How Mike Terry and Barbara Marinacci Grew Our Community Garden
By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief
You may not remember the date March 17, 2017, but Mike Terry does.
That was the apocalyptic day when 2.8 inches of rain fell on Pacific Palisades’ only community garden, three-quarters of an acre set aside for native plantings at Temescal Canyon Park.
Native/Environmental/Xeriscape/Temescal Garden—known as the N/E/X/T/Garden—literally overflowed, washing away soil, shrubs and the drought-tolerant plants that had survived five parched years.
Après le deluge, the soil was saturated for weeks; there was nightmarish plant die-off, and for Terry, a professional landscape artist from Rustic Canyon, and his volunteer-organizing colleague, Barbara “Green Heart” Marinacci, it was time to start again, again.
The battle against invasive species and the deliberate plotting of Californian native species spearheaded by charismatic plantsmen such as the late Bert Wilson, who built a culturally influential nursery near San Luis Obispo, never stop.
For Terry, who was lucky enough to meet and be inspired by Wilson, it is a constant learning process.
The California native blew back from Illinois and Texas with his wife Elizabeth and their boys to the Westside in 2000 for family reasons.
It was then he realized that much of his knowledge was worth a scant handful of dirt.
“I was speaking to an expert who knew 800 plant variants, and I knew 100, so I had to start again,” he explained. “Also, I did not know much about irrigation. But I learned.”
He has since developed a “philosophy by necessity,” including politely declining homeowner requests to plant pretty things that are on the invasive species list.
Many popular Palisadian plants are intruders, but hide behind fake news narratives.
The Californian pepper tree is actually Peruvian, and Californian animals cannot digest its peppers. The jacaranda comes from Brazil, roughly.
And the Australian eucalyptus? It can be a horror show, he warned.
“The stringy bark can break off when it catches aflame underneath and fly 20 miles like a firebrand, setting everything alight in its path,” Terry said. “That is probably one reason why the [wine country] fires have been so bad this year.”
Yet we also have some wonderful trees and plants.
The oldest in the Palisades is the rush-like horsetail, which has probably been around here for 600 million years.
So, does that mean dinosaur herbivores munched it?
“Probably not, because it contains a silica, which is very bad for the digestion,” Terry shared.
He has unashamed favorites: He had to list three when a native species body wanted to appoint him as an ambassador for its cause.
Number one is the coast live oak, which is “majestic and visually appealing, and provides many resources for both human and animals.”
Number two is Verbena lilicina “De La Mina” (as in, found near a mine), which is wonderful, purple-flowered evergreen shrub.
And the third? One of the hundred type of chaparral favorite, the manzanita—specifically a coastal variant called the Los Angeles manzanita. It has a vertical leaf that harvests the sun more efficiently than a Mojave solar farm.
What plants have surprised him? The garden’s toyon, whose red berries homesick settlers mistook for a familiar holiday favorite and named Hollywood after it.
“It grows magnificently in the garden, when it should not,” he said.
The garden could have been a nightmare: The Pacific Palisades Historical Society reminded Terry it was built on spill from the seven-lane canyon road, which, in the 1960s, was engineered to run north to Reseda.
As a result, Terry still does not know what lays underneath from yard to yard, from decomposed granite to sand. It’s a tough place to plan.
What are the lessons Terry has learned for growing healthy natives?
Water deeply but rarely. And precisely—no waste, no weeds.
And the biggest mistake? “Killing with kindness, overwatering and the wrong choices, such as phosphorous on Australian plants like kangaroo paws that are not adapted for it.”
The N/E/X/T/Garden was founded as a half-acre site by Palisades Beautiful in 1988 but ran into hard times. Yet, with the help of the city, Pacific Palisades Garden Club, and Terry and Marinacci, in 2010 it started doubling to its current size. And filling in with new old plants.
“When we first opened to the public, they asked about all the big holes between the plants. Now they ask why the plants are so close together,” said Terry, who is adjusting to Marinacci’s recent decision to step back. “It is becoming more of a teaching tool each year.”
The garden is maturing, but it will always be a work in progress for the community, built by hand—no backhoes and chemicals allowed—as a labor of love for Palisadians who want to get their minds freed and their hands dirty on a Saturday afternoon.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.