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.
  • Life Saving Garden Strategies


    Date: Saturday, September 8, 2018

    Time: 10:30-12 pm and 1-2:30 pm

    Location: Descanso Gardens, Van de Kamp Hall

    Tickets:  $15, Reserve First Panel, Reserve Second Panel


    This multifaceted seminar, hosted by LA’s iconic Descanso Gardens, will explore the many ways in which our public landscapes and private gardens can mitigate or exacerbate LA’s potential natural disasters. The seminar will be comprised of two seminars, each featuring a local Sierra Madre expert, which can be taken together or as individual classes.


    Mitigating LA’s Natural Disasters with Smart Landscape Choices

    10:30-noon, Van de Kamp Hall

    Seemingly unstoppable fires raged throughout the west in 2017, and California counted heavy losses in lives and property. Learn what combustible, invasive plant life to avoid, which plants have protective qualities, and which design strategies best protect homes from fire-wise landscape experts including:


    From Tragedy of the Commons to Uncommon Fortune

    1-2:30 pm, Van de Kamp Hall

    Our minds often skip over the spaces between our public buildings and our roads, be they expanses of turf grass, weed-filled or paved medians. These places can be harnessed to increase LA’s resilience, mitigating our fire, flood and slide danger, and also increasing our neighborhoods’ social capital and home values.

    Learn how to transform the tragedy of the commons into a powerful tool for building your neighborhood’s fortune. Our expert panel represents communities who have successfully transformed common spaces from the foothills to the beach, from the Valley to South LA. Expert panelists include:

    Attendees will learn about the processes, people and resources it takes to transform community space, and the various models that have led to success.

    Native Plant Garden Tour

    Theodore Payne Recognizes the Authentic Foothill Gardens

    Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants featured the Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall on its 2018 tour. People from throughout LA visited the garden to gain ideas and tips for creating their own gardens, both residential and public.

    Here are a few highlights!



    Please Don’t Plant That There! 8 Epic Mistakes People Make With Trees and Shrubs

    Have a home with a yard? Then you might be pining to plant something to make it lush. Only problem is, many homeowners are at sea in big-box garden centers, selecting species that just won’t thrive—or even survive—in their yards.


    To the rescue, we’ve asked some green thumb experts for the biggest mistakes people make planting (and caring for) trees and shrubs. Read up on these bloopers to avoid before you dig in!  Read More

    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.”