The Best Trees for Privacy, Shade, and More March 29, 2018. By Jennifer Geddes: What are the best trees for privacy, shade, and your yard in general? Such questions are well worth asking, since not all flora are created equal. For instance, certain trees are yard maintenance nightmares. Other trees give and give—keeping you cool under the hot sun, shielding you from nosy neighbors, bearing fruit, and sprouting flowers—the list of benefits goes on and on! Read More

(This features the Sycamores of the Authentic Foothill Gardens!)

Authentic Foothill Gardens Anniversary Event

Two years after residents, city workers, and FormLA Landscaping installed the Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall, they have become a cherished resource and destination point.

“We regularly see kids coming through the garden with their parents, stopping to check on the plants they planted,” noted Rebecca Silva-Barrón, Acting Community Services Manager, City of Sierra Madre. “It also gets regular visits from Kensington residents on their strolls.”

Suzanne Haller joined an anniversary celebration hosted by the city, and described how the Sierra Madre Garden Club and Sierra Madre Community Foundation brought the project to life.

“Glenn Putnam had a vision for what this space could be. It took a lot of work to get people on board at the time, but this is it. We now have what he envisioned,” noted Suzanne Haller, whose work with the Garden Club was instrumental to getting the garden project started and funded.

Haller went on to note, “Elisa Cox, our assistant city manager at the time, was a very effective champion for the project. I’m happy she’s here to celebrate with us today.”

The anniversary celebration kicked off with a tour of the gardens led by its designers, Cassy Aoyagi and Isara Ongwiseth of FormLA Landscaping. Ongwiseth noted the care he gave to respecting Sierra Madre’s well established treeful, leafy aesthetic and the region’s history as a breadbasket, while Aoyagi noted the importance of plant selection to the resilience of the region.


 Aoyagi speaks to KABC about how plant choice at the Authentic Foothill Gardens helps Sierra Madre mitigate fire danger: 10-21 at 32:18

“This lush, leafy, green aesthetic is truly authentic to this region,” said Ongwiseth. “It unifies nature with our modern sensibilities and needs, our past and our present as a community.”

The garden also addresses practical needs of the city as well as the region. City of Sierra Madre Management Analyst James Carlson, who also represents the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel Valley Water Quality Group, demonstrated the importance of the gardens’ bioswale features to the region’s water quality. “The decisions we make now, here, impact everything from the quality of our drinking water to ocean health and whether or not we experience flooding.”

There are so many stories to tell here, noted Haller. “People need to know we can transform our communities.”

The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, the San Gabriel Municipal Water District, West Coast Arborists, and the US Green Building Council were all on hand to answer resident and visitor questions. The Sierra Madre Girl Scouts, many of whom helped install the garden, provided refreshments and joined the tour as well. 




Authentic Foothill Gardens Hosts Members of the Compulsive Gardeners Class

The Compulsive Gardeners Class, a sold-out gardening class hosted by the LA Arboretum, included the Authentic Foothill Gardens as one of its Fall 2017 programs.

Class members include garden enthusiasts who travel from throughout the LA area to attend, first met at the Arboretum to discuss the vision behind the gardens.  Designers Cassy Aoyagi and Isara Ongwiseth of FormLA Landscaping outlined their approach, which requires unifying a community’s modern aesthetic with the look and needs of its authentic natural environment.

“In Southern California, we’ve become disconnected from what is natural and authentic to this place. Many associate LA with imported foliage – palm trees, cacti, birds of paradise, roses. The truth is our natural look is lush, leafy, and treeful. That is very compatible with Sierra Madre’s modern aesthetic,” noted Ongwiseth. 

Class members then toured the gardens.

FormLA Landscaping President Cassy Aoyagi detailed the gardens’ intended impact as attendees walked paths through the vibrant, blooming gardens. She emphasized the control residents have in preventing what are often viewed as inevitable natural disasters.

“Each feature and plant supports Sierra Madre and the region’s resilience,” said Aoyagi. “We want our gardens to act as sponges to prevent flooding – bioswales and planted space address that need. We need to avoid invasive, flammable plants and choose natives that thrive in our high heat and natural rainfall. Those choices mitigate fire danger.”

The tour was coordinated by Suzanne Haller, a member of the Compulsive Gardeners, the Sierra Madre Garden Club, and a resident involved in bringing the gardens to life.  Haller noted, “People need to understand just how much we can accomplish with our gardens. I’m hopeful others will be inspired to follow Sierra Madre’s lead.”






Anniversary Celebration

Lush, Lovely, Resilient!

The Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall define a new look for the foothills. It is all about self-expression, creativity, and authenticity. This aesthetic also enhances our resilience by saving water and energy, preventing fires and slides, and supporting health and wellness. Join us in exploring and maintaining this wonderful resource – and learn to get the look at home!

When:             10 am – 1 pm Saturday, October 21, 2017

Where:           Sierra Madre City Hall

Each Authentic Foothill Garden at Sierra Madre City Hall features California native foliage that revels in high heat, enjoys shade and rain, resists fire, attracts wildlife, provides IdealMow lawn space with less water, and/or has edible or medicinal properties. We will tour the garden with designers from 10-11, dig in to maintain the garden at learning stations 11-12, and enjoy our results and community tables from 12-1.

As part of the workshop, you will:

Be Authentic: Authenticity makes gardens beautiful year round in both drought and deluge. Meet California native plants authentic to the foothills and learn what to do to keep them happy in your own garden.

Dig In!:   You will get instruction and hands-on experience with how to prune, weed, mulch and plant – whatever the garden needs to stay looking its best.

Learn and Play: You’ll learn from demonstrations on watershed health, smart irrigation, and water catchment strategies like rainbarrels, as well as tables from related community organizations.

Get Guidance:  The gardens’ designer and maintenance team will be on site, providing tips and instruction.

Be sure to bring gloves, sunglasses and/or a hat, sunscreen. We’ll bring all the tools and expertise you’ll need to learn and make a difference! Light refreshments will be provided.

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


What will Sierra Madre look like in 2050? The answer depends, in large part, on the landscaping choices we make right now.

The Sierra Madre City Hall Gardens define an authentic landscape aesthetic for the foothills. The lush and leafy gardens deliver year round beauty and save about 75 percent of the water previously used. Featured plants also mitigate fire, retain slopes, and feed wildlife, improving the resilience of both our adjacent wildspaces and the city itself.
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ROI Calculation

Landscaping significantly impacts human and pet health, the environment, and public infrastructure. It also impacts our budgets! The lush, leafy, low-water Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall generate significant savings over a traditional landscape, gravelscape, or synthetic lawn.

Savings can include:

  • 100 percent of the annual flower budget
  • 100 percent of the toxic chemical fertilizer budget
  • 100 percent of the toxic chemical pesticide budget
  • 100 percent of soil amendment budget
  • 81 percent of the time spent on maintenance
  • 75 percent of the funds used for mower petrol
  • 60-80 percent of the water previously needed
  • 63 percent of fees associated with garden waste
  • 15-50 percent of the energy dedicated to climate control


The authentic foothill gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall represent the work of the full community. Thank you to all the residents who participated in everything from the visioning processes to the gardens’ installation!

We would also like to show our gratitude to the following sponsor organizations who donated their visions, funds, materials, and/or expertise to the project.