Photos by Wendy Chan

It was eight years ago when I was asked me to take photos of Camino Nuevo High School in the Rampart Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, a charter high school project completed by AHBE. I can still remember feeling inspired by the project’s planting design, with its projection of a streetscape experience matched with a color palette of blue and yellow complementing the dynamic graphic of the building facade. The striking contrast between the fine soft texture of Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass) against the thorns and structural foliage of Agave americana (Century Plant) was particularly memorable.

When I took these photos, the project was already a year into its growth after the project’s completion. Just a year later, there were already signs of maintenance issues: invasive weeds, overgrown plants, and volunteer palms emerging uninvited from the parkway.

Recently, I found myself back on the grounds of Camino Nuevo High School. I was driving  to the office from a meeting when I happened to pass by the high school. I decided to stop to inspect how the project’s planting design was holding up eight years later and compare my memories of yesterday with the realities of today. I particularly wanted to investigate which plants proved to be the most resilient eight years later.

Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, the planting areas once so thoughtfully designed and planted revealed to be in a complete state of disarray. The Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass) planted on the parkway are now gone, with weeds and voluntary plants like Cortaderia selloana (Pampas Grass) taken over the planters. On a positive note, the agaves have grown beautifully and considerably, with pups spread throughout. I also noticed the bougainvillea lining the walkways was pruned to control its height. Exposed and damaged drip tubing informed me the irrigation systems was no longer functional.

What began as a cohesive vision is currently a mish-mash of new plants and old plants. Some new plants were obviously added, including a plant pruned into the shape of a globe. Turf lawn was also reintroduced.

I wasn’t completely surprised at the sad state of the planting areas. Los Angeles schools have been struggling for funding, and landscape maintenance costs are secondary to budgetary concerns within the classroom. A lack of maintenance is not entirely to blame.

As landscape architects, we’re constantly charged to find a balance of aesthetics, functionality, and plant resiliency, all within a budget. Even so, we’re cognizant of the challenges and struggles related to maintenance, including the increasing scarcity of water available to keep landscapes healthy. Thus, solutions to provide resilient landscapes requiring as little maintenance as possible is our profession’s ideal.

I believe now is the time to progressively move landscape design forward in promotion of planting designs capable of surviving – or even thriving – with a minimum of maintenance. Our profession should make efforts to choose plants capable of surviving with little or no irrigation, and without the need for constant pruning or supplemental fertilizer. Guided by these goals,  native California plants that once covered our state’s landscape might yet again become a common sight and an example of native resiliency.

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