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!

Sincerely,

Isara Ongwiseth
Landscape Co-Designer
FormLA Landscaping

About

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

Community

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.

 

Nifty Nine

Develop resilience in the foothills by harnessing the strengths of the Nifty Nine. They earned this designation by addressing multiple Sierra Madre community goals, which include mitigating fire and slide potential, supporting wildlife and human health, and saving both water and energy.

Edible Garden

Sierra Madre was once a breadbasket. Our indigenous population used the plants found here as food and medicinal sources – we can as well!

See more California native edibles and recipes.

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Wildlife Garden

Birds, butterflies, beneficial insects and reptiles will be drawn to the native foliage in this partially shaded, partially sunny area. Watch for Monarch and California Checkerspot butterflies, hummingbirds, Western Scrub Jay, California Quail, and Western Fence Lizards.

 

 

Additional Foliage: Ascelpia speciosa, Milkweed, the only food and habitat that attracts and protects Monarch butterflies.

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Fire Garden

While there is no such thing as a fireproof plant, those in the Fire Garden retain moisture and play an important role in fuel management. These plants are particularly useful in wildfire-prone areas like Sierra Madre. An added bonus: Bushes are key to cooling areas, and plentiful foliage like this can reduce air conditioning costs by 15-50 percent.

 

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Shade Garden

Mature trees and the overhang of the nearby building create an environment to Sycamore trees. The native understory plants seen here thrive in these dry, shaded areas. They are uniquely suited for planting under native oaks, in lieu of lawn or ornamental plants.

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