Posts by Katherine Montgomery

All photos by Katherine Montgomery

My yard was an explosion of weeds this spring – a superbloom of grasses, oxalis, and chickweed, mixed with native Phacelia, Gilia, and Achillea from seeds I sowed a couple years ago. It was a wild, ephemeral mess that looked great for about a month before turning to dry straw.

I find weeding is one of the most satisfying activities after a long day at work; yanking up clumps of nasty brome grass and getting large amounts of dirt under my fingernails is gratifying and productive at once. This weekend I finally got around to cleaning a few piles of weeds I had left around the yard. As I scooped them up, I discovered a wriggling mass of life underneath: doodlebugs, spiders, worms, and massive amounts of earwigs that had already begun the work of breaking down the debris.

I often marvel at the life that exists in my small yard, and quietly observing its movements and changes is an important part of my weekly meditation. I have a couple of trapdoor spiders whose hairy legs I occasionally glimpse in their tunnels. There is a feral honeybee hive in a retaining wall. Great swallowtail butterflies flutter through regularly. The earwigs that eat my compost feed the canyon towhee family that lives in the bougainvillea.

In the couple years I have lived in this house, I have worked to support this system by planting native, enlivening the over-compacted soil with compost, and providing food, water, and shelter to wildlife. The small system that exists in my yard is a reflection of the larger ecosystem of Los Angeles. I like to think my little plot of land, which gives so much back to me, has contributed to the larger biodiversity hotspot that is Los Angeles.

Photo by Katherine Montgomery

Several months ago, exhilarated by the Women’s March, a friend and I exclaimed, “We should do this every weekend!”  Since then, my anger towards President Trump has developed from a vague dread to specific fears as his policies have rolled out: Will immigrants be forever persecuted?  Will women have access to safe health care?

When House bill H.R. 861 to abolish the EPA was introduced in February, my fear sharpened to a point.  The stakes have never been higher for our planet’s health, and this bill is an arrogant deterrent to progress.

The mistrust of facts in the recent years has been well documented, and the attack on science – preventing scientists from publishing work without White House review, withdrawing research funding, gag orders related to climate change, etc. – is the continuation of this propaganda.  The administration’s attack on science has a direct impact on all of our lives.  From compromising our natural resources, to over-valuing outdated energy sources, their goals do not support the earth and are in direct opposition to the values of landscape architecture.

Download a free “March for Science Poster” for April 22, 2017, Earth Day and The March for Science!

The heart of this profession is in the service of the earth: restoration, habitat support, preserving open space, improving the earth one (rooftop) garden at a time. As the ASLA states, “[The] EPA’s role, protecting human health and the environment, intersects with ASLA’s work in leading the design and stewardship of land and communities…”

I used to advise science students on Ph.D. fellowship applications, and I’ve read more National Science Foundation applications than an art major ever should. I grasped only a small percentage of the technical details, but it was a good test for the students: if they could explain quasi-conformally homogenous Reiman surfaces or quantum computing in a way that I could understand, then they could be better scientists.

In my years advising, I learned the importance of the scientific method, and the concept of ‘good science’.  This term is heavy with meaning, but includes values like “fact over opinion”, following the scientific method, empiricism, and peer review.  I would argue that good science is the basis for all good design, and the parallel processes both include inquiry, research, concept development, trial and error, continual questioning, analyzing, and sharing results.

If science is being denounced, the scaffolding for our culture is compromised.  I urge you to join me in supporting science by marching this Saturday, April 22, in Downtown LA and over 500 other cities around the world.  The March for Science is part of a ‘global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.’ Come be part of the movement!

All photos by Katherine Montgomery.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park has become an immensely popular destination of late, and this past weekend I joined my fellow Southern Californians to witness the super bloom in full effect.  As I drove into the park from the west, winding down into the Borrego Valley from the Cleveland National Forest, the landscape changed dramatically from oaks, white salvia, and ceanothus to low scrub and tall ocotillo branches tipped with red flower buds.  The scent of creosote and the blast of heat through the open windows were signs that we’d transitioned to a very different landscape.

The proximity of two very distinct biomes – noted by the quick change in temperature, elevation, smells, and colors – is one of the unique features of California.

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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…)