Plant by plant, flower by flower, he created his own Shangri-La in a Griffith Park nook

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 24, 2023 - Retired gardener Jose Palacios, 70,waters the secret garden he planted in Griffith Park in Los Angeles on May 24, 2023. Palacios, who has had a series of tragedies in his life, finds solace and peace at the garden he created. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Retired gardener Jose Palacios, 70, waters the secret garden he planted in Griffith Park. Palacios, who has had a series of tragedies in his life, finds solace and peace in the sanctuary he created. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Jose Palacios could have picked an easier spot to get to in Griffith Park — a place to create his sanctuary — but that wouldn’t have suited him. His life has never been easy.

Over the course of several years, Palacios has regularly climbed the steep North Trail that offers a view of the Harding golf course and the area near the back of the old zoo. He has hauled stones and carried tools, seeds, saplings and the burden of his past along winding dirt paths.

The day I walked with Palacios, a 70-year-old retiree, I wondered what was in his backpack, assuming it was another seedling or some such. But I didn’t want to interrupt him because Palacios was telling the story of his life, with enough darkness and light to fill a book.

A man in a baseball cap stands on a hillside next to a portion of the garden he planted in Griffith Park.
Retired gardener Jose Palacios, 70, stands on a hillside next to a portion of the secret garden he planted in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As a young man, decades before he became a gardener and a caretaker for clients with cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, Palacios labored in Idaho’s potato fields. He worked on cattle ranches and poultry farms in Texas, left his sweat in Sonoma County vineyards and Fresno County orange groves.

None of which was as torturous as what he endured as a child, some of which he would later share with me.

“You see the flowers?” Palacios asked as we walked.

They were impossible to miss, explosions of white and yellow forming a fringe along the trail.

“Margaritas,” Palacios said, Spanish for daisies. He threw his hand out in a sweeping motion, demonstrating how he had tossed seeds on his many climbs.

A man in a baseball cap and jacket and carrying a backpack checks a mustard plant among others along a dirt path.
Palacios checks a mustard plant for seeds that he can use for his secret garden in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Palacios lives alone in Echo Park, in the small room of a house where he’s the caretaker of the property and, of course, the gardener. He didn’t get far in school in Guanajuato, he told me, but after coming to the United States more than half a century ago, he went to adult night school at Roosevelt High after his days of hard work. He took some college-level psychology courses, he told me, and he likes to read and paint.

And he loves gardening.

“It’s in my heart,” he says of his need to create and nurture life, to bring color and light to a world that was once so unsparingly bleak.

As a boy, Palacios said, he often retreated to the darkest places he could find while trying to escape his father’s drunken brutality. He would scamper under his bed, only to be dragged out. He ran the streets at night, hiding under cars until police grabbed him and tossed him into a cell or, worse, delivered him into the hands of his father. He took cover in fields of corn, fending off rodents and snakes through the night. Anything to avoid going home.

Palacios was the youngest of 12 and doesn’t know exactly why, but his now-deceased father was an angry man, and Jose was the primary target of his alcohol-fueled rage.

“He used to string me up and beat me,” Palacios said, telling me his father would hang him upside down from a tree and take a stick to him with help from one of Jose's brothers.

A man covers his face with his hand as he cries.
Palacios cries as he recalls all the tragedies he has endured in his life in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

He said he cowered when that same force was turned on his mother, and that his flights to safety sometimes led to more abuse at the hands of others.

These memories are part of the weight Jose Palacios carries up the hill in the park that's been his escape for decades. As someone who thinks of himself as “a very shy person,” wandering Griffith is a way for Palacios to be alone and yet in the company of those with whom he shares a love of L.A.’s great urban wonderland. It's a park that endures, as he does, despite its many trials, from fire to vandalism to drought, and the press of people, cars and development.

Palacios calls it, simply, "the most beautiful park I've ever seen."

One of the more well-known hiker destinations in Griffith Park is Amir’s Garden, which we visited briefly on the way to Palacios’ own little paradise. A brush fire in 1970 scorched that ridgeline, and Iranian immigrant Amir Dialameh, a hiker and wine merchant, led a volunteer effort to restore the land as a garden oasis, with benches offering respite and great vistas.

“There are so many problems, so many pressures,” the late Dialameh once said of city life in an interview with The Times. “All people do is complain. They need to get away from that.”

Palacios said he’s been one of the many volunteers lending a hand over the years at Amir’s Garden, but he wanted to create his own little heaven. So we kept moving up the hill, past an LADWP operations manager who caught up with Palacios before tending to one of the big tanks in the park that store water for firefighting.

There's a long history in Griffith Park of volunteers creating and tending to gardens. In addition to Amir's Garden, there's Dante's View, named after another immigrant and maintained by volunteers. Palacios said he didn't get official permission to start his own project, but no park or public agency employees have objected. Some might protest the idea of guerrilla gardening, but it's not as if all of our public spaces get the love and attention they deserve.

You could walk right by the path that juts off from the main trail and easily miss what Palacios has built, but that seems just about right for a solitary man such as Palacios.

A man walks at the base of a red and green hillside garden.
Palacios walks at the base of the secret garden he planted in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

On a steep and shady incline lies a verdant Shangri-La, built into a rocky nook like something you'd expect to find on a treasure-hunting expedition.

Red, pink, yellow, orange and purple flowers pop in a lush green garden, with succulents sprinkled into the mix and prickly cactus standing guard. All those stones Palacios lugged up the hill were used to terrace the garden and form a stairway up to two perches — a little stone bench and an oak tree with a low branch that forms a natural lounge chair.

Palacios rested on the stone bench and took in the glory of his creation — a retreat built with seeds and saplings and trimmings from his gardening jobs, years in the making and still a work in progress.

Palacios said he chose this shady spot because a slow trickle from the big water tank fills a horse trough used by riders who come through, and he’s gotten permission to draw buckets out of the trough to keep his garden going in dry months. The first thing he planted here was a white sapote tree, which has shot up several feet under his care. At its base, someone — Palacios doesn’t know who — left a small wooden disc with two words scrawled on it.

“Jose’s Garden.”

Those who are happiest in retirement, in my experience, have a sense of purpose. That can involve reinventing yourself altogether, it can mean finding a new expression of what you know best, it can be about making a contribution to the world.

A man in a baseball cap and jacket and holding a bucket points up near plants and trees.
Palacios talks about the creation of the secret garden he planted in Griffith Park. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Palacios has this figured out, it seems. He is a religious man, he said, and during the pandemic, the garden became his house of worship. He visits not to forget the past but to celebrate the present. This is where he prays, nurtures his plants, and hopes that others might be lifted, as he is, by the very sight of them.

After Palacios opened his knapsack, he removed the picnic lunch he had prepared that morning — quesadillas with ham, cheese and nopalitos. One for me, one for photographer Genaro Molina, one for himself.

A fine lunch it was, on a lovely day, in a small garden, well-kept .

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.