of root rot. She promised to do some research and call him back. Calls interrupted her (How do you plant garlic? What’s a good variety of mango to grow in San Diego? How do you disinfect a pot that has contained basil plagued by fungus?) as she darted from one reference to another. But eventually Kremer exclaimed, “Got it!” Within The Ortho Problem Solver, she’d found a list of plants resistant to Armillaria root rot (the type that plagues oaks). On the list was the incense cedar. With a pleased look on her face, Kremer called back the Fallbrook resident.

“Boy, was that ever a nice call,” she declared after speaking to him. “He was so appreciative!” Asked what her favorite calls were, Kremer shot back: “The kinds I know the answers to!” Among the easier ones are those from beginning gardeners. They often ask what they should plant, and Kremer says she tries to find out the general categories of things they want to grow. Then she recommends specimens that are the most likely to succeed: bird of paradise or escallonia or flax for perennials, for example; or freesias for bulbs; or tomatoes or beans for someone with a hankering to start a vegetable garden.

Other callers have moved to San Diego from the East or the South, where gardening conditions are so different “that it’s almost like starting all over again.” Still others who call the hot line are longtime gardeners with a lot of experience who can’t find the answer to their question anywhere else.

“Those are the tough ones.” In such cases, Kremer often consults Lazaneo. “Vince knows everything about everything. When he hears something, he remembers it. If he doesn’t know the answer, it hasn’t been determined.” Joanna McClure says sometimes newer Master Gardeners express remorse about having to bother Lazaneo. “But he says to us, ‘Don’t ever feel that way!’ ” She admires Lazaneo’s boundless patience with interruptions. She told me about the time he was embroiled in revising an administrative handbook, a taxing job requiring concentrated thought. “The phone would ring, and no matter what he was doing, he’d pick it up and sit back and whatever amount of time it took to answer that person’s question, he took it. I was amazed. I thought, ‘Had that been me, I would have been so impatient to get this darn thing finished’ — as I know he was.” Her tense impatience would have been detectable, she says. “But he acts as if he doesn’t have another thing going! He just sits back and he talks and he talks.” He takes the caller’s name and address, offers to look things up and send more information. “To him the important thing is that people who need help get the right help, and he gives it to them.”

In addition to handling the most challenging calls, conducting research, and overseeing the organization of the annual gardening seminar, Lazaneo shoulders a number of other tasks. When a new crop of Master Gardeners is being trained, he teaches some of the classes and lines up experts to cover other topics. For years, he also has written a monthly column for the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Sunday “Homescape” section. Often these essays alert readers to new pests that have arrived to further complicate the local gardening landscape.

Over the years, Lazaneo says he’s seen a predictable pattern in people’s responses to unwelcome newcomers: “Panic at first and then denial.” In the second stage people insist “there must be something that’ll take care of it,” he says. Only later comes “a realization that, no, this is the way it is now.” Then the person growing the infected plant faces a tough decision: “Are you going to continue growing it, or are you going to try and substitute something else?”

Sometimes a storybook solution does materialize for a pest problem. Lazaneo says one of the most ideal pests to come along during his years in San Diego County was the ash whitefly, first discovered in California in 1988. Native to the Mediterranean area, this insect made a home for itself in ash, apple, pear, pomegranate, and other stone fruit trees throughout the state, and its population exploded. At the height of the infestation, “We had people calling in who couldn’t go out in their back yard and eat on the patio because the whitefly were falling like snow all over the yard,” Lazaneo recalls. But entomologists at UC Riverside quickly identified and imported a parasite that feeds on the ash whitefly, a tiny stingless encarsia wasp. These were released, and before long the ash whitefly had disappeared from the consciousness of the ordinary homeowner. It still can be found in California, Lazaneo says, but in such low numbers that “we never hear of it causing any problem that concerns people anymore.”

Unfortunately, the result of trying to pit one bug against another often turns out to be less dramatic, Lazaneo says. One case in point is what happened to the plant known as eugenia (Syzygium paniculatum). A tall, narrow tree, the eugenia is much beloved in California for its ability to serve as a hedge. But in 1988 the red-tinged leaves of local specimens began curling into ugly claws covered with scrofulous red bumps. This transformation proved to be the handiwork of a tiny sucking insect, a psyllid that originated in Australia. The pest added insult to injury by coating the eugenia leaves with a sweet excrement that grew an unsightly black mold.

Faced with no way to wipe out the offending bugs, “Many people stopped buying eugenia,” Lazaneo says. “And a lot of nurseries stopped selling them. Some people cut down their hedges and replaced them with either a fence or some other plant material.” Three years after the pest first appeared, entomologists found a parasite from Australia, another stingless wasp from the genus Tamarixia. “Wasps reared in quarantine were shipped to cooperating University of California farm advisers in county extension offices for release at field test sites,” Lazaneo reported in an April 2000 Union-Tribune column recapping the saga. “In San Diego County, the eugenia psyllid was successfully controlled within a few months by a single release of 600 Tamarixia wasps.” Nonetheless, “Every spring when the weather begins to warm and eugenia produces the first flush of tender new growth, the phone starts ringing. Callers ask why the parasites aren’t working anymore or if they have all died and where they can buy more.” The problem is that the wasps aren’t as active in cool weather, so until the summer warms up, some leaves on some eugenia plants — particularly those near the coast — will be damaged.

Efforts to vanquish the giant whitefly with biological control agents have proven more frustrating, according to Lazaneo. First discovered here in October 1992, the giant whitefly is the largest of the whitefly species to settle in these parts. Although entomologists know that it comes from somewhere in Central or South America, they’re not sure of the exact point of origin. But that’s the best place to look for a bug’s natural enemies. Lazaneo says researchers have managed to find a little lady beetle and at least three wasp parasites that feed on giant whitefly larvae. These have all been released. “They’ve become established and they’re helping. But all of them together are still providing much less than optimum control,” he says. “Instead of the plant being 90 percent covered, now it’s maybe 60 percent. But that’s still unacceptable! The problem has improved but not nearly enough.”

Lazaneo thinks eventually the giant whitefly will come to share the fate of the wooly whitefly, a similar pest that harassed local gardeners and growers during the 1950s. After the introduction of five or six different parasites, it finally ceased to be a major problem, though Lazaneo says the wooly whitefly still gets out of control from time to time, when people fail to manage ants and the ants eat the wooly whitefly predators. The giant whitefly will probably also be controlled at some point, he believes, but in the meantime, Lazaneo notes that economic factors help explain the slow progress in controlling the nuisance. When agricultural pests arise, farmers often pool their resources to fund research into fighting them. He cites the money that growers have contributed to battling Pierce’s disease, which is devastating commercial wine and table-grape production all over the state. When it comes to urban ornamentals, however, it’s far more difficult to muster funds to support research such as scouting for parasites and getting them through the quarantine process. Some exceptions do occur. Lazaneo says Disneyland kicked in money to fight the eugenia psyllid. “They have miles of eugenia topiary and hedge. And obviously they don’t want to be spraying all the time in a theme park.” Similarly, Caltrans “is interested in the oleander leaf scorch because of the miles that they have planted along their freeways.” But when it comes to something like saving hibiscus from the giant whitefly, it’s difficult to come up with a good funding source. “And without that, things move very slowly.”

Despite the limitations of implementing biological control, Lazaneo describes himself as a “strong supporter” of using it to keep exotic pests in check. At the same time, he says it’s not his place to tell people they should never use pesticides. “If you’re a rose exhibitionist who has to grow that perfect flower to win the top trophy, well, your tolerance is going to be very low for any kind of damage. You’re going to do a lot more to try and get that [prizewinner] than somebody who just has a rose garden for cut flowers and landscape use.” He also points out that as broad-spectrum toxic pesticides have been phased out, “newer materials are starting to come to the market that are used at much lower dosages with much less damage to the environment.” These include insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils, synthetic pyrethroids (based on pyrethrin, which is derived from a natural source), and systemic products that only affect the leaves and foliage of the plants to which they are applied. Lazaneo says newer ant baits have come out “that are very effective at very low dosages in controlling ant colonies.” Individual ants take the poison back to the colony and share it with others. Some new termite-control products work the same way.

The gardening adviser thinks the judicious use of less-toxic pesticides can be the best solution to certain pest infestations. But “people tend to be of one extreme or the other,” he remarks. “Some people don’t want to use any pesticides, while others still have the concept that the only good bug’s a dead bug.” Furthermore, since home gardeners are neither trained in pesticide use nor subject to the regulatory scrutiny that farmers endure, Lazaneo says he often sees the philosophy: “If one glug is good, two glugs are better.” He doesn’t approve of this. “I would certainly encourage people to do things that are consistent with environmental stewardship and sustainability. But that will happen at some point anyway,” he reflects. Some homeowners, upon hearing that organophosphates were being phased out, may have rushed out and stocked up Dursban and Diazanon. “But as that inventory is used up, at some point the regulatory process will have the desired effect. The material just won’t be on the market.”

His attitude toward the use of water is similar. “We’ve defied the desert here,” he states. “Over 90 percent of our water is imported, and that does concern me.” Yet at least for the moment, “There are still a lot of people out there with an image in their mind of that northern, wet, lush landscape. Or a tropical one, for that matter. We’re very fortunate here to have a climate that allows us to grow a lot of tropical and semitropical plants that wouldn’t grow here on their own because we don’t have the weather and the rain to support them. So we create this artificial environment, and it’s very nice to do that.” Lazaneo says he’s heard the question, “Well, why should I conserve? I’m just saving water for somebody else to use in a new development,” and it’s not that easy to answer. He thinks if the current drought worsens and the cost of water rises, more people will want plants that aren’t so thirsty. And looking on the bright side, he notes that if San Diego County residents use too much water now, “That also allows them a lot of leeway to conserve and still have quite a bit.”

Since 1985, Lazaneo and his wife have lived in a single-story house on a sunny street in Mira Mesa. He says they chose it because it was affordable and located near a bus route that provides him with transportation to his office. But if he had been picking a site for its horticultural potential, he would have settled elsewhere, he told me.

“This end of the street was the top of a hill,” he explained. After it was leveled, almost no topsoil remained. “You go down, like, 6 inches, and you’re into jackhammer time. Maybe you can get down, oh, 14 inches or so in spots, with a little effort.” Some of his neighbors’ yards contain little more than Bermuda grass.

In contrast, Lazaneo’s house looks like it belongs to someone with a serious interest in plants. At the front of his property, Lazaneo has created islands of beauty. From a large raised bed adjoining his driveway spills a wild profusion of blood red ranunculus. Pink campanula, pastel yellow foxgloves, columbines, daisies, johnny-jump-ups, and Pacific giant delphiniums jostle together farther back. Roses, daylilies, and lisianthus brighten containers.

However, the overall aspect of Lazaneo’s front yard evokes a nursery rather than a showplace. Most of the ground is dirt, but on it sit an assortment of containers. Some are large planters, built by Lazaneo with help from his father-in-law and a friend. Whiskey barrels and 15-gallon pots and other receptacles make up part of the assembly. In some of the containers, Lazaneo grows plants that offer pleasure as much from scent as appearance. He has an allspice tree whose leaves, when crushed, are redolent of the cooking spice. He grows a California bay tree whose aroma reminds him of the bay trees growing wild near Los Gatos. In pots near his front walkway, ginger lilies produce penetrating, perfumy spikes. Regal lilies “bloom very big luscious heads, not just at Easter time,” he noted. “And they’re very fragrant.”

Lazaneo every spring reserves space in one for tomatoes (Celebrities and San Diego hybrids this year). He pointed out a Bibb-type lettuce with a robust, thick-textured leaf growing next to his young tomato plants. An elderly Master Gardener years ago gave Lazaneo the seeds for it. “He called it Italian health lettuce, and I’ve really enjoyed it. Every two or three years, I let some go to seed and try to protect it from the little finches around here.” Lazaneo harvests the seed and replants it. He says the lettuce reminds him of the man, since deceased, who first shared it with him.

On the day that I visited, Lazaneo was also growing sugar snap peas and Swiss chard and raspberries and blueberries. He’s tried different varieties of the latter. One called “misty” had flourished, but another, Cape Fear, had fallen prey to a dense infestation of giant whitefly. Lazaneo had cut it back to branches and was looking forward to finding out if it would survive.

He was planning other experiments for the dozen or so royal apricots that filled the 15-gallon pots along his fence. Because that variety of the fruit has a higher chilling requirement, “A lot of years you don’t get a crop down here. The beds need to have a certain amount of cold during the winter.” Lazaneo said researchers at UC Davis had found that if you cover the branches of some deciduous fruit trees with nontoxic white paint, the paint appeared to reflect heat during the day and encourage fruit production. So Lazaneo tried that the winter before last. “It didn’t seem to make any difference,” he said. He also had heard stories of people getting more fruit by putting ice around tree trunks. “I know of no theoretical reason why that should work. But I thought, okay, I can treat half of these.” He put a little sleeve around the trunks of every other tree, and for two or three weeks last winter, he filled the sleeves with ice. He says all the trees set a lot of fruit, but it also happened to be a very cold winter. He plans to continue experimenting.

Considering all that he knows about gardening, all that he’s learned in his job over the years, I wondered if he ever has failures in his own yard. He sounded startled and amused by the question. “Oh! All the time! All the time!” Even with tomatoes, which Lazaneo has grown “almost every year of my life,” he has good years and bad years. “Even when you do everything right — you have proper soil preparation, a good bed, and you plant them when it’s warm enough — the weather may turn suddenly very hot, which would affect them, or we may have more whitefly or spider mites or something that will show up. Now, to a certain extent, you can plan for these ahead of time. But there are always surprises. And that’s part of the fun and the challenge of it. It’s never static.”

Lazaneo lived in an apartment when he was studying at UC Davis. “I had a little garden plot where I grew vegetables. But in the apartment, all I could have was a little fluorescent light fixture that I made.” He says he started out by placing under the light about three dozen little plants in three- or four-inch pots. He didn’t know much about indoor foliage plants then. So whenever a plant languished, he discarded it. After a few years, “I ended up with about a dozen plants that were well-adapted to my environment there — the light and humidity and the kind of care that I could give them at the time. And people would come by and say, ‘Oh! You’ve got marvelous plants! How do you do it?’ Well, it was just a process of selection.”

Nowadays, he says he always tries new things and they often flop. “But that’s how you learn. A lot of new gardeners figure there must be a formula for success and if you follow it, you’re guaranteed success.” But the process matters more than the results, he believes. “Certainly people enjoy the results, but I think people who like gardening enjoy the process — the journey — as much as the destination.”

I asked Lazaneo if right after his accident he had thought that his injuries might force him to give up gardening. “No, that never crossed my mind,” he answered, as if the notion were a little ridiculous. After a beat, he added, deadpan, “I had to give up touch-typing.”

Lazaneo isn’t a man to draw attention to his disabilities. Only when asked a direct question about them does he address the subject. Then he answers with the same calm patience he displays when fielding inquiries about whiteflies or geranium propagation or tomato fertilizers. In the spring of 2001, when he still retained enough of his vision to distinguish light from dark objects, I had asked if he expected to continue gardening should he lose all his remaining sight. He had admitted he was unsure.

“I don’t know how much my relationship with plants will change then,” he said at the time. “It’s something you really can’t plan for. So you just go on and see what happens.”

What happened, as it turned out, was that his eye disease progressed still further last December and he was plunged into total darkness. Barring some biotechnological breakthrough to rehabilitate ruined retinas, he’s likely to be blind for the rest of his life. Several months after this last optical catastrophe occurred, he reported that he was using his other senses more. He was beginning to get more comfortable while walking.

He admitted to feeling sad at times about his inability to see the wonders of the verdant earth. He’d just made a field trip with Joanna McClure and some of the other Master Gardeners to the Paul Ecke Ranch in North County. McClure described to Lazaneo the plants that she and the others were seeing, and he says he could appreciate them. But he missed not being able to take in the beauty with his own eyes. At the same time, he’s learned this spring that he is still able to enjoy his own gardening a great deal. “I can’t appreciate it as fully as I did before, and I think over the years the types of plants that I grow will vary a little bit. But I think that I always will garden,” he concluded. The pleasure persisted.

The need to teach San Diego County residents about gardening also seems certain not to disappear. Lazaneo says one of the frustrations of his job is that he can never feel as if he’s taught everyone about anything. “You can never say, ‘Well, okay. I’ve taken care of that.’ There’s always somebody new or somebody who hasn’t heard, even though you’ve promoted it as heavily as you can. There’s always going to be somebody, even now, saying, ‘I’ve got little red bumps on my eugenia. What is that?’ ”

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