The Last Dirt Road in Laguna Beach


Eiler Larson, the Greeter, was known to do gardening at the top of Summit Way back in the 1950’s when Laguna was a small beach town. The White House had a sunset bar meeting time for the locals and Trotter’s Bakery was the place where city business was done at lunch. Eiler would garden from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. then go down to greet the tourists with a “How You”, pointing his finger and yelling at the traffic as it passed by. This was a time when the town literally seemed to shut down in the winter and the only way you could get to Los Angeles was on Pacific Coast Highway. It was a long drive in the fog.

You could usually sit on Pacific Coast Highway in front of the Hotel Laguna after September 15 and not get hit by a car; the town’s population dropped by two thirds. The Dirty Bird, Sandpiper Saloon, was an El Toro Marine Corps bar and the canyon road was their racetrack home.

I lived on a little dirt road, Summit Way, that had small lakes at the low points in the road after every rain. It was a great place to grow up for the native landscape was still in tact and the deer, bobcats, raccoons, and possums were our neighbors along with an occasional six-foot rattlesnake, which ate the rodents.

Life was good for a kid who loved the beach and walked to the bottom of the hill for the school bus. There were only a few houses on the street built in the late 1920’s along with the water tower to keep the pressure up from hilltop to hilltop.

As I grew so did the road, and over the years I built up a mulch layer of leaves and compost from the debris from my gardening jobs – the beginning of a budding permaculture agroforest. The road became my experimental landfill for the landscape debris most of us paid the trash company to haul away. We then went to the nursery and bought fertilizer. I began to plant natives and edible landscapes of fruits and vegetables along the corridor and as the decades shifted from the 60’s to 70’s, the forest grew and so did I.

Compostable material now feeds the citrus, avocadoes, figs, bananas, mulberries, peaches, plums, nectarines, loquats, dotting the sides of Summit Way. This has become a perennial agroforest nourished by the humus-sphere, a condo high rise of worms, bugs and microbes, living in the mulch. I call this “permaculture lasagna” for I layer yard debris, cardboard, and food scraps mixed with compost teas. These layers of landscape wastes turn themselves into Black Gold, the fertilizer of a forest floor, like alchemy; you can see it is sponge-like, holding water, feeding microbes and producing fertilizer for the trees.

After the city lost a 15-year Diamond Crestview lawsuit in the 1980’s, Summit Way was paved and banked away from the trees, rushing the water off the impervious asphalt surface, down the hill to the ocean as fast as possible. The pavement forced us to irrigate the trees more often, and opened up the vacant lots for development. The climax-crop on the landscape was people and their houses.

The forest has persisted under our stewardship however, and the Summit Way area is once again a mini greenbelt, with a food forest planted and thriving for over 30 years, containing more than 100 food trees that bring us tasty seasonal treats. Wildlife has re-colonized the area; the bluebirds, the canyon’s namesake, are back, along with doves, crows, hawks sparrows, butterflies and hummingbirds. Seasonal birds migrate in for an abundant reproductive season.

The town has changed but with careful attention to functional productive landscapes we can have our greenery and eat it too.

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