The Dry Garden: Storms make case for change around City Hall


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As the days of Occupy L.A.’s tenancy around City Hall Park became numbered last month, I wrote in The Times’ Op-Ed pages that the city should seize the opportunity to replace the trashed lawn with a model garden demonstrating state-of-the-art storm-water capture and drought-tolerant planting. The Mar Vista Community Council immediately began a campaign to support it. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, California Native Plant Society and Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants each wrote the Department of Recreation and Parks calling for the city to seize the opportunity. But the most forceful argument came in the one-two punch of the Nov. 30 windstorm followed by this week’s rain.

When hurricane-force winds tore through the Los Angeles foothills, few residents had the kind of green bin capacity needed to cope with the sheer quantity of leaves and wood that landed in their yards. In a brief moment of magical thinking, some local governments asked homeowners to haul the detritus to special drop-off points. “With the truck I don’t have?” was one of the many responses on Facebook and various Patch sites.


Ignoring instructions, residents simply dumped huge quantities of leaves, branches, palm fronds and trees at the curb. Many cities had no choice but to send out crews, including some from prisons, to begin clearing curbsides. They worked with stunning speed but, by last Monday, rain was closing in. Even bionic chain gangs could not have coped with the sheer mass of downed leaves and wood lining the streets served by L.A. County’s massive storm-drain system. Flooding of streets would be an inevitable byproduct for some neighborhoods.

It’s tempting to mumble some cliché about the caprices of Mother Nature, but much of what qualified Greater Los Angeles for a state of emergency declaration by the governor of California had little to do with nature. The volume and weaknesses of the urban canopy and the torrents in the streets were products of entirely engineered systems. The green stuff came from parks, parkways and home gardens with unnaturally large and weak trees forced by heavy irrigation with imported water.

The threat of flooding came from a local watershed that has been largely paved, so even an inch of rain can overwhelm streets if storm drains are blocked.

Addressing what went wrong and how it can be made right are huge subjects that will require progressive thinking on behalf of homeowners, urban planners, the nursery trade, city governments and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Long-term solutions include smarter landscaping with better adapted plants; improved permeability for rain, so it’s aborbed into the soil; and capture and use of local rainfall instead of flushing it into the streets and storm drains.

After having argued in the past that the city of Los Angeles couldn’t afford a model garden around City Hall, its leaders are part of the spectacle of mayors begging for disaster relief. To restate the argument from the Op-Ed on City Hall Park, and to apply it to any city hit by wind and then rain, the most important thing to fund are model gardens demonstrating the best way to re-plant and re-landscape that will leave us better prepared for the future. That way the landscaping around Southern California will not be a disaster in waiting.

— Emily Green

The Dry Garden, Green’s column on sustainable landscaping, appears on Fridays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.


Corrected: An earlier version of this post mistakenly called the Theodore Payne Foundation by the name Theodore Payne Society.


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Photo, top: The north lawn at City Hall, shown Nov. 30 after Occupy protesters had been cleared. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Photo, middle: Palm fronds piled up in Pasadena last week. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Photo, bottom: Some of the items left behind by Occupy protesters on the City Hall lawn, photographed Nov. 30. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times