Bring Community Together

the need to save water inspired so much more

Suzanne Haller, a 20 year member of the LA Arboretum’s compulsive gardening class, an Arboretum volunteer, and an active member of the Sierra Madre Garden Club, describes what it took to bring the Authentic Foothill Gardens to life.  

Haller is involved with the Sierra Madre Garden Clubs programs, fundraising, and plant sales. She was instrumental in coordinating the fundraising and public relations for the city hall gardens. Here are her takeaways and recommendations for others hoping to create authentic, water and fire-wise community spaces.  

Authentic Foothill Gardens

This more than 9000 square demonstration garden contains seven separate gardens that exemplify the fire wise, chaparral/sun, shade, rain, edible, IdealMow lawn/meadow and wildlife-attracting foliage authentic to LA’s foothills. Bioswales, rain barrels and the latest smart irrigation systems are helping the city rebuild its water independance and support its resilience to fire, floods, and slides. A pergola, picnic tables, and meandering trails encourage visitors to enjoy the gardens, while clear and ample signage helps those who want to replicate the look.
The gardens were designed by Isara Ongwiseth of FormLA Landscaping, funded by community organizations and residents, and installed in collaboration with more than 75 community volunteers.    

About the Project  


  • Necessity: Local and statewide water shortages, the associated incentives and penalties that started in 2012-2013.
  • Urgency: The death of 6000 square feet of lawn surrounding city hall, police and fire stations left a scar at the center of Sierra Madre’s main street.
  • Hope: What will Sierra Madre look like in 2050? In large part, it depends on the landscape decisions we make today!    

  • Use a process that involves, informs, educates and inspires the community
  • Create something relatable that can be replicated in the area’s residential gardens

  • Initiator Glenn Putnam, President, Sierra Madre Garden Club
  • Advocates City Hall: Assistant city manager, head of public works, the public works team, our management analyst and the city council Debbie Moser and Suzanne Haller, Sierra Madre Garden Club
  • Designers Cassy Aoyagi and Isara Ongwiseth, FormLA Landscaping  

  • Cost: The $40,000 scope of work was defined/approved by city hall.
  • Mitigation: City public works team conducted demolition, re-grading and removal of old materials. They also committed to installing and maintaining smart irrigation and electrical systems. In the process they both conserved budget and learned new techniques. 
  • Cash for Grass reimbursement for removal of grass also reduced costs.    

  • Grants: LA County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Michael Antonovich San Gabriel Municipal Water District
  • Fundraisers: Sierra Madre Community Foundation, Sierra Madre Garden Club, Sierra Madre Senior Commission Community: Purchased engraved memorial bricks ($100-500 each, based upon quantity of engraving), benches ($2500 each), and Garden Club plant sales.
  • In-Kind: Ralph and Barbara Crane from Northridge, classmates of Haller in the compulsive gardeners program at the LA Arboretum, provided hundreds of plants, cuttings, and supplies year round for the Garden Club’s plant sales. Girl Scouts Troop 2991 provided refreshments at planting and celebratory events. FormLA Landscaping also donated time and expertise at educational and fundraising events.

  • Many residents were not particularly enthusiastic with the city’s request for donations to renovate the public space, as it was sent alongside a demand to cut back water use in private gardens.
  • Suggestions to minimize financial investment by having residents bring their unwanted plants for installation in the community space.    
    Returns on Investment

  • Ongoing water and operational cost savings
  • Community participation and collaboration Community investment in the gardens’ success and the space
  • Greater community use of the space, from kids to seniors
  • Confidence in our water and aesthetic future    
    Strategies to Replicate

  • Communicating the anticipated ongoing water and operational cost savings helped drivers overcome community resentment due to residential water restrictions.
  • Fastidious attention to making sure all donations were recognized inspired connection to the garden. The memorial bricks and benches created affinity and now attract visitation.
  • Human interest stories and supportive articles in the local paper also boosted support.
  • Garden signage and plant IDs optimize the educational value of the gardens and encourage patronage.
  • Moving slowly and bringing the community along in the early phases allowed us to build much of the support needed for funding and the affinity that now draws residents back to the space.  

  • May 2013 – Proposal. First garden club meeting with the mayor.
  • Sept 2014 – Initiation. Renovation approved by city council.
  • Jan 2015 – Fundraising Begins.
  • Aug 2015 – Training. Community “speed learning” event with key players like Netafim and the Theodore Payne Foundation there to provide training in irrigation systems and native plant installation.
  • Nov 2015 – Planting Day.  Plants are placed by designers and installed by more than 75 community volunteers.
  • Dec 2015 – Final Touch. Memorial bricks installed.
  • Oct 2017 – Garden Tour. The gardens hosted international visitors attending the International Greenbuild Conference who hoped to see the authentic look of Los Angeles.
  • Nov 2017 – Anniversary. The garden is established, blooming and vibrant at its 2-year anniversary celebration and to host the LA Arboretum Compulsive Gardeners Class visit.
  • April 2018 – Garden Tour. The Authentic Foothill Gardens are featured on the annual Theodore Payne Foundation Native Plant Garden Tour.
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