When you think of the gardens of Toluca Lake, the first things to spring to mind are likely the eye-catching roses and other colorful flowers that bloom throughout neighborhood yards. But there are many other types of gardens that might be less noticeable during a casual stroll down the sidewalk. For a glimpse of some of the boundless possibilities of the botanical world, you can count on the avid gardeners of the Toluca Lake Garden Club (TLGC), many of whom take advantage of the area’s rich soil and mild climate to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs.
For some, gardening is in their blood, a love inherited from parents and grandparents and shared, in turn, with children and grandchildren — for instance, Rose Chimo worked at her father’s tree nursery, Tippi Pyle grew up on a farm in Texas and Leslie Gores was inspired by her father’s passion for growing things. But you don’t have to be born with a green thumb to try your hand at cultivating produce in your own backyard; TLGC members are happy to share their love of edible gardens with their community. To encourage enthusiasm for gardening among the youngest residents, the club helps maintain the raised vegetable beds at Toluca Lake Elementary and has donated books on plants and horticulture to the school library. And if you’re seeking bright ideas for your own garden plot, read on for the stories of six members’ bountiful gardens, how they enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors, and their advice for aspiring growers.
Cultivating a Family Bond
TLGC President Leslie Gores’ garden carries on a tradition that brings her family closer together. “My inspiration was my father, who also loved gardening and growing food,” she says. Gores shared this love with her children as they were growing up, and now they all have their own gardens. “My grandkids bring their little shopping carts outside, put on their gardening gloves and start picking!” she exclaims. “They know what is ready to pick and what needs to stay on the vine a little longer. I am hoping I have instilled a love for gardening in them.”
A resident of Toluca Lake since 1985, Gores joined the TLGC in 2006 so she could meet neighbors and make new friends. She is involved in all the club’s projects and enjoys working with the community.
Gores has a container garden where she grows foods she likes to eat and have readily available, including lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries, carrots, eggplant, mint, basil, lavender and rosemary. She also has lemon, kumquat and fig trees, and mixes in flowers to add a little color to the pots.
“I love being able to go outside in my yard, especially during this pandemic, and be able to pick what I want — lettuce and tomatoes for sandwiches, lemon and mint for my iced tea — and not need to always be at the market,” she says. “I love a tuna salad with fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Figs are my favorite fruit; I love making fig jam!” She also bakes a lusciously moist zucchini bread.
Gores created her garden over many years of planting, learning through trial and error. “Sometimes a tomato plant will not produce many tomatoes one year, but the next year a new plant will,” she says. “Each year I try something different.”
Gardening isn’t always easy, she adds. “Sometimes there can be a lot of heavy lifting that goes along with gardening, with pots and bags of dirt. Working in the hot summer weather can be uncomfortable. Spiders and mosquitos make it difficult, too. But for me, it is all worth it!”
In addition to recommending that those new to gardening get started by seeking guidance at a good nursery, she advises, “Know where and when the sun is in the area you want to place your garden. Every year will be different, and you will have the chance to try something new.”
Gores says gardening gives her a feeling of accomplishment. “I can go outside any time, look at my garden and feel very proud of it. It can be a lot of work, but I don’t go to the gym, so I guess gardening is my workout. Not to mention how delicious fresh food tastes!”
Peggy Starr has simple and direct words for beginning gardeners: “Decide which type of garden you want and plant accordingly.”
For her own part, Starr decided she would have an English/Irish garden, filled with a wide range of plants and colors. Before planting, she carefully located the sunny and shady sides, and renewed and amended the soil. And now, “I’m happy when I walk through it,” she declares. The solitude and calm of working in her garden is an extension of the peace the 36-year resident enjoys in her Toluca Lake home: “I feel like I’m living in a unique and secluded spot that’s surrounded by the busy life of L.A.”
Starr joined the TLGC in 2017, “because I have friends who are members and I knew they were giving back to keep the community beautiful. I love maintaining the landscape in the community and the events we stage to earn money for special causes.”
She uses the tomatoes, basil, rosemary, cilantro and thyme she grows to add bright, fresh flavors to her cooking, including homemade marinara sauce. Thanks to her large, mature lemon tree, she’s able to preserve lemon curd and freeze fresh-squeezed lemon juice to use year-round in treats like her delicious lemon bars.
Starr finds joy in the process just as much as the results. “I love to go out every day and watch the plants develop flowers, and then watch the blossoms become the fruit or vegetable,” she says. “Nothing compares to homegrown vegetables and fruit.”
Tippi Pyle is a 32-year member of the TLGC, and Paige Peter has been involved for 17 years. They shared the camaraderie all club members do, but when Peter mentioned she was interested in canning, Pyle saw the potential in an enthusiastic student, and a greater friendship was born.
Pyle grew up on a farm in Texas, and her family has always grown their own fruits and vegetables, which they ate both fresh and canned. Peter says “Tippi was all in” when she asked for lessons on the finer points of preserving. “She taught me the canning basics. We canned pickled beets, sweet pickles, bread-and-butter pickles and dill pickles, and then we moved on to jams and preserves.”
The preserves expanded from pears and strawberries to figs. Peter’s neighbor had two beautiful and very large fruit-bearing fig trees and, in an example of this community’s generosity, allowed Peter full access to the trees in their yard every year. There are new homeowners next door now, but there’s no doubt whether Peter still has access to the figs — the new neighbors have named one of the trees “Paige’s Fig Tree.”
Peter explains why she was so smitten by canning, a tricky process that must be done carefully or it can go wrong: “I like canning because of the hard work it takes to make and can the jam. It’s very fulfilling after a long canning session. It’s peaceful, and I often can into the long, hot summer nights, listening to music or the evening sounds in my home with all the windows open.”
She adds, “I like bringing a jar of my fig preserves as a gift when invited to friends’ homes. I am forever grateful to my friend, Tippi, for teaching me how to can and for the many hours of fun we have spent together in my kitchen here in Toluca Lake as well as in her kitchen on her farm in Texas.”
Pyle still spends time on her farm in Texas, where she grows cotton, corn, wheat and sunflowers. She used to make the 1,500-mile drive there twice a year, accompanied by her 55-year-old parrot and her dogs. Peter joined her on one of her more recent Texas trips.
“Oh, it’s just great,” Pyle says. “We sit on the porch down at the farm and we shell peas and black-eyed peas. It’s like going back in time just to sit and visit. How many people sit and visit anymore?”
She has also taught her daughter the art of canning. “I’d like to teach more people,” she says. “Cucumbers are very hard to grow and pickles are my favorite canning, but it’s hard work.”
She adds that she’d also like to share the joy of Southern cooking, like chicken and dumplings, and make a cookbook of her own with family favorites. Expect it to have plenty of recipes for pickling and canning.
Deep Local Roots
Longtime Toluca Lake resident Rose Chimo is the reigning doyenne of the Garden Club, having been part of the group for 50 years. Her roots in the community run deep — and not just figuratively. “My love of trees and plants is no coincidence,” she explains. “My father owned MG Nursery, which at the time was the largest provider of full-grown trees. It covered a square block at Riverside and Camarillo.” Chimo ran the office at the nursery and wrote articles for the local paper. Many of the trees in the community came from MG and were planted by her father.
Chimo moved to Toluca Lake 58 years ago. She and her husband, Anthony, owned a flower shop on Riverside Drive, where their daughter Paulanna Cuccinello now operates her gift shop, Pergolina. Joining the TLGC was a perfect fit for Chimo, who enjoyed the opportunity to meet like-minded women in the neighborhood.
Ever-evolving and inspired by European gardens, Chimo’s garden includes fruit trees, vegetables and an abundance of her favorite flower — the rose. Although she says it sometimes “plays with my patience,” she describes the landscape as “lush, delicious and green.”
It was important for Chimo to grow a sustainable, drought-tolerant garden because “it is literally the future of our planet, and I wanted to teach my grandchildren to respect the earth.” Growing some of the food she eats assures her that it’s chemical-free as well as being fresh and delicious. “There is nothing more delicious than a salad picked in the morning with tomato, basil, chicory and fennel; it’s simple,” she notes.
When asked about some of the more challenging aspects of her garden, Chimo shares a frequent complaint among gardeners: “The amount of animals I have to share my crops with. I have a Japanese persimmon tree. I babied three persimmons for a whole season, and a few days before I was to pick them, Mr. Squirrel, the bane of my existence, helped himself.”
Her gardening advice is poetic: “Let it be the first thing you see in the morn and the last at dusk.”
It’s no accident Shelley Zbornak’s garden makeover turned out picture-perfect. Before getting underway, she enrolled in several landscaping classes at Los Angeles Valley College, which “helped me immensely with this huge project,” she says. With most of the yard initially covered in concrete and dirt, she started the project with a blank slate. The result was a peaceful retreat in an English cottage garden style, inspired by The Ivy Restaurant on Robertson.
Zbornak and her husband, Kent, moved to Toluca Lake in 1992 and have raised their son, Alec, here. A member of TLGC for almost 17 years, she says she wanted a yard “where my son and his friends could swim and play and I could garden nearby while still giving them their own space.”
She visibly brightens when describing what she’s created. “I love growing fruits, vegetables and herbs to cook with daily, and I love sharing with my neighbors,” she says. In addition to tomato and blueberry plants and lemon, orange, lime, kumquat, apple and plum trees, she prizes her extensive herb garden. “My favorite is mint, which I also use as ground cover, since it grows profusely just like weeds. I use it with salads, chopped with baby peas, and of course in lemonade and mojitos! The added bonus is that my dogs always smell minty fresh.”
It wasn’t easy starting from scratch. Zbornak says the most challenging aspect of her garden has been the irrigation and planting each plant where it will thrive. She doesn’t give up on her plants: “I have literally dug up and moved my plants several times until I find the place where each one is happy.”
For those just starting a garden, Zbornak counsels, the first step should be to figure out what you want from your garden: Herbs and vegetables for cooking? Flowers to cut and bring inside? Plants that will invite wildlife? How much time do you want to spend working in your garden, and what makes you happy?
In her own process, she says, “I walked through so many nurseries finding plants I liked, and I found their companion plants. Companion plants are important, as they can offer disease protection and even help reduce beetle infestations.” For example, lavender grows well with citrus trees, while roses benefit greatly from alliums; the geranium flower’s essential oils repel mosquitoes, blackflies and gnats, and they grow equally well in pots or in the ground.
As a final word of advice, she adds, “I would tell anyone interested in starting a garden to talk to other gardeners in their area to find out what they have had success growing and tour gardens and nurseries. They could call one of us at Toluca Lake Garden Club — I would be happy to answer questions!”