Posts by Katharine Rudnyk

The circle of succulents looks magical during the winter, with blooming Aloe (Aloe) and the fiery red foliage of Crassula capitella ‘Campfire’ (Campfire Crassula) found throughout the Pierce College campus design. All photos: Kathy Rudnyk.

The public often thinks of projects – architectural or landscape – in the context of a linear timeline with a definitive end point. But in reality any designed space, whether indoors or outdoors, evolves over time. This concept of design as ever-evolving has loomed on my mind lately: how designers maintain expectations about landscape projects after day one. When resources become limited or when maintenance budgets are eliminated years later, how does a project evolve and maintain itself?

Just like a business needs to plan ahead to sustain itself in relation to growth projections, a landscape needs more than just a well-trained maintenance team and water for its long term viability. Any planned landscape benefits from a design professional who plans ahead about both the resources available today and plans ahead for resource scarcity tomorrow.

A sea of assorted Sedum (Stonecrop) showcasing winter hues.

Recently, I visited Pierce College, where I was able to walk-thru a site completed by AHBE Landscape Architects nearly 10 years ago. The campus mall was buzzing with students rushing to class; I watched students  jumping over hedge rows and darting around the many clusters of large riparian trees to get to class on time. The hurried campus activity was just like in the movies, and brought up memories of my own time in college.

 

Observing a student in a wheelchair easily maneuver around the planted berms of Agave (Agave) and Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ made me smile.

I toured the campus noting numerous details: Within the grove of Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore) were smaller more recently planted drought tolerant trees, and it was wonderful to see the water-loving and extreme drought tolerant trees working together in harmony. With little funding available above and beyond the cost to go to school, alongside lottery ticket revenue distributions and local property taxes, there is still an active and engaged landscape maintenance team attempting their best to maintain the campus with less resources available. The installation was completed at Pierce College nearly ten years ago around the library and mall, yet the design intent clearly lives on today. The campus reflected the thoughts and execution of a savvy landscape designer who planned ahead of time for a manageable landscape that did not require a significant amount of labor, water, and materials to keep it looking beautiful.

There were a few surprises: how did those Equisetum hyemale (Horsetail) get into the parking lot around an area  filled with water? Were they laying dormant underground? Did a broken irrigation system refresh them to life? Perhaps there is a secret underground spring thriving around the campus. What an amazing discovery that would be! I also wondered about what happened to the plants originally planted within a dry wash in front of a sturdy gabion wall facing the library. They were no longer to be found.

Was anything intended for the area behind the benches? I can only wonder.

I moved onto note a circle of colorful succulents, their natural beauty heightened during cooler winter nights. The Grevillea x ‘Noell’ (Noell Grevillea) has filled in, so care could be redirected to other places or plants on campus. Pockets of perennials, like the Achillea millefolium (Yarrow) and Penstemon eatonii (Firecracker Penstemon) planted inside postage stamp sized cut-outs, are thriving and surviving without water and deadheading. Were they replaced over time? I wish I could answer all of these questions, but for the most part, the landscape design is still thriving on campus.

An interesting, sustainable landscape installation within a large courtyard offers a welcoming sight.

If I could go back and look at landscape architecture projects across Southern California that were started or completed around the time of “The Great Recession”, I believe I’d discover a common thread. Landscape designers then integrated “what if” into their designs – directed and motivated by concerns about project sustainability. What if funds, plants, and labor were no longer available later?

Parkinsonia x ‘Desert Museum’ (Desert Museum Thornless Palo Verde) thriving within a planting of Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster).

Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster), Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) and Muhlenbergia rigens (Deer Grass) wrap around the library.

As someone who worked for a grower before and during “The Great Recession”, I learned about how to use plants to solve specific problems and stay within budget, while also executing beautiful, orchestrated landscape designs. The best landscape designers are respectful of clients’ budgets and needs without sacrificing beauty. I find pride in working in landscape architecture, discovering perpetual reward in exploring the thought process about how choices in a landscape project can shape a more resilient, sustainable, and community-integrated future utilizing our local and native resources…even a decade later.

 

Stoneview Nature Center. All photos: Kathy Rudnyk

I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, a community (thankfully) with more nature centers than Starbucks. These Northwest Louisiana nature centers typically host a wildlife refuge where animals are cared for and housed, eventually to be released back into the wild. One was once even located within the Louisiana State Museum complex in downtown Shreveport, complete with turtles and its own resident alligator! But most nature centers around the country are generally located outside of town, along the perimeters or right next to a trailhead.

Nature centers are increasingly hosting a wide variety of events and attractions like laser light shows, concerts, interpretative education programs, or environmental art events to draw in attendance. Typically inexpensive and kid-friendly, these centers are wonderful venues for birthday parties and many a school outings, offering the experience of a curated small animal zoo and botanical garden, all in one!

AHBE Landscape Architects recently completed the landscape design for the Stoneview Nature Center in Culver City, California. This type of nature center is distinct and appropriate for today’s city dweller hungry for a contemporary urban outdoor day retreat.

Encelia californica (California Bush Sunflower) brightens up any winter day.

Funded by the County of Los Angeles, Stoneview Nature Center is located above an existing subdivision, next to a busy La Cienega Blvd, a renowned “shortcut to LAX”. The site is sandwiched between the Inglewood Oil Field and the Kenneth E. Hahn State Recreation Area, blending Southern California native plants with suburban landscape plants, but with a twist. EYRC Architects was responsible for designing the park’s contemporary interpretivef nature center, filled with natural light inside, and a large shade structure serving large outdoor group activities.

Buddleia, commonly known as the butterfly bush.

Each of the plants within the park were chosen to meet certain performance criteria: drought resistance, stormwater bio-filitration efficacy, offer a nectar or pollen source, native to California or Baja California, or edible by people or pets. Another fun-filled design challenge was to match each plant within various color blocks along the various pathways; something is always blooming throughout the four seasons within each section.

Fast growing, ground hugging Ceanothus x ‘Centennial’ (Centennial California Lilac) is just starting to bloom. 

Stoneview Nature Center also represents the efforts of the art collaborative Fallen Fruit, whose silverware and kitchen tool chandelier fits beautifully within the urban park and garden setting used to host educational lectures and demonstrations. Fallen Fruit has hosted some really creative programming in the past, including DIY pickling and food ‘zine workshops. I recommend keeping tabs on the Stoneview Nature Center’s Facebook page for the next exciting event.

Adrian Rudnyk checks out a bee resting on a Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon) and Penstemon. A giant bee hotel in the background welcomes carpenter bees.

Just as Los Angeles County is struggling to meet the demands of housing today for its residents, our city’s urban wildlife is suffering from a lack of habitat. The Stoneview Nature Center is making efforts to mitigate habitat loss by offering dense shrubs for small birds to hide from predators, an owl house high overhead by a thicket of trees to invite the nocturnal predators, a secluded bat box, and even a protected quail dome home in the middle of the site.

Quercus agrifolia (Coast Live Oak) also help urban wildlife congregate within the park-like setting. Over time, these large trees offer ample shade during the summer months and sustenance throughout the year for all varieties of animals and insects.

I love hummingbirds, so I was rather happy spotting a number of different ones flying within the mix of plants at the center, many enjoying a drink of nectar from Salvia spathacea (Hummingbird Sage).

An unusual feature visitors may notice are the numerous methane vents dotting the grounds. The 5-acre site was once an active oil field and the interpretive center was built over an abandoned oil well – Dabney Lloyd #3. Signage with historic photos communicates the site’s storied past.

My husband and I really enjoyed the numerous edible plants within the site, including fruiting citrus trees, avocado trees, and my favorite, a berry patch filled with Vaccinium (Blueberry) and Rubus x ‘APF – 236T’ (Baby Cakes™ Thornless Dwarf Blackberry). For the birds, Vitis californica x vinifera ‘Roger’s Red’ (Roger’s Red California Grape) travels over a back fence, its winter foliage flamboyantly vibrant red.

Surrounded by so many edibles, my husband and I imagined making pizza with herbs collected from the garden, such as Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’ (Prostrate Rosemary). Maybe there’s a wood oven somewhere within the park? We’ll have to come back and see if it is inside the building.


One parting bit of advice for your next visit to the Stoneview Nature Center: instead of driving and fighting traffic, I encourage you to take the Metro Expo Line. Get off at Jefferson/La Cienega station; a shuttle stop known as The Link offers a free ride to the park, operating roughly between 8am to 5pm. Visiting the Stoneview Nature Center is absolutely free, offering an especially gratifying and educational opportunity to enjoy nature throughout the seasons.

 

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The flowers of the Bauhinia x blakeana are highly attractive to hummingbirds.

I park my car every day near a beautiful tree with reddish-purple, orchid-shaped flowers. With its orchid-like flowers, Bauhinia x blakeana (Hong Kong Orchid) is a widely recognizable tree throughout the Southern California landscape, and popularly frequented by hummingbirds. It  can also be identified by its leaves that fold at night, with a distinct shape of a cow’s hoof. Semi-deciduous, the leaves drop in preparation for the fall to early spring, a showcase of flowers. A profuse flowering tree even at a young age, its many global connections make the Bauhinia x blakeana a true symbol of goodwill during the holiday season.

The leaf has a distinct shape of a cow’s hoof. In Mexico, the genus Bauhinia is widely known as Pata de Vaca.

Bauhinia purpurea seed pods at the Armstrong Garden Center in Monrovia has just finished popping last weekend. All that remains are the spiral spent seed pods surrounded by a thick canopy of foliage.

I remember finding a treasure trove of forgotten plant facts while researching alongside AHBE Landscape Architects Principal Evan Mather, FASLA years ago in the Monrovia Nursery Company basement. I recollect it was hard to stay focused being surrounded by an eye-catching 1960’s black and white ad about the Bauhinia x blakeana. “100’s of Orchid flowers from October to March,” the magazine ad promised.

Bauhinia x blakeana is a sterile tree, though there are messy seed varieties like Bauhinia purpurea (Butterfly Tree) available. On a quiet fall twilight, you can hear the seedpods of Bauhinia purpurea opening; it sounds like popcorn popping in the microwave.

Here is an herbarium sample of Bauhinia blakeana collected from a tree at Monrovia Nursery Company in 1963.

My grandfather was a plant hunter, and during his lifetime he secured many cuttings during his journeys. My grandfather had a passion for raising Cymbidium (Orchid), propagating plants, and traveling the world. It’s tough to find even one new plant patent and trademark it, but my grandfather and uncle alone found dozens for Monrovia Nursery Company to add to their inventory of great plants. A specimen of Bauhinia x blakeana’s leaves and flowers was collected from a tree from Monrovia Nursery Company by someone at the Los Angeles Arboretum. The exhibit was then submitted to the herbarium located at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. It was labeled “Bauhinia blakeana Dunn”. The collected specimen has since been transferred to the University of South Florida.

In 1908, British Botanist Stephen Troyte Dunn wrote the first scientific entry about the tree. At that time, he documented that only a few cuttings existed at the Hong Kong Botanical Garden. In 2005, using genetic testing, it was determined that the tree’s parentage was Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia variegata. Since it was only recently determined as a hybrid, you may see it still listed as Bauhinia blakeana rather than the recently corrected Bauhinia x blakeana.

My own Bauhinia x blakeana tree almost burned down to the ground during the Colby Fire. The tree nearly died again when our irrigation system was damaged by either local trash trucks or by a driver who failed to slow down at the turn. Even so, our grafted tree is still going strong, sprouting suckers periodically that pop from the base, requiring quick pruning from time to time.

Story has it that the first Bauhinia x blakeana was found in the 1880s by a French missionary who found it growing in the landscape of an abandoned house along the coast. During the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong elected the storied tree’s flower to grace their currency and flag. Now over 25,000 Bauhinia x blakeana have been planted throughout Hong Kong, and even more throughout the world, including the United States and Australia.

Even my blooming Bauhinia x blakeana can be upstaged by the showy golden flowers of a Cassia splendida ‘Golden’.

Its young existence could be potentially be threatened yet again. A disease like Emerald Ash Borer – which has devastated 16 species of ash trees throughout the Midwest and Northeastern United States – is always a risk, Age, too, could impact the tree. Every Bauhinia x blakeana originate from a single parent plant, making it more and more susceptible to pest problems, fungal diseases, and bacteria. A crowdfunding campaign is in action to raise money to trace the genome of the tree. You can learn more about the project here.

When I bought my grandparents’ house, I also purchased a treasure trove of horticultural beauties, including the special Bauhinia blakeana growing in their yard. It makes sense that the tree in my yard is probably a cutting from an original Bauhinia blakeana. Planted by my grandfather somewhere during the time of the tragic fire and floods of 1968 fire and 1969 flood, each one of these plants offers deeply rooted stories, both of the plant and the people who planted them. Sadly, I never got the chance to hear them all before my grandparents passed away.

Thankfully some stories about the plants living within the terraced acre of my garden are captured within the receipts of aged yellow receipts found inside a kitchen junk drawer, alongside other handwritten notes my grandmother had slipped into her many books. Beauty may sell the story, but  Bauhinia blakeana’s global heritage makes it an amazing symbol of world peace during the holiday season.

I recently enjoyed a fabulous day at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens – a day spent as part of the annual ASLA National Conference and Expo. The conference hosts over 5,000 landscape architects, landscape design professionals, urban designers, planners, and vendors in Downtown Los Angeles. Alongside a varied schedule of speakers, field sessions like the botanical garden tour I attended at the Huntington are hosted to bring attendees out into the SoCal landscape.

The Huntington Botanical Gardens Director Jim Folsom took time from his busy schedule directing the prestigious Orchid Show to lead our tour. With the aid of Elisa Read from Rios, Clemente and Hale and Jeremy Klevin, ASLA from SWA, they worked together to plan and design a fun and educational time for all 20+ horticulture enthusiasts who came from all over the country to spend the day across the garden grounds.

It turned out to be a beautiful day, cool and fortunately without any of the hot-dry fast moving Santa Ana winds that can sometimes unexpectedly spoil outdoor activities. We began with a bus ride along the 110 freeway, and along the way Jim shared many fun facts about the park, followed by Bill Ropp, who worked closely with the Huntington for over two decades on the development of the Chinese Garden. Once we arrived, we were afforded time for a few photos before David MacLaren, the garden’s Asian Gardens Gardens Cultural Curator and Bill led us into the Chinese Gardens.

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I found myself fascinated by the Chinese Gardens’ pond, particularly its seasonal reservoir designed to provide irrigation water for the plants within the park. I was informed the pond’s water is partially pumped water twice a year in the summer to remove the heavy phosphates caused by the feed used for the collection of koi. The pond is refilled with water from the site’s wells. I also learned the fish hang out in at a depth of 10′ – 12’, where no algae grows.

Afterward, Program Director Robert Hori and Landscape Architect Keiji Uesugi led us on a tour of the Japanese Garden – an awe-inspiring landscape. We reveled over how each stone was carefully placed along the way leading into the private tea garden. Great care and thought was put into the placement of every element of the garden’s design; gardens traditionally are considered three-dimensional textbooks of Daoist and Zen Buddhist belief in Japan, thus the precise and meaningful placement of every element.

After lunch, Landscape Architect John Pearson from the Office of Cheryl Barton, Head Gardener Seth Baker, and Jim Folsom spoke in detail about the development of the entry garden, a design incorporating California native and drought tolerant plants, and one rich with plant diversity. Jim then whisked us to the nearby Conservatory, where a most distinct and famously malodorous plant awaited. Nobody could miss the Amorphophallus titanum (Corpse Plant) that towered above us. My own “stinky plant” Penelope is re-emerging now. The sight of Huntington’s grand specimen only made me wonder if my own corpse plant will reveal itself to be a benign leaf or pungent flower?

Eventually after touring a living systems aquarium and the Children’s Garden, our group made its way to see the orchid show. The show was incredible in size, with three spacious rooms filled with award winning plants, alongside a variety of plants for sale within a tented area. The colors of the orchids ranged from pale yellows to bright reds, a spectacular selection representing Orchidaceae.

Perhaps the biggest treat of the day was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Huntington Ranch. Located near the citrus grove and the final resting place of Henry E. Huntington inside the site’s mausoleum, an expansive garden was revealed. The borders were all constructed from San Gabriel River rocks, intentionally an affordable design choice reflecting of the surrounding landscape.

With all this walking (totaling 10 miles of moderate walking), my knee eventually began troubling me. Fortunately, Danielle Rudeen was available to help me and others get to our last site and what I consider the jewel of the park: the desert garden!

John Trager led our group through the cactus garden. I remembered learning during my last visit why the Echinocactus grusonii (Barrel Cactus) leaned a little south: Desert Curator Gary Lyons shared that day that they don’t get enough light in Southern California, so the cactus stretch and lean towards the sun!

It was nearly 4pm when we finished touring the desert garden, just in time to join rush hour and find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam during our bus ride return. We made the best of it, trading DTLA stories, sharing tourist destination recommendations, secret garden sites, and foodie fixes. It turned out to be a great day, and I cannot thank everyone at the Huntington enough. The work put into the gardens each and every day is greatly appreciated by the design community and public alike, and it was great to hear so many attendees planning weekend trips to check out the gardens again on their own.

Plants are continually coming and going from the Huntington Gardens’ collection – just like its visitors. Wait six months, and the Huntington Gardens will present an entirely new experience.

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Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

On Sunday, my husband Adrian and I enjoyed a ride on the 100 year old funicular in Downtown Los Angeles. Like trains, elevators, escalators, and monorails, Angel’s Flight is a different form of transportation – one unique to Los Angeles. The cable rail car travels precariously up a steep incline onto fashionably urban Bunker Hill. But for four years the rail car has been closed. Recently, Angel’s Flight was reopened again to carry happy tourists upward and downward this small slice of Downtown Los Angeles (like the group of fun-loving Italians that we met enjoying Los Angeles on an early Sunday evening, captured below).

All photos above and below except when noted: Katharine Rudnyk

Sure, you can get some exercise and take the stairs, or walk up one of the many steep streets to the top of the hill. But why would you suffer the slog when you can quickly travel from the multi-cultural food mecca of Grand Central Market up to the California Plaza next to the Omni Hotel via funicular? The experience is like riding a self-driving Tesla, sans driver. We watched the two rail cars pass each other with ease and without any issues. Just imagine experiencing that for the first time in 100 years ago!

Riding Angel’s Flight reminds me of the cable cars I once boarded to soar over and across Barcelona – an experience better and more thrilling than flying over the landscape using Google Earth. The aerial journey over the Spanish mountains, the city, then finally onto the beach is truly unforgettable. Admittedly, Angel’s Flight is a slower moving rail car than an aerial tram suspended from cables. The distance is only a few city blocks, but it is just as rewarding as flying overhead across Barcelona in my opinion! It’s amazing just how many unique spaces you’ll pass while riding Angel’s Flight. Both rides across Barcelona and Los Angeles can be frightening, especially when the car stops mid-flight; all you can think to yourself is, “I hope the brakes work!”. You can find yourself eyeing escape routes in silent concern.

Entering Angel’s Flight can feel like entering a dollhouse. Everything seems tiny, yet also spacious! As the rail car begins to move along the Angel’s Flight’s path, riders get a glimpse of the bones of what was once a beautiful urban park shuttered since 2012. The closed public space gives tourists and residents alike a brief moment of “what if” as they’re whisked away across the sky. I kept imagining how relaxing it could be enjoying a meal from the crowded Grand Central Market underneath the shade of a Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore). Looking at the park today, you would never know how beautiful and representative of Los Angeles it really once was.

One day while walking by the park after a meeting with Evan Mather, ASLA – one of our firm’s principals – I inquired about the original designer of the shuttered space. Even closed, the site still retains a spirit of possibilities, a special corner of Downtown awaiting revival.

Evan informed me it was in fact AHBE Landscape Architect’s own Principal Calvin Abe, FASLA, who designed the project. Please read more about it here.

As Angel’s Flight riders move further up on the rail line, they’ll pass an area that has been kept tidy by goats. Currently barren, the open space will inevitably become another victim of redevelopment. On the other side, a secret urban garden patio is visible, a stark juxtaposition of once public versus private outdoor spaces.

Once at the top, riders are required to pay 50 cents with a Metro pass, gaining access to hike around the California Plaza. A very clean amphitheater surrounded by skyscrapers, manicured plants, and a large food court welcome visitors, alongside the occasional bored hotel guest from the Omni, a jovial security guard, and few romantic couples strolling and enjoying the view. So many cool plants are found here – from ornamental grasses and a majestic Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) on the plaza’s deck, to a huge houseplant-like Ficus lyrata (Fiddle-leaf Fig). The fiddle-leaf fig has gone fun-lovingly rogue in the shady corridors, attributed to the location and being very well-cared for by horticulture professionals.

After hiking though the site, visitors are invited back to pile back into the rail car to gracefully descend back down the hillside. On the right side, before approaching the platform, you can see the back of an apartment building filled with a community garden where a perimeter of the property hosts a healthy growth of nasturium (Tropaeolum).

As the funicular slows, you realize the journey is coming to end. The serenity offered above is replaced by a more dangerous streetscape below, complete with a mix of unsavory street characters, forgotten plants inside a shuttered park, and a generous amount of flashing neon lights emanating from across the street. Angel’s Flight has such a precarious connection to the natural world, yet the world above was really compelling, calling to me to stay just a little longer.

I am sure in short time urban development will engulf and surround what is left of the natural world in Downtown Los Angeles. Angel’s Flight represents a small oasis and a missed opportunity to appreciate the joys of nature within a busy city.

I wish the park at Angel’s Flight could reopen and remain an urban park – a garden-like legacy to the generations that rode the funicular decades before. Pondering security, it felt safer at the top. Perhaps it was a false sense of security, but one comforted by the illusion of visibility and uniformity. While walking the surrounding areas, I couldn’t help notice the city blocks are so devoid of natural. I believe integrating sections of nature across a city can help make it feel more safe and welcoming. But times are changing, with numerous Los Angeles projects reintegrating nature into the city. I, for one, am ready to welcome that change and all the benefits it may bring to Los Angeles.