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"The Rose Garden West": Maintaining the Nixon Library Grounds.

Feature and photography by Stephen Kelly, regional editor


Red bird azaleas (potted) and kumquats are enclosed with a Japanese boxwood hedge. The shaped tree (left) is a sweet bay magnolia.

Yorba Linda Beckons

Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005--At 11:00 a.m., I leave the Tustin offices of LCN and point my truck in the direction of Yorba Linda, California, a dozen or so miles to the north. (For those who didn't take high school Spanish, linda means "pretty" and the Yorba is the namesake of an early land grant family.) The skies have cleared, for the moment, of rain clouds, and I should be able to take some good landscape shots of the Nixon Library grounds, installed by ValleyCrest Companies of Calabasas, California and maintained since 1990.

"Reelin in the Years"

While my thoughts are on viewing the landscaping and getting a read on the maintenance concerns (plus wondering if the directions given by mapquest.com are accurate), my thoughts turn to Nixon and the year he came to power. It was 1968, my senior year of high school and start of my freshman year of college. What a tumultuous year!--the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; the Poor People's March on Washington (to which I was eye witness); the violence of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and subsequent Chicago Seven trial; and Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not seek another term, opening the way for a Nixon presidency.


Richard Nixon's father, Frank, built this Yorba Linda farmhouse in 1912 from a catalogue kit. The future president was born here January 9, 1913. The home has not been rebuilt, only restored and a sprinkler system added. Peruvian daffodils (right, near door) and red poinsettias welcome visitors to the home.

A draft was announced, lottery style, depending on one's birthday, and I and a generation of youth worried that we would "win" a trip to Vietnam. With Nixon as president, the war expanded into Cambodia and the antiwar activities at home intensified, yet the war would drag on for years more. "Peace with honor" was a favorite Nixon phrase. Then came the revelations of the "Pentagon Papers," the "enemies list," Watergate and the Oval Office tapings--and the finale--resignation.

Let the Landscaping Begin

Finally, I see a Nixon Library sign and pull into the parking lot and its large circular fountain and triumvirate of flags. The library lies in the low hills of Yorba Linda, occupying nine acres. I know that ValleyCrest won ALCA's Decade award for this property. ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance, one of the company's five division, is headed by Roger Zino. The landscape and its maintenance were managed by Danny McNamara for over a decade, but is now overseen by Michael Williams.


The lower edge of the amphitheatre is bordered with 'Mr. Lincoln' roses (foreground) surrounding a thicket of Artemisia. The taller single palms ('Queens') are followed by a fan of Senegal palms. The same palm layout borders the other side of the pool.

The landscape maintenance begins in the parking lot with Star Jasmine trees and needlepoint ivy for ground cover. There are also liquidambar (sweet gum) trees in grates along the sidewalk. Walking up the library steps are raised planters of yellow oleander shrubs (Thevetia peruviana), and more Star Jasmine groundcover.

The Gardens

The Nixon Library and Museum leads out to the California Formal Garden and reflecting pool. The garden is in memory of Tom and Valley Knudsen. Chinese blue pansies and yellow, orange, pink and white poppies introduce the garden, with ice berg roses, Japanese boxwood and dwarf myrtle hedges, Indian hawthorn, red bird azaleas, sweet bay magnolias and kumquats in sight.


Given the relentless rains in Southern California in December and early January 2005, the Hunter drip irrigation hasn't been needed to quench these 'Peace' roses on the terrace planter overlooking the main lawn area.

Paralleling both sides of the garden are covered corridors with large potted plants: 'Red Blaze' azaleas for the left side, Kentia palms (Howea forsteriana) for the right.

I learn that the Nixon Library manager is knowledgeable about plants and sometimes requests a certain varietal for the property. Among the nursery suppliers relied on by ValleyCrest are DM Color Express, Miramar Wholesale, Village, Loma Vista and Armstrong.


Rainbird spray heads and NDS drainage (and controllers) are used throughout the planting beds.

Enter Lucio, Stage Left

As I stroll the crushed granite pathways admiring the well-maintained plant bed, I see a familiar sight: the red shirt and logo of a Valley Crest grounds man. It is Lucio Rubio, one of the onsite gardeners.

I explained to Lucio that with the super, Michael Williams, out of town that I could use his help identifying some of the plants. Speaking mostly in rapid-fire Spanish, but punctuating his explanations with a few words of English, we walked the pathways. A cordial and accommodating fellow, Lucio takes me from plant to plant, me pointing and he venturing a name, followed by me repeating what I think he said, then discussing what the plant might really be. It was a bit hit or miss, but we figured out most of them. Fortunately, some of the plants had identification markers. Lucio was particularly good at identifying the trees.


The verdant carpet of tall fescue in the Pat Nixon Amphitheater takes a beating with the multiple weddings on the weekends and other special events: Gov. Schwarzenegger has spoken here a few times, and the Nixon birthday is being celebrated this Sunday, Jan. 9. Michael Williams, the Anaheim branch manager for ValleyCrest Maintenance who oversees the Nixon landscaping, says sections of the lawn are replaced every week. The four-man grass-cutting crew comes in each Wednesday, using 21'' and 36'' Toro rotary mowers, and also tend to the hedges. The lawn is cut to 3'' and about half that height for the perimeter.

Lucio shows me his rose pruning technique and we also observe fellow gardener Felipe pruning and tidying the 'Just Joey' and Bonica rose bed in back of the Nixon home.

I ask Lucio about his hours. He gardens full time here, 40 hours a week, pruning and replanting.

"Do you have a written schedule," I ask.

"No," he says and points to his head.

"Ah," I say, "It's in the vault."

He does get direction from the Michael Williams, of course, who monitors the site each week and gives instructions about which areas need special attention or what plants need switching out. ValleyCrest estimates it changes or replaces about 250 flats of annual flowers on a quarterly basis. Michael, however, is on a short vacation, but Lucio knows the property, having worked it for many years.


Chinese wisteria climbs above a bed of floribunda 'First Kiss' roses.

Beyond the Pool

Beyond the pool is a tall fescue, sloping lawn area, the Pat Nixon Amphitheater, a gift from Bob and Dolores Hope. I learn later from Michael Williams that it's a maintenance headache. Sections of the lawn are replaced weekly after the numerous weddings and other special events.

To the left of the pool is the First Lady's Garden: It's all about cultivated roses. Bionica roses predominate, but there are specialty roses named for Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Regan, and Barbara Bush.


Bionica roses predominate in the First Lady Garden (foreground left), but 'Sun Flare,' 'Angel Face,' 'Celebrity,' and 'French Lace' roses fill out the palette.

The Nixon's Final Resting Place

Richard and Pat Nixon are buried up at the top of the property near the Nixon home. The Memorial Garden features some 20 different perennials: Helichrysum, geranium incanum, Scaveola, Lavatera, Buddleia, Chinese lantern and several rose varieties, including English roses. At the moment, rows of bright red poinsettias flank the walk to the home built by Richard Nixon's father, with Peruvian Daffodils by the front door.


The base of the lawn incorporates NDS grated drainage.

"Who'll Stop the Rain?"

While speaking with Lucio, the clouds have moved in. I start snapping pictures while there's still some decent light. I espy Hunter drip irrigation in the rose beds, RainBird spray heads and NDS controllers in the California Garden. Mr. Williams tells me he likes using RainBird pop ups for the turf and shrubs, not that they've been used much lately. Within a 10-day period Southern California has matched its usual annual rainfall, and there are puddles in some path way areas.

"The original installation of irrigation was all Hardie heads, which is one of the worst irrigation heads I have ever seen on a job," says Danny McNamara, the former account manager for the Nixon Library ground maintenance. "Over the years we've been fazing them out. In the amphitheater we now have Hunter heads. We are upgrading all other shrub, color and smaller turf areas to RainBird pop-up heads. All the rose areas have drip irrigation, not all of it works properly and several of these planters have to be hand watered, as well as all the pots. Approximately one-eight of the landscape has to be hand watered. Overall the irrigation system needs some upgrading over the next few years."


The Rose Woods contains specialty roses named after the First Ladies: Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush.

Feeding and Care

The tall fescue lawn that comprises the Pat Nixon Amphitheater is cut by a four-man grass-cutting crew to three inches once a week, and about half that height for the perimeter. The crew uses 21" and 36" Toro rotary mowers. The many weddings and other special events find large number of people gathering on the lawn, requiring weekly replacement of certain areas of the turf.

As for keeping the grass in good condition, Nitro King fertilizers are used: 22-6-8 in the winter, 42-0-0 during the summer months and couple of fall applications of 16-6-8. To control the weed seeds Ronstar, Pendulum and Barricade pre-emergents are employed; postemergents include Roundup, Curve, Turflon and Drive.

Osmocote granules help the flowers grow (granules contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), along with specialized rose food.

Pesticides

"We try to keep it as safe as possible," explains Mr. McNamara. "If we use a chemical we usually use Safer Soap or another environmentally safe roduct." He also notes the use of beneficial insects.


Luisio Rubio, all-around good guy and on-site, full-time ValleyCrest landscape gardener, prunes a 'Mr. Lincoln' rose bush. He spends most of his time manicuring the flower beds and replacing flowers.

The Challenges

What are the biggest challenges to keeping up the property?

"Irrigation, poor soil conditions and damage from visitors and the several events that they have throughout the year, including proms, weddings and large events from book signings to dignitary visits," says Mr. McNamara.

"If there is a nightmare on the job, it's the amphitheater turf," says Michael Williams.

There are also some tall hedges to trim, including a Eugenia that is a good 45 feet tall. From my angle, this looks like a monster to deal with, but it is maintained with the use of a boom truck and trimmed from an elevated trail (blocked from view) on the other side of the hedge.

Whatever the challenges, the ValleyCrest maintenance team is in daily contact with the library staff to ensure that all maintenance needs are met, especially those special events that are so common to a presidential library.


Nixon Library and Birthplace, Yorba Linda, California

Owner: Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation Yorba Linda, California

General Contractor: Koll Construction, Newport Beach, Calif.

Landscape Architect: Emmet L. Wemple & Associates, Pasadena, Calif.

Landscape Contractor: ValleyCrest Landscape Development , Orange County Branch

Contract Amount: $376,349.

Completed: 1990. Maintained 1990 to present.

Cost: $25 million to built and maintain (no taxpayer funds), plus $14 million expansion. Visitors: About 2.5 million since 1990.

ValleyCrest Companies, Calabasa, Calif.

Burton Sperber, chairman, CEO, Richard Sperber, president
www.valleycrest.com

Burton Sperber started a landscape nursery business in 1949 with a wheelbarrow, some tools and about $700. The work was primarily residential yards, but evolved into creating complete gardens (ponds, waterfalls, fence overhangs, concrete work) and acquiring expertise in tree moving and selling retail nursery products. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, Valley Crest Landscape Nurseries acquired a number of landscape companies, and by 1998 were the largest landscape contractor in the country. From a $700 company to well over $700-million, VallleyCrest Companies now employ over 8,000 people.

The company has five business units:

  • Landscape Development
  • Golf Course Maintenance
  • Landscape Maintenance
  • Tree Company
  • U.S. Lawns

On Oct. 5, 2004 ValleyCrest acquired the Omni Landscape Group, which will be integrated into the landscape maintenance division. The move expands ValleyCrest's operations in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey. ValleyCrest expects the transaction to add approximately $50 million in revenue and 700 people to its team.

This year, ValleyCrest moved a few hundred yards uphill from its home for the last 25 years into a new three-story, 80,000 sq. ft. office complex (with a 273 space garage). Opening ceremonies were held Oct. 14, 2004.

Burton Sperber, founder, chairman and CEO of ValleyCrest, believes it's the people not the numbers that make a company.


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