Posts by Katharine Rudnyk

“Garcia Trail, overlooking Azusa, Glendora, and beyond” – Photo by Jon Coyne / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When I moved to California from Louisiana over 25 years ago, I found solace hiking the Garcia Trail – a trail that leisurely swirls along the foothills behind my house and connects the City of Azusa to the San Gabriel National Monument. Over the years, I discovered that the architect who designed our dining room intentionally placed a row of long, narrow windows sky high so inhabitants could quickly spot a bright white cross at the top of the foothill and also watch hikers as they traveled through a narrow and dense chaparral passage.

From our dining room I’d witness morning hikers in joyful exuberance as they reached the top, their ebullient echoes cascaded down the hill – so loud they could be heard even under the bright lights of our chandelier!

Back at the trailhead, a small handmade wooden camp sign with “Garcia Trail” and an arrow can be found. It’s hidden behind a thick planting of Thuja plicata (Western Cedar), Cedrus deodara (Deodar Cedar), Pinus canariensis (Canary Island Pine), Lantana sellowiana (Creeping Lantana) and thorny Bougainvillea ‘Monka’ (Oo-La-La™ Bougainvillea) – a line-up following the slopes along the first switchback.

Photo by Brian Altmeyer / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Further along hikers are met by thick brush of fragrant native plants like, Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon), assorted Ceanothus (California Lilac) and Rhus ovata (Coffeeberry).  These bushy plants offer the only shady refuge along the southern side of the sunny and hot foothill.  Continuing up the trail, the fire road shrinks into a slippery and steep gravel-laden single lane. The trail becomes regularly worn from all of the constant foot traffic and water flow during the year.

Yet, the white cross at the trail top – perhaps with visions of God beckoning from the distance – seems to help motivate plenty of hikers ever upward. Regarding more earthly concerns: firemen can be seen regularly using the trail for endurance training, so I like to believe there are always earthly angels nearby.

This past Friday, I found myself pondering whether the Garcia Trail is used by the same mountain lion that was spotted in a tree across the street from the local park close by. Occasionally hunters can also be found on the trail; I’ve wondered after crossing paths if they thought we were dinner or just in the way.  Into late summer bears, snakes, tarantulas, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, or even coyotes spook/thrill hikers along the trail.

During these instances where a hiker confronts wildlife, who goes first, you or the coyote? I imagine freezing up and whispering to my hiking companion, “What should we do next?”  Probably the best advice is to take a deep breath, pause for a moment…then just walk/run down the hillside.

Photos by Suzan Beall Weathermon

I will never forget when a prospective wealthy neighbor purchased a property with an easement of the Garcia Trail dividing it. He wanted to build his family home against the hillside and spared no expense in attempting to realize his dreams. Urban legend has it that he was afraid animals would invade their homestead. In response the homeowner built the “Great Wall of Glendora” out of concrete blocks and rebar along the steep grade with the help of laborers. Note: large animals can still jump this barrier with ease.

It’s been 10 years since city officials signed off on this project, so it wasn’t like it was done generations ago without any thought of how it could impact the surrounding environment.  Ironically, the homeowner was unable to build to his home to desired specifications due to a hillside ordinance, so he moved elsewhere, leaving behind his unintended monument.

Something magical happened in 2007 as the recession began to sink deep into the Valley: locals decided to forgo renewing expensive gym memberships and rediscovered the calling of nature in its place. Or so it seemed from the sights through my dining room windows, where I would regularly watch an ant line of exercisers marching up Garcia Trail.

The Garcia Trail became a singles mecca and a regular activity destination for the Korean Hiking Club, a group that would arrive to the trailhead inside a 55 passenger tour bus. And then there were the cars…rows and rows of cars that eventually wrapped around the streets of Azusa and Glendora. Thieves randomly broke into hikers’ cars while they were busy ascending ever upward. Social media and local hiking professionals alike would tout the trail’s beauty, relishing in the trails demanding level of difficulty. Impressive photographs shared online even generated even more visitors seeking similar experiences. Azusa Pacific University’s annual volunteer trail maintenance team could not keep up with the increase of foot traffic or trash left behind.

The bright lights and loudspeakers of the Glendora sheriff and and Azusa police helicopters took over the surrounding landscape at all hours of the day and night. People were asked to leave. Rescues were a regular occurrence. Hiking around that big “A”, clearly visible from the 210, exuded an excitement not unlike clubbing in Hollywood (except outdoors).

There are over 20 different trails within Glendora and Azusa that offer a similar stellar valley view. But for some reason, the Garcia Trail 2.7 mile distance became the “it” trail.  In the end the Garcia Trail was unable to safely handle the influx of traffic, trash, and erosion across its length – a victim of its own popularity.

In 2013 the City of Glendora approved and installed “No Parking” signs along the city streets leading up to the trail. Even afterward, people walked their dogs and even small children in the middle of the road as if Sierra Madre Blvd. was an extension of the trail.

Then on January 16, 2014, the Colby Fire erupted, destroying the Garcia Trail in its scorched path. The multi-year drought turned the area’s naturally dry foliage into an even more potentially dangerous fuel source for raging forest fires. A reckless campfire set by a group of cold homeless men ignited the brush aflame. The surrounding chaparral was so thick and dense with highly flammable growth – the last fire having occurred way back in 1968 – the Colby Fire eventually ended up burning for 10 straight days.

The fire began over a mile and half away, but ended up burning within 300 feet from my home. Powerful canyon winds and the fast moving fire compelled my husband and I to gather our belongings and cat to evacuate in just fifteen minutes. According to hiking enthusiast Dan Simpson’s website, “officials issued an indefinite closure based on an assessment/report of the Garcia Trail condition by the collaborative efforts of the Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team (U.S. Forest Service, L.A. County Fire Department’s Forestry Division, and USGS).”

A photo of the trail taken by the Azusa Police Department.

Online, heated debates whether the trail should, could, or will be rebuilt rages on. As urban development continues into the surrounding foothills, hiking trails have suffered similar challenges. The South Hills in Glendora rides along the edges of the 57 and 210 freeways, with a network of trails once surrounded by a couple of nurseries growing container plants within its boundaries. The Monrovia Nursery Company and Colorama Nursery leased properties from the City of Glendora; both both nurseries have moved their production of container plants elsewhere, leaving 20 acres for development or some other creative option.

April marks the observance of World Landscape Architecture Month,  as well as National Gardening Month. Now seems an appropriate time and opportunity to recommend government officials to hire a landscape architect to ensure safe passage through urban and/or historic nature trails. Landscape architects are professionals capable of providing site analysis, review grading, and conduct research. Landscape architects also partner with other related professionals, like grant writers, horticulturalists, ecologists, geologists, architects, engineers, or planners, to ensure an effective and enjoyable trail design for all.

Today, I still enjoy the sounds of happy hikers on the Garcia Trail – even though we rarely use the dining room anymore. But it will take more than a squad of volunteers to repair the trail. The trail will require a professional inventory consisting of site analysis, action, and funding plans to create a safe passage with an exceptionally written maintenance plan that can stand the test of time. If the trailhead is moved, we can only accept that it was done to ensure health, safety and welfare for all hikers, as well as approach the burden of liability and maintenance on the trails.

Those with a deeper interest in the Garcia Trail are invited to express their opinion during next week’s Azusa City Council Meeting on April 17th at 7:30 pm.

After living in the San Gabriel Valley for nearly 30 years, I thought I had seen and done everything nearby until I started researching about the forests of California. Partially due to proximity and also thanks to television news covering various fires over the years, nearby forests like Angeles National Forest, Cleveland National Forest, and San Bernardino National Forest are well known.  But the San Dimas Experimental Forest (SDEF) right in my backyard? Until recently I did not even know it existed.

Photo by Kathy Rudnyk

According to the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, the San Dimas Experimental Forest is the only experimental forest in Southern California. This forest is used to gather data for multiple organizations, such as US Forest Service, USDA, National Atmospheric Deposition Program/National Trends Network, and UNESCO. Established in 1933, it was designed to study hydrology and ecology, but then it grew into many more research opportunities.

Listed as a Biosphere Reserve through UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB).  This organization gathers and studies scientific data to investigate just how people relate to their natural environment – a “landscapes for learning”, “experimental ecological reserve” or a “laboratory regions of sustainable development”.  According to the MAB, there are 669 biosphere reserves located in 120 countries all over the world. Of that total number, America hosts 47 biosphere reserves. (more…)

The Rose by LuAnn Hunt (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so I recommend planning ahead and ordering that big, beautiful bouquet of a dozen red roses from your local florist soon to ensure it’s delivered to your special someone on time and at a reasonable price. But have you ever wondered where all of those luxurious cut flowers come from?  Over the past few months, I investigated this question to satiate my curiosity, collecting a few key articles that directed me to the answer.

We begin in the mid-1970s, a time when Americans produced almost all cut flowers sold in this country. By the 1990s, California farms still controlled 64% of U.S. market share of cut flowers sales.  But now according to the California Cut Flower Commission, only 30% of all floral goods sold in the United States are currently grown in California. According to Jim Daly, a keynote Texas A & M Floriculture speaker, “In 1990, California supplied 95% of the cut flowers in the United States, but today it is less than 2%.”

California’s flower producers were eventually overtaken by fierce competition from South American growers – specifically Columbia, the current market leader, with annual exports topping over a billion dollars of roses exported into the United States alone.  In 2015, Columbia celebrated its 50th anniversary shipping millions of flowers to the United States.

2015 Columbia – Primary Cut Flower Export in Millions of Dollars
$365,000,000 Roses
$156,000,000 Carnations
$147,000,000 Chrysanthemums

How did the marketplace shift so radically and quickly?  A few shifting factors:

  1. Individual retailer vs. the “chain store”.
  2. Faster, more reliable refrigerated transportation by air or ground, the details wrapped up in politics.
  3. Increased availability and persuasive marketing online.



Growing up in Northwest Louisiana, my dad taught me all about hunting, fishing, repairing pick-up trucks, and paddling a pirogue, as well as some survival skills that Girl Scouts may have glossed over. Honestly, I wasn’t much into being a sharpshooter, and I failed as an auto mechanic, but I did pay attention when my dad tried to teach me about plants.

Whenever he took me to his deer camp he’d show me a barren fence where the cold hardy passion vine (Passiflora) was supposed to grow. He collected the Louisiana Iris (Iris virginica ‘Shrevei’) from the swampy waters. I’d religiously relocate them against a fence. The plants eventually spread into the neighbor’s yard to his great displeasure.

Photo by Frank Mayfield (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo by Frank Mayfield (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Someone recently told me that you can no longer collect these plants from the wild, even though someone originally collected the plants, and planted them around the cabin to dress it up. I wanted my dad to load up on plants instead of watching my mom prepare yet another mystery dish using the ample supply of venison filling our freezer. Any good hunter builds themselves a nifty deer stand built for one. From there, you sit up as high as you can go in the Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda) of Louisiana to watch wildlife for many solitary hours.

Around the the time my father turned 50 years old, he realized he found photographing nature more rewarding than hunting. I have a couple of theories behind this late-life epiphany: doctor’s orders, one too many bouts of kidney stones from eating too much venison, or simply the neighbors filled up the giant freezer with enough venison to last a lifetime (I remember whenever anyone opened the freezer door, rock hard frozen meat would tumble forth).

I found lots of high altitude sky photographs within the trays of slides, but I have yet to find those elusive images of wildlife captured using a telephoto camera lens. I would have really liked to have seen a photo of the snake that can swim and fly, or bullfrogs so large they could be walked/hopped around using a leash, or a photograph of the rare Louisiana panther jumping from one bald cypress stump (Cupressus taxodium) to another, feasting upon juicy catfish along the way.

This holiday weekend I somehow found myself acting like my late father, watching wild animal kingdom webcams in the comfort of my own Southern California living room. Our favorite is the Dick Pritchett Real Estate SWFEC bald eagle webcam, a site monitoring a family of bald eagles situated in a 60-foot high nest. This nest is set inside a slash pine (Pinus elliotii), surrounded by what looks like a church, a busy freeway, and a back drop of  Southwest Floridian skyscrapers. The nesting bald eagles seem to be more harried by the plethora of noisy birds and swarms of flies than the continuous drone of the nearby freeway.

This particular nature webcam has attained viral popularity and national news coverage, scoring over 60 million viewers who’ve quietly enjoyed watching the treetop dramas unfold using their cell phone, laptop or internet-connected television in the middle of the night. Stationed only 6 feet away from the nest, the webcam is equipped with infrared night vision to prevent disturbing the family of eagles. The lens follows the action, moving with the family of eagles. Close-ups regularly showcase the cute white and fuzzy fledgling, and viewers take great pleasure watching the mom eagle feed her baby with fresh fish deliveries made by both parents (dad regularly takes over nesting duties while mom hunts).
img_6998 img_6999 img_7001

Watching a snoring eagle after a hard day of work is really just the cutest. My husband and I have oddly enjoyed prying in on this feathered family as they build and tend their eagle’s nest – LE026-B as defined the Florida State Monitoring Program – situated within the tall pine trees. Dressed with branches and surrounded by a layer of soft pine needles, the pair constantly clean out the nest, keeping tidy their tiny 200 square foot loft and avian nursery. A makeshift refrigerator for the rodents and fish caught by the eagles is conveniently tucked neatly to one side within the soften base of torn pine straw, with spent feathers placed to keep the flies at bay. Watching each of the parents carefully feed the fledgling is really interesting, but I have yet to figure out why the eagle uses her beak to stick her head deep into the nest. Maybe to make a window into the world below?

Of course, nature can be brutal with unexpected violence and tragedy, so if you rather have the PG-rated version for the family to watch, try one of the major news networks for a delayed transmission. In any case, you cannot help but care about the cold, harsh beauty of nature after watching these wild animals endure. It matters!

Photo by Stumpy Sad; CC-BY-SA-2.0

Creative Commons photo by Stumpy Sad; CC-BY-SA-2.0

Do you remember the story in the New York Times about Jean J. Hsu, a woman who lost her class ring down a grate? It was a rather funny tale, one documenting how Ms. Hsu navigated New York City’s labyrinth of red tape to retrieve her lost jewelry from the bowels of a busy downtown corridor.

While walking through DTLA or through the beautiful City of Glendora downtown corridor, I’ve noticed all sorts of different types of tree grates. It has a role as one of today’s favorite urban landscape features, but times are a changing. There are all sorts of stories that you can muster up about why or why not a tree grate was removed: it was stolen, the tree outgrew the space, the storefront had it removed.

Who needs a tree when extra asphalt is on hand to fill a previous tree well?

Who needs a tree when extra asphalt is on hand to fill a previous tree well? Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

I’ve noticed some sidewalks interrupted by empty square cutouts filled with compacted soil or asphalt, like the one pictured here on the right. I sometimes like to imagine buried treasure awaiting to be found underneath. But more so, I’d prefer such an empty space being occupied again with a thriving tree, one that could offer ample shade from the glaring glass curtain walls along 7th Street, provide a respite for urban birds, or offer a great spot for tourists to take a photo.

The City of Glendora’s downtown corridor – Glendora Avenue – is lined with meticulously clipped Ficus microcarpa nitida, ‘Green Gem’ (Green Gem Indian Laurel Fig) pruned into the shape of gumdrops. These trees were made famous by a commercial for Southern California’s fast food chain, Jack in the Box.

Most of the tree grates on this stretch of Glendora Avenue have been since removed, with only two tree grates remaining. The two trees surrounded by tree grates are much smaller in size than the rest of sculptured trees. Some creative tactics were taken by shopkeepers to keep the area tidy and to prevent dogs from doing their business along the double row of trunks. Now poinsettias line the boxes (just in time for the holidays!).

America is not alone in its fetish for tree grates. In Spain, I fell into a few missing tree grates spaces while admiring the beautiful architecture of the country. Let me tell you, those empty spaces once occupied by a tree grate were rather deep; their planting specs must call for a much deeper tree well than the American version!

Gumdrop trees lit up for the annual Holiday Stroll on Glendora Avenue in Glendora

Gumdrop trees lit up for the annual Holiday Stroll on Glendora Avenue in Glendora. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Maybe it is time we question why even have tree grates in the first place? Other questions floating in my head:

* Is the lack of tree care, alongside their respective tree grates, just another form of “demolition by neglect”? Perhaps, the tree grate is a much more of beautiful ornament than the tree it was originally intended for – something I have seen in NYC with their treasured and historical art deco tree grates. Maybe the expense went into buying the best of the best tree grates, but a low bid or a slashed budget made getting the best tree impossible.

* Maybe the tree and its protective tree grate are considered an annoyance now? Maybe for some people a tree might be considered a hindrance, limiting access from car to building or onto a train platform.

* Why not utilize plants around a tree rather than selecting an expensive tree grate. At a cost of approximately $2,000 a piece, these grates were designed to protect the tree’s apron of roots. But when you walk through a forest, you might observe small shrubs or perennials naturally growing around trees in the wild. Why not recreate the same natural relationship in an urban setting? It would enhance the urban landscape and provide even more natural curiosity. 

* Does every city street need to look like a New York City sidewalk?


Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

But there are some really good reasons for tree grates. First, in urban areas with a high density of people who park close to trees or walk by one, these grates keep the surrounding soil around the tree from being compacted. Besides lack of water, pests/disease, or pruning at the wrong times, compacted soil is a major reason why trees suffer in urban settings. Tree grates also shade the soil over the tree’s roots, slowing down the evaporation of the water around the tree. And in a drought like we’re experiencing now, that is a definite benefit.

Tree grates can be rather appealing aesthetically . Their ornate traditional designs are quite adaptable, coming in all sorts of shapes. Some even have lights built right into the design. Most are fabricated with metal, but maybe in the future tree grates will be printed using a 3-D printer and laser cutters, using other types of materials to add to curb appeal. What if grates were made from silicone, plastic, recycled tires, and other renewable resources like bamboo or cork? Or maybe they could light up when stepped upon. One wonders due to the fact tree grates have so long gone unchanged, their utility for tree and shrub health is now forgotten or overlooked. Perhaps tree grates need a Project Runway-style redesign representing the times of today. Or maybe it’s just time to say farewell, noting they’re a feature of yesterday?

Expanded tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora covered with Astroturf. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Expanded tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora covered with Astroturf. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Cities are already challenging themselves to use alternatives, including artificial grass, art, and pavers instead of tree grates. If you lose a piece of fine jewelry – like Jean J. Hsu’s class ring from the aforementioned story above – recovering it will be much easier when mulch, ground cover, shrubs, or artificial turf surrounds the tree. Even in Manhattan, the city now shuns using tree grates, replacing them with more advantageous methods of protecting valuable urban trees.

Well-designed tree grates permit water, air, debris, and the occasional unfortunate class ring through its grill. But the space between the tree grate and the soil should be periodically cleaned; if an excess of debris gets trapped between these sections, it can  prevent air and water from entering the basin or result in soil building up around the trunk, both causing undue harm to the tree.

A Ficus tree trunk that grew way beyond the diameter of the tree grate.

A Ficus tree trunk that grew way beyond the diameter of the tree grate. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

Most of the time when tree grates are installed, they’ll never be moved again. But occasionally a tree grow will outgrow its once spacious ring, requiring it be removed or entirely replaced. Tree roots will grows upward if there is insufficient room for it to grow outward. Everyone in Los Angeles has seen a sidewalk like this at one time or another. Unless there is an effective root barrier in place or regular root pruning, trees without enough space to grow can push a sidewalk upward, causing a hazardous feature. Occasionally the affected sidewalk area is cut out and expanded, with the tree grate removed to expose the surrounding soil to promote the tree’s health.

Professor of Environmental Horticulture Dr. Edward F. Gilman of University of Florida, Gainesville offers some excellent advice: Tree grates should be considered a short term solution lasting about 15 years. Dr. Gilman advises widening sidewalk spaces around trees, planting clusters of trees, channeling roots to grow toward soil, using alternative material around the tree and gravel as a subsurface rather than compacted soil or other types of materials. He believes planting the tree at least 2 feet away from the sidewalk is beneficial, alongside planting the tree away from the curb, or elevating the sidewalk around the plantings to give tree roots a place to grow. If the space/lot permits, Dr. Gilman believes planting trees in groups is superior to a lone specimen; trees have been observed to work together to help improve surviving the numerous challenges in an urban environment.

Tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora, filled with mulch, art, and a few small plants.

Tree well on Glendora Avenue in Glendora, filled with mulch, art, and a few small plants. Photo by Kathy Rudnyk.

It can be odd walking down the street and noticing the trunk of a single palm tree and an evergreen tree shoved into a tree grate. It seems a better idea to plant a natural buffer of spiky-looking plants to help encourage pedestrians to walk around rather than over the space. Consider working deterrents like Dietes ‘NoLa’ (Katrina™ African Iris) or Dianella ‘DR5000’ (Little Rev Flax Lily). 7th Street in Downtown Los Angeles on 7th Street is ripe for such a display of plants and trees living harmoniously together. The streetscape already offers a wide sidewalk, with exposed brickwork that could be quickly refilled with trees and shrubs. More could be done to create a beautiful, urban enriching botanical buffer, just ripe for pollinators. I suspect that property values would also rise, and such urban flora would encourage more people to traverse on the plant-lined side of the street versus the opposite lined with brightly lit stores. Already I’ve noticed traveling on the side of the street with Whole Foods because I’m naturally drawn to their lovely basins filled with trees and Dietes ‘NoLa’ (Katrina™ African Iris), contrasting the bleak parking garage across the street devoid of any plantings.

Tree grates are amazing urban accessories, but a landscaping tool due for a change. I am sure landscape and urban designers can find great uses for tree grates, as well as exploring what we can do to make our shrinking urban planting spaces last longer than ever by incorporating plants, trees, shrubs, art, rainwater runoff, and most importantly, our imaginations. Just remember, the next time you see a tree grate, somewhere underneath may be a ring that will never again reunite with its rightful owner. All I know is I’m not sure who I would call if my ring fell through a tree grate here in Downtown Los Angeles…