Posts by Katherine Montgomery

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Marah macrocarpa, Wild Cucumber. All photos by Katherine Montgomery

Each spring, the landscape of Los Angeles erupts into lush abundance.  Even in years with minimal rainfall there is enough moisture to feed the annuals that went to seed the summer before. Where last fall the hillsides were parched golden, today the meadows are blanketed soft green.  This year is proving to be an exceptionally rainy one, and as a result, Los Angeles is exploding with greenery.

From a distance, the city’s hillsides look like they are covered in a monoculture of grass, but it’s actually a variety of leaves composing that green mass.  Cool-season plants, including native and invasive species, take advantage of recently disturbed earth and seasonal rains and germinate quickly. Certain plants cycle through and are more dominant than others some years, but the varying conditions of LA’s wild spaces means a diverse ecosystem of weeds.

Or are they wildflowers?

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It is necessary to understand how a plant impacts the local ecosystem is in order to judge its value. Calling something a weed usually discounts the plant’s worth.  Their reputation as ugly, useless, and invasive is often deserved. The Bromusgenus of grasses are wildfire hazards, covering hillsides and desert regions, crowding out native grasses, and creating large swaths of tinder.  Could our green spring lead to a larger chance of wildfires?

Carduus pycnocephalus, Italian thistle

Carduus pycnocephalus, Italian thistle

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Galium aparine, Catchweed

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Geranium carolinianum, Carolina geranium

Brassica, or wild mustard, is more easily forgiven because of its bright yellow flowers. Chickweed, which is taking over my yard, is a short-lived edible with small white flowers.  On my walk to the train this morning, I passed mallow and shepherd’s purse nested with some type of foxtail grass and dandelions.  The parkways and tree wells were miniature wild parcels, with hosted a handful of plant species I couldn’t name.

Oxalis Stricta, Yellow Wood Sorrel

Oxalis Stricta, Yellow Wood Sorrel

Identifying plants is part of understanding the bigger picture of our landscape, aesthetically and ecologically.  I have begun photographing seasonal plants during local hikes and urban walks to create an informal log of what is blooming in Los Angeles. By photographing, researching, and keeping a log of the plants that naturally occur around Los Angeles, I hope to have a deeper understanding of our ecosystem, and how best to design with it. Which plants should be eradicated and which could we incorporate into a seasonal landscape?

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Last year I attended the Chelsea Flower Show in London, and fell in love with the L’Occitaine Garden (above) designed by James Basson.  It mimicked the wild, weedy, dry hillsides of Provence, but immediately brought Los Angeles to mind. They used plants native to Southern France like plantains, mustard, and artemesia to create a naturalized-looking landscape.  I thought it was the most romantic and stunning exhibit in the show, and it surpassed the more traditional landscapes in its grasp of the ephemeral beauty of nature.

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My landscape aesthetic definitely leans wild and unkempt. I approached the daunting task of designing my own garden as an experiment.  It is strewn with native wildflower seeds, which have mixed with uncontrollable oxalis, polite chickweed, and delicious arugula.  It looks like a mess, but until I have the time to design something proper, it is its own version of the wild – weeds and wildflowers together.

The Cellar glass-snail, Oxychilus cellarius, is one of the smaller and more colorful snails visible after the rain. Photo by Gregory Han

The cellar glass-snail, Oxychilus cellarius, is one of the smaller and more colorful snails visible after the rain in parts of Southern California. Photo by Gregory Han

The winter rains have arrived in Southern California, bringing with it clean skies and green hillsides.  The welcome water nourishes our parched plants and cleans the grey dirt of city life off their leaves. After a good wash, the city sparkles, coming to life.

The rain also brings to the surface a large number of terrestrial gastropods, the snails and slugs that streak across our paths, or sometimes crunch under our feet if we forget to tread carefully. Los Angeles is home to hundreds of different kinds of gastropods, and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum (NHM) needs your help identifying them.  They have called upon Citizen Scientists to help identify species around town through Instagram, iNaturalist, or over email.

Why do gastropods matter?  They are an important part of our ecosystem, assisting in the breakdown of plant material and adding nutrients to the soil.  They are also food for birds and mammals. (more…)

The large urban parks around Los Angeles provide a chance to step into another world, and my favorite is Debs Park in Montecito Heights. The park’s network of trails wind up hillsides through black walnut groves and under large oak trees, some leading to rewarding views of Downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains. It is a 282-acre pocket of wild in the city, and I’ve encountered coyotes, bobcats, owls, and rabbits on my hikes. Becoming part of their world provides respite from my own.

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Adjusting my focus from the large vistas to the immediate setting, I started noticing patterns in the vegetation that were not of a human scale. Grass tunnels hinted at another creature’s experience of the open space, and the more I looked, the more I saw the park as a network of animal thoroughfares. I began photographing these routes as a way to actively observe and meditate on the sensitive connection between wildlife and our shared landscape.

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02040011As a designer, I know there is much to learn from adjusting my perspective and seeing the landscape from a different point of view. These photos are just a glimpse into another side of LA, and another experience of our environment.

A pedestrian bridge spans the stream bed, with the Metro Goldline Bridge in the background. All photos by Katherine Montgomery

A pedestrian bridge spans the stream bed, with the Metro Goldline Bridge in the background. All photos by Katherine Montgomery

While running errands and avoiding listening to election news on the radio this past weekend, I decided to stop at a small parcel of land I’ve long admired. I usually only see this open space while riding the Gold Line train that passes above it, or while driving along Avenue 18 between Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights.

Nestled between industrial buildings, surrounded by transit (Metro, freight trains, and highways) in a section some might call a no-man’s-land, I entered a surprisingly lush space filled with bird song, the rustling of willows, and the calming sound of water.

Path meandering through a landscape of native and California-friendly plants.

A path meandering through a landscape of native and California-friendly plants.

A view with the historic Lincoln Heights jail visible in the background.

A view with the historic Lincoln Heights jail visible in the background.

Completed in 2013 by the Bureau of Sanitation, the Ed Reyes Greenway is a one-acre park.  The in-between open space cleans stormwater runoff from the adjacent industrial area in an underground biofiltration system before it moves through the site, into the Los Angeles River, and eventually out to the ocean. The park also serves as a pocket habitat with dense plant material – some of which is native – but all serving a purpose.  Grasses and willows absorb pollutants in the water as it percolates into the soil.  Native sycamore trees and mallows provide habitat for birds, lizards, possums, and raccoons. In whole, Ed Reyes Greenway is a much-needed urban habitat for LA’s underserved wildlife.

A waterfall at the entrance of the park greets visitors.

A waterfall at the entrance of the park greets visitors.

As Los Angeles grapples with issues of drought, environmental responsibility, and increasing density, it is parks like these that serve as an example of how we should design a wilder Los Angeles.  Integrating nature and stormwater management into the urban context is vital to creating a healthy ecosystem.

If you have not voted yet, please be sure to vote in favor of Measure A, which provides funding for programs in parks, water conservation efforts, and protection of natural areas.