Visiting a 40-Year-Old Secret Garden in the Hills of Los Angeles

© Bonnie Hulkower

When my friend Ziv suggested Amir’s Garden as a quiet place for a picnic or as a place to meditate, I was confused. I spent most of my teen years hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and was surprised to find out that there was a secret garden in the middle of Los Angeles, that I didn’t know about.

Today with twitter and yelp, it seemed impossible to just find out about a place that had existed for more than forty years. After visiting the garden, I was more surprised to learn that this 5-acre lush garden created in the middle of the concrete jungle that is LA, was built on a mountaintop by hand, by just one man, Amir Dialameh.

How did it begin?

Farrokh A. Ashtiani/via

According to the LA Times, Dialameh was inspired to build the garden after a brush fire in the early 70s burned a solid portion of the hills in Griffith Park. Dialameh often hiked in the hills along the Mineral Wells trail by the Los Angeles Zoo. After the fire, he thought the hills looked bare and that someone should build a garden on them. Then he realized, as most self-motivated people do, that if you think someone should do something, that someone often ends up being you. So Dialameh built the garden plant by plant with a pick and a shovel that he carried uphill for a mile.

For many years he worked alone. He cleared tree stumps and built a retaining wall with discarded fencing. He worked seven days a week, often for 8 hours a day. He terraced slopes, built stairs to a created a picnic area with benches. After working in the garden all day, he worked nights as a wine salesman.

What did Dialameh do?

© Bonnie Hulkower

When Dialameh discussed his vision for the garden with city officials, at first they didn’t take him seriously. At first, they only granted him a permit, no water, tools, plants or assistance. After a few years, the city did provide a pipeline to bring some irrigation water from the bottom of the hill to the garden.

Over thirty years Dialameh planted drought tolerant plants that provided shade, such as pine and jacaranda trees. He also planted plants that provided vibrant color such as roses, geraniums, and yucca. Many of these were non-natives, which lent to the contrast between the colorful foliage in the garden and the chaparral that one normally sees in Griffith Park. Through determination and hard work, Dialameh transformed a dry dusty mountaintop trail into a lush shady oasis. Today some of the trees that Dialameh hauled over his shoulder thirty years ago are now sixty feet tall.

Dialameh’s personal history and love for America

© Bonnie Hulkower

Dialameh was born in Tehran in 1932 and was one of seven kids. The outdoors were as essential to him as food and water are to most people. Dialameh had brothers and nieces but never married himself, the garden was his family. He visited a brother in Pittsburg in 1952 and then decided to move to the U.S. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1963 and settled in Hollywood.

The U.S. inspired him. He thought of America as a country built by volunteers and wanted to give back to his new home and community. It was his patriotism combined with his love of nature, that inspired him to build a public garden in his free time. He was known to say, “In the land of the free, plant a tree." Before he passed away in 2003, you could tell which days Dialameh was working in the garden, by the sight of an American flag that he raised whenever he was working.

Dialameh’s dedication

© Bonnie Hulkower

What still surprises me about this story, is that Amir’s Garden lies within one of North America's largest urban, municipally-owned parks. I would never have had the gumption to create my own garden in the middle of Griffith Park, nor the perseverance to maintain the garden as public space for thirty years. Dialameh was only away from the garden for a two-week vacation he took every year and one year he hiked for three-months from California to Pennsylvania.

Dedication like this wasn’t easy. One Sunday in the early 90s, Dialameh was robbed and beaten. But he didn’t let this experience deter him from tending the garden, he only modified his schedule to not work on Sundays. When the garden was damaged by later brush fires, he was quick to rebuild. The garden was truly a labor of love.

It takes a village

© Bonnie Hulkower

Since the late 70s, other hikers have helped him maintain the garden. Several nurseries donated saplings and park services and private benefactors contributed a sprinkler system. Dialameh never accepted monetary donations. On two occasions when people sent him money, he returned the money with a thank you note. Amir’s garden remains an all-volunteer garden and rest stop for Griffith Park hikers and equestrians

© Bonnie Hulkower

If you are in the LA area, Amir's Garden is a lovely garden that feels very secluded, even when you are in the middle of LA and overlooking freeways in the distance and even after you realize you are not the only one who has discovered this secret garden.

Tags: California | Gardening