La La Landscapes: Rancho Gardens to About 1870

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With formal gardening first introduced in our area at the local missions, such as San Gabriel (as noted in the last post in this series), it soon followed that the sparse civilian population of greater Los Angeles, in the small town or in the outlying ranchos, did what they could with limited water to adorn their dwelling with gardens that were both practical and ornamental.

Unfortunately, information from the rancho era, generally through the mid-1860s or so is sparse.  Victoria Padilla in her 1961 study Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History stated that the gardens in pre-American Los Angeles homes were generally centered around a rear patio behind adobe houses and very typically simple.

Padilla listed such plants as grapevines, fruit trees, some shade trees, herbs, occasional flowering ornamentals and a kitchen garden as a combination of everyday, practical items and some decorative plants.  She also observed that cuttings from the mission were a common source of plant material for homes as were infrequent selections brought by ships from other parts of the world.

Jere Stuart French, a landscape architect who authored the 1993 book The California Garden: And the Landscape Architects Who Shaped It, gave a few examples of what regional homes had in their gardens, citing Bess Adams Garner’s Windows in an Old Adobe from 1939 concerning what was available at the Palomares family’s home, completed in 1854, on the Rancho San José in modern Pomona.

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This circa 1870 stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows members of the Bixby family in the expansive garden in front of the adobe house at Rancho Los Cerritos in modern Long Beach purchased in 1866 from Jonathan and Rafaela Temple, who planted the garden.  The photo was published by Henry T. Payne, but he’d purchased and reissued the inventory of William M. Godfrey, who took his photos in the very late 1860s and very early 1870s.


There, the Palomares’ raised roses, geraniums, lemon verbena, sage, marjoram, spearmint, castor bean and many other plants that, again, were a blend of usable and decorative plant materials.  In the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity, while caretaker of the nearby Phillips Mansion, to work on some interpretive materials and give school and public tours at the Palomares Adobe, which has a reproduced garden intended to show what was done in the rancho era.

At the Homestead, we also lack specific information about what William and Nicolasa Workman did with gardens around their adobe, which was built in 1842 and expanded over the years.  While there is some material available on the vineyards and orchards from visitors such as Henry Miller, a traveling artist in 1856, an agricultural enthusiast, John Q.A. Warren, in 1860 and stops by committee members from the California Agricultural Society in 1858 and 1865.

However, the only significant mention of gardens at the Workman House came from the 1865 agricultural society visit, when it was noted in a report that the family had a “beautiful flower garden, well protected by a good brick wall.”

The Workmans’ daughter, Antonia Margarita Temple and her husband, F.P.F., were said to have had a fine and expansive garden at their adobe on the Rancho La Merced, several miles to the west, and their home was unusual in that it was extensively fenced.  Warren, who visited there and at the Workman home in 1860, noted that there were “100 acres . . . inclosed [sic] to garden, bineyard, and agricultural purposes” and, while he provided great detail on the fruits, nuts, grapes and field crops found there, he mentioned nothing about the garden.

In 1855, F.P.F. Temple’s brother-in-law, John H. Bancroft, who resided in Temple’s home state of Massachusetts, responded to a request from Temple’s nephew and ranch foreman, Thornton Sanborn and sent a “box about one foot square, with the best Peach, Plum, and Cherry stones you can find in the market, all kinds of garden seeds, the best, all kinds of flour [flower] seeds, also Hovey & Co. [a nursery that opened in Cambridge, outside of Boston, in 1834] Catalogue of trees.”

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Several children and others in the large household of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple stand within the garden at the family’s 1851 adobe on the Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows in this original steroscopic photograph from the museum collection.  This was also published by Payne, but was likely an earlier shot by Godfrey.

There are a few surviving photographs of stereoscopic views of the Temple adobe and grounds, taken about 1870, and which give a general idea of the attention given by the Temples to their gardens, orchards and vineyards.  An example from the Homestead’s collection is shown in this post.

F.P.F.’s much older half-brother, Jonathan Temple and his wife Rafaela Cota, owners of the Rancho Los Cerritos in what is now Long Beach and nearby areas, also had an extensive garden that was planted in front of their 1843 adobe, now the Rancho Los Cerritos historic site.  In 1866, Temple sold the ranch to the Bixby family, but it can be presumed that much of what was planted came from material sent by relatives back east, obtained by ships anchoring at San Pedro (very close to Los Cerritos) and from cuttings at other ranches and the missions.

The Homestead also has an early, circa 1870, stereoscopic photograph of the garden, which, just four years after the Bixby purchase clearly shows much of what was there during the Jonathan and Rafaela Temple era.  It is also shown here.

By the time these photos were taken, great changes in the regional landscape were afoot.  Much of this was driven by the decline of the ranchos due to drought in the mid-1860s and then the resulting land and population boom that followed in the latter part of that decade.  By the 1870s, there were nurseries in Los Angeles operated by such proprietors as Ozro W. Childs and Thomas A. Garey.  Improvements in water supply and a greater selection of plant materials allowed for an expansion in home gardening that we’ll explore in future posts.


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