Plants + People
A study of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the gardens they tend to.
Exploring Heather Sperling’s Mount Washington, CA garden, it’s easy to draw a parallel between the blend of textures, colors, and varietals in her backyard…and the same balance that can be found at Botanica, the much-loved Silverlake restaurant that Sperling co-owns (and whose farmer’s market-centric menu reflects a similar adoration of California’s seasonal bounty). Raised by a family of gardening enthusiasts, to hear Heather explain her own relationship with the practice is to dive deeply into the sensorial satisfaction and childlike wonder that can be found in tending to one’s environment. Read on to discover more about how she’s worked to transform the landscape surrounding her history-rich home (whose original name, Rose Moor, was a nod to the blooming florals that lined the property) into a lush reflection of the present season.
Describe how your garden: feels, smells, sounds, tastes.
Breezy, calm, peaceful. Butterflies dancing, hummingbirds zipping around, lizards sunning and scampering. Sagebrush and lavender in the sun. The bright, high-note green scent of tomato vines. The fruity sweetness of lantana wafting after someone brushes by it on the front steps. Leaves rustling, squirrels chattering, fountains trickling, birds calling. Bitter greens, potent herb flowers, crisp peas and sweet tomatoes, sun-warmed and nearly bursting.
What is your first or earliest memory of being in a garden?
My gardening lineage is long, spanning both sides of my family. My mother grows flowers wherever she can (she’s notorious for once planting an old toilet with trailing petunias), and my father packs as many fruits and vegetables as he can into his yard – a passion he inherited from his father, who created an Edenic edible garden in West Virginia. Asparagus and snap peas in spring; melons, tomatoes, corn and plums in summer; grapes and brussels sprouts in the fall – he grew it all. The multi-sensory experiences I had in his garden are some of the most powerful foundational memories of what has become a life-long love affair with produce and plants. When I think about the genesis of my relationship with food, a big part of it lies in my family’s gardens.
Can you share more about your relationship to planning and preparing your garden throughout the year? What are some seasonal steps you consider or take?
The seasonal element of the garden really manifests in the vegetable beds. A fall and winter garden in LA is still so lush and green, with lettuces and herbs thriving in the winter, and root vegetables with greens that are wonderful to cook. Many of the natives look their happiest during January and February, and the scent of citrus blossoms in the winter is heavenly! Coming from the East coast, the verdant nature of LA in January and February is an annual miracle, as far as I’m concerned.
Do you use plants medicinally? What is your plant routine?
I believe food is medicine for the body and the spirit, and that gardening, harvesting and cooking can be meditative salves for the mind… so in that regard, you could say that I use plants medicinally! My approach to food is to cook with the seasons, always with a focus on nourishment and beauty (which is its own form of nourishment.)
In addition to the vegetables that I grow, my garden is home to many nutritious greens and herbs that are both culinary and medicinal. Future goals include creating the time to really explore the healing properties of plants and making space for drying and blending herbal teas. For now, quick tisanes of fresh herbs (lemon verbena, lavender and flowering thyme) and the occasional handful of lavender and rosemary thrown in the bath will have to suffice.
What plants are currently in your garden? What’s thriving?
When we bought our property two years ago, the landscaping was mostly grasses (and largely vacant). In the past year, we’ve introduced softness, florals and diversity; the butterflies and bees have never been happier. We planted milkweed, yarrow, lavender, butterfly bush, acacia redolens, evolvulus, cranesbill geraniums, Santa Barbara daisies. We incorporated cypress trees and rose bushes in homage to the yard’s history – when the house was built around 1914, it was called Rose Moor and the yard was mainly cypress and roses. In the shady zones we added blue star ferns and ficus; we planted more jade and agave in the dry, sandy spots. The property is filled with very happy old-growth trees and bushes – eucalyptus, pepper trees, a magical Chinese elm, rosemary and pittosporum hedges, and a few giant blooming cacti that are just so magical.
What plants do you use for cooking or healing?
Cooking is my greatest creative outlet and the way that I care for my community…and cooking and entertaining are the actions through which I feel most fully myself. So I really cherish my garden for the way it enables that. I always grow copious herbs (tarragon, shiso, cilantro, parsley, dill, oregano, marjoram, bay, multiple varieties of thyme, basil and mint) and flavorful greens that can be used for salads or as flavoring elements – like mizuna, frilly mustard, red-veined sorrel and a few varieties of arugula. A salad of flavorful, textural greens and whole leafy herbs is my favorite addition to a dinner table – it’s so beautiful, goes with everything, and makes every meal better.
Right now, in addition to the greens and herbs, I’m harvesting eggplant, tomatoes, haricot vert, spigarello, cucumbers, kale, zucchini and blueberries multiple times per week. This is the first time I’ve grown spigarello, and now I’ll never have a garden without it! It’s a leafy green in the broccoli family that I absolutely adore sauteed with garlic/chile/olive oil, stirred into pasta, or braised in coconut milk curries.
Do you have any garden traditions that you’ve inherited or learned and plan to pass on?
This is the first garden where I’ve grown flowers that can be dried – so I’ve been making bouquets of yarrow interspersed with lavender and gifting them to friends to hang and dry. One small tradition I’ve created with my daughter is to sit outside most nights and “listen to the nighttime sounds,” which is a precious end-of-day moment in the garden where we just look, listen, breathe and appreciate. I also love to make cyanotypes (sun prints) using foliage from the property. Before my son was born, I had my dearest friends make a series of prints this way; they now hang in his room and are one of my most cherished possessions.
What are your plans for your garden in the next 5 years?
We need to rebuild our crumbling 1910s garage, and in doing so will create a true outdoor living/cooking/entertaining space… this will enable us to live in the garden even more than we already do! I’m also excited to teach my children more about our garden as they grow. By having them grow up in tune with the landscape that surrounds them, I hope to instill in them a love, respect and awe for the power and magic of plants.