A Frontier for Native Plant Landscapes: Public Housing

Los Angeles partners with the Theodore Payne Foundation in an urban horticulture program

By Kathy Morrison
Photos courtesy of TPF

Staff from the LA housing authority and the Theodore Payne Foundation gather at the TPF site in Sun Valley.

Here’s a good idea: Plant low-water gardens to replace dead expanses of lawn in public housing projects. An even better idea: Plant gardens of California natives to replace those brown lawns. The best idea, however, is the one still unfolding at Los Angeles public housing projects: Teach the projects’ grounds crews and enough residents about horticulture, landscape design, and garden maintenance so that the new gardens will survive and thrive with on-site care and concern.

Part of the training was about being able to make decisions about the landscape they worked on, and shape it in a way that might be interesting to the residents.

The nonprofit Theodore Payne Foundation (TPF) is working with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles on what organizers call “a pilot of a pilot program” to establish water-smart native-plant gardens in these urban areas. Kitty Connolly, TPF’s executive director, and Tim Becker, the director of horticulture, say the initial phase of the program has had some challenges, but those experiences will be applied to the next phase, which starts this summer

After the lawns died

Based in the San Fernando Valley, TPF is an important partner of CNPS working to promote knowledge of California natives through speakers, classes and public outreach. It also operates a nursery, a seed bank, and an arts program.

The foundation’s involvement with the housing authority started a few years ago, thanks to a member of the TPF board. During the drought, lawn watering was halted at the HACLA sites, as in many places in the state. To replace at least some of the dead grass, the housing authority wanted drought-tolerant gardens. “And that’s where the board member connection really came through, because we were able to pitch the native element of a drought-tolerant garden,” Becker says.

“And because we’re gardeners, we’re good and patient, because we had a meeting with them, and then it took maybe another year before we actually started doing anything,” Connolly says. The project had to work its way through a huge bureaucracy.

Practicality shaped the program and the expectations for it. The housing authority decision-makers at first thought a one-day workshop would be sufficient training. However, TPF was able to stress the importance of several issues, including how hard it is to change current practices.

The public housing projects are complicated places to grow plants, Becker explains. The landscapes cover hundreds of acres and infrastructure is limited. Connolly says many of the maintenance crew members were completely untrained in gardening practices, and their previous tasks were limited mostly to picking up trash. Driving lawn mowers and trimming shrubs to maintain a certain distance from buildings was the extent of horticulture work. So instead of the short workshop, the training became a six-month class in native plants, landscape design and garden maintenance.

Some of the workers had an interest in horticulture and were so psyched to finally receive professional development in something they were hired to do.

Once the program was set, HACLA was all-in, Connolly says. “They’re really excellent, practical people who understand the challenges, better than we do, of the sites they’re working with and the staff they’re working with.” Funding came exclusively from the housing authority, though the Theodore Payne Foundation staff donated many more hours than it was contracted for. “But it’s an important project to us,” Connolly says.

Introduction to horticulture

Three housing sites of the 14 in HACLA were chosen for the initial program: San Fernando, Boyle Heights, and Watts. The training included lectures by Becker, plus small group sessions conducted by TPF staff. All members of the housing authority maintenance staff, including management, attended the first class. “Public housing is so practical, they realized they needed to have buy-in from every level in order for this to happen,” Connolly says. About 80 staff members overall received some training.
TPF designed the classes so the information would not be overwhelming. A basic, “very easy” native plant list was introduced, with about 20 species, such as Salvia clevelandii  “Winnifred Gilman”  and Ceanothus “Ray Hartman.” Becker says classes were paired with fieldwork. On field training days, they would “walk and talk,” discussing topics such as planting designs, weed conditions, and the health of plants. HACLA provided onsite Spanish translators during classes.

Some of the workers had an interest in horticulture “and were so psyched” to finally receive professional development in something they were hired to do, Connolly says. The enthusiasm level among others varied, including one woman who told Connolly after the lectures, “No way I’m getting my hands dirty.” A number of residents, however, participated in every aspect of the training, Becker adds.

Connolly notes that life in public housing can be quite constrained. “There are all these rules for living there.” The staff also is not given much latitude in what they can do. So this program offers more than just horticultural skills, she says. “Part of the training was about being able to make decisions about the landscape they worked on, and shape it in a way that might be interesting to the residents.”

These first gardens were established at the headquarters of the three housing projects, about 1.5 acres total. The TPF nursery raised some of the plants, while con-tract nurseries grew larger ones. The chosen species had to be easy to grow and be aesthetically appealing to the broadest range of people, she explains. “The expectation is flowery.” Replacing lawn with spare xeriscape was not the goal for these landscapes. “You don’t want them to feel like they’re being punished. … You want their environment to be better.”

Plants and patience

A public garden has to be prepared for plant theft, Connolly says. Anything up to a 5-gallon size plant is fair game, anything that can be dug up with a shovel. Even thorny species don’t deter plant thieves, she says.

At the three pilot sites, where staff members and residents have been involved in the garden design and care, most of the plants have stayed, she says. “There’s more internal respect for the plants and the site.” In contrast, at a “really nice” side project garden for a Boys and Girls Club, but with no constituents at that site, all the plants were stolen, Connolly explains. “That’s why the buy-in is really important.”

Building on the experience

The pilot program’s first phase concluded last October and moves into a key second phase this summer, Becker says. It will likely be a two-year program. This time, TPF will conduct classes specifically for the residents and children to boost the internal interest in the gardens.

Becker says they would like to increase the gardens in this phase to about three acres total. “We’re really trying to get some irrigation systems,” he added, since hand watering has its limits. As a practical matter, this would involve sprinklers, not drip systems, he says. Adding even a “symbolic” fence of bollards and rope around the gardens will help limit thefts and allow the new plants to get established,“ adds Connolly. “It says that somebody cares about this spot.”

She notes the importance of “real partnerships” to make a program this size succeed. TPF and the housing authority have been working together for three years now. “We have a level of comfort and trust, and that’s important to us,” she says. “Permanent change is what we’re after.”

We have a level of comfort and trust, and that’s important to us. Permanent change is what we’re after.

One Comment

  1. Change in communities takes time for education, trust-building and collaboyefforts of residents and the group promoting positive change. TPF is an organization with a vision and the expertise to create beautiful surroundings where there was once dead grass: a garden that will bring beauty, sustainable plants that will be pleasing to the eye, butterflies, birds 🦅 and insects 🐞 required so we all co-habit compatibly. TPF leads the way in offering sustainable options that provide beauty while saving water 💦 and reducing green waste. A win-win for people and the 🌍.

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