How a Los Angeles landscape architecture firm is reclaiming a hillside for native plants

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A radical ecology act takes place on a hill in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. In an ongoing project called Test Plot, landscape architecture firm Terremoto works with the community to rehabilitate patches of a landscape whose ecosystem is smothered by invasive species. The key is to replace them with native plants. “If you look outside the circle, almost everything you see is not native to the region,” says David Godshall, co-founder of Terremoto.

Co-led by Terremoto’s Jenny Jones and USC’s Jen Toy, and in conjunction with Saturate California, Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park and numerous weed-pulling volunteers, the project has now been running for three years and is much closer of a beautifully replanted. park that we can all enjoy. Godshall spoke with Dwell about landscape transformation, the benefits and challenges of native plants, and the pleasures of tending your own garden.

Remain: Many of your projects are residential. How did you decide to devote energy to this sick public landscape?

Godshall: Half of our office lives in nearby Echo Park, and we’ve always dreamed of circling around Elysian Park, which we considered environmentally deplorable. In 2019, the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks nervously granted us permission to create four temporary plots.

Where do invasive species come from?

Many of these plants are remnants of European colonization. People came and brought their farming tools. And then in California, these things became widespread.

What are the biggest challenges to transforming the landscape?

At first it was about weed control. Native plants need a chance to become established before they can out-compete weeds. A team of volunteers helped us manage weed pressure over a three-year period, allowing us to plant monolithically with California natives like Sticky Monkey Flower, Black Sage, and Heucheras. The goal is for the native plants to begin to self-propagate and renew the cycle themselves.

How’s the scenery?

It’s still a bad ecosystem, but we’re trying to help it. The native black walnuts, elderberries, lemonade berries, California pepper tree, and toyon that surround us along the north-facing slope are all healthy. Introduced species, such as eucalyptus, suffer.

Should we all plant strictly native species in our own gardens?

I am not a puritan. Terremoto’s gardens are comprised of approximately 70% native California species, but we also use plants appropriate to the region. I’m a big fan of Australian plants because they can adapt to our seasons and are drought tolerant. But when planting native species, be prepared to weed vigorously for the first three or four years to allow them to become established. After that, they will be easy to care for.

Why not just hire a gardener instead of doing it yourself?

I’m not anti-gardening, but when people completely outsource the upkeep of their land, they can be disconnected from it. One of the best signs of success in the gardens we do is when the customer becomes a gardener. Then they deal with it and it becomes theirs.

Is there a “bad” type of landscape to have at home?

I think people intuitively now know that having a foundation lawn and shrubs is inappropriate. Sometimes it’s hard to drive and see how water and fertilizer consuming gardens can be. But it’s a big step away from the conventional suburban lawn. That’s why I’m okay with creating gardens that are only 60 or 70 percent indigenous. Citrus fruits, for example, are not native, but I have some at home. And there’s nothing better than grabbing a lemon from your tree.

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