Sneak peek: New gardens at Natural History Museum’s North Campus


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Los Angeles is the “birdiest” county in the United States, said Karen Wise, vice president of education and exhibits for the Natural History Museum. One hundred sixty-eight types of birds have been documented in Exposition Park downtown alone, but the museum is hoping to attract even more with its new North Campus gardens. The 3.5 acres are designed to entice critters of all types, so the massive museum that, for 99 years, has documented the history of life on Earth transforms itself into a hands-on outdoor lab.

“We decided the best thing for our visitors was to build a landscape that could serve as a central field site and natural experience in the heart of the city that really allows us and all of L.A. to gather and document the real wildlife that’s living in L.A. today,” said Wise, whose museum houses more than 35 million natural and cultural objects indoors.


Everything in the new garden is designed to foster life. Winding through the space is the Living Wall, right, constructed from spears of stone that were installed vertically and planted with succulents to entice lizards. The 1913 Garden, so named for the year the museum opened, is a mosaic of colored flowers that is sure to delight hummingbirds.

Passion vines and Burmese honeysuckle grow in 12-foot-tall chain link cages that form the garden’s Urban Edge. The plants were selected because they are most effective at attracting butterflies. And a pond at the garden’s center will be populated with Western pond and red-eared slider turtles.

A bloom on a coral tree at the new North Campus gardens of the Natural History Museum.

Citizen science is also encouraged. Planted with edibles, the Erika J. Glazer Home Garden is open for classes, camps and school groups to teach them how to grow organic vegetables and to deter pests with beneficial bugs rather than chemical pesticides. The Nature Lab, scheduled to open in June 2013, will become a place for visitors to sort and identify the bugs caught in the garden’s tented “malaise traps.”

Even nature lovers who are curious about what happens in the garden after hours will have the opportunity. Critter cams have been installed throughout the garden to capture video that will be posted on the museum website.

The North Campus is part of a museum renovation that not only celebrates the institution’s 100-year anniversary next year but also revitalizes its mission. The garden is scheduled to open in full next summer. The entry plaza, eating area and bridge that connects the outdoor gardens to the indoor museum are all open to the public now.

The new North Campus gardens advance the notion that landscapes have to be performative, said Mia Lehrer, right, the landscape architect behind this design as well as the Los Angeles River revitalization master plan and other regional projects that marry community engagement and environmentalism.

‘Performative is a term that embraces sustainability in a very deep way and implies that any solution to create spaces somehow leaves the place better than it was,” Lehrer said.

The North Campus replaces 153,000 square feet of asphalt parking lot and concrete hardscape. About 102,000 cubic feet of concrete sidewalks, stairs and walls were crushed on site and recycled into the garden. In their place are more than 200 varieties of perennials, 31,000 plants set along a half-mile of winding, decomposed granite pathways that allow water to permeate and replenish groundwater. The benches dotting the paths are wooden beams reclaimed from a fire-damaged building. Much of the decorative fencing is made from reclaimed wrought iron.

All of the site’s storm water is collected and shuttled to deep aquifer recharge wells, preventing runoff and feeding the pond, which was designed as a metaphor for the Los Angeles River. During the dry season, the river appears as a dry stream bed. (That’s Wise, head of education and exhibits at the Natural History Museum, at right.)

“We’re not trying to make this garden a chaparral or true pure native Southern California,” Lehrer said. “We’re trying to make it an instructional and hopefully beautiful place for people to learn about plant materials, to learn about what they do for us. When you find a spider in your bathtub or on your plants, you realize what it’s doing for you. You don’t automatically want to squish it.”

-- Susan Carpenter

Common yarrow, Achillea millefolium, blooms in the 1913 Garden at the Natural History Museum’s North Campus.

Young corn stalks rise from the new landscape, designed to be a demonstration site providing ideas and inspiration to visitors.

New plants begin to climb palm trees crafted from rebar in the 1913 Garden.


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