A Message from the Designer

Authentic Foothill Gardens an International Model for Beautifying Public Space

Glenn Putnam and I stood in the Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall awaiting guests from around the world. Architects, city planners and green-builders from as far away as Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia would soon join us to learn about LA’s authentic foliage and how it helps the city address drought.  

As tour-goers flowed into the gardens full of butter yellow globemallow blooms, we realized they were looking for answers well beyond solutions to drought. They wanted to understand our sense of place. They wanted to know how the gardens and the drought connected to the way we live.

As a designer, I want to create spaces with meaning for those who use them. My team and I worked to respond to the expressed interests of Sierra Madre’s residents, address the challenges landscaping can pose to nearby wildspaces, and respect the region’s distinctive history as a breadbasket region.  I feel like we were successful with those goals.

Yet, even a wild success with garden design can easily fall apart in a public landscape.  After all, landscapes are not living rooms. Plants need love and attention to mature into their intended form and function. The fact that the Authentic Foothill Gardens now contain chest high sages that scent yards of trail has everything to do with the care they receive from the city and its residents.

The Sierra Madre gardens have a distinctive advantage over many public spaces. There is little crossover between the skillsets for maintaining traditional lawns and maintaining an authentic garden like those now at city hall.  Bruce Inman and the city’s buildings and grounds crew are on top of new techniques, technologies and practices. The state of the gardens is a testament to their skillsets and interest in delivering this gift to the community.

There is another key ingredient to the success of these gardens.  As Glenn and I guided our guests along the gardens’ trails, we remembered the community install day just 11 months ago.  It was a great day – it felt like everyone in town dug a hole, planted young foliage, added mulch, or supported those who did with snacks or by selling bricks. There is certainly no tragedy of the commons in Sierra Madre! Everyone in the city attached themselves to the city center, to the gardens, and to a plant or a feature that day.

The physical beauty of the Authentic Foothill Gardens serves as a proof point that, in LA, low-water landscapes can be lush and lovely.  More importantly, the community of Sierra Madre’s approach to its city center is a showcase for how to beautify and care for public spaces.  

Thank you to everyone making these gardens a beautiful addition to the community!


Isara Ongwiseth
Landscape Co-Designer
FormLA Landscaping

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