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50 lawns across L.A. have been transformed into native plant sanctuaries, thanks to artist Fritz Haeg

Story by Emily Ho, photographs by Gregory Han

Walking down the street in Lincoln Heights, it isn’t hard to spot Site #44. It’s the house with a lively rainbow of yellow, pink, orange, and blue flowers in the front yard, the one that children stop to marvel at, and that has attracted a thriving new community of birds and bees. Standing out amongst the Tidy Tips and Clarkias is an official-looking brown sign reminiscent of those you’d see at city and state parks: WILDFLOWERING L.A.

Not long ago this blooming paradise was a regular grass-covered lawn. Then, in November of last year, new homeowners Jen Mandel and Timothy Wager embarked on a project simultaneously occurring at 49 other sites around Los Angeles. Across the county people ripped out lawns, planted seeds, put up signs, and became part Wildflowering L.A., artist Fritz Haeg‘s initiative to bring back some of L.A.’s seasonal native landscape.

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As Haeg explained on de LaB’s recent tour of two Wildflowering L.A. sites, “This project represents my decision to focus on Los Angeles in the next chapter of my work. When I was thinking about the project, I was amazed to find out that 100 years ago someone else was distressed at the degree of urbanization and the loss of landscape here.”

This someone was landscape architect Theodore Payne. “Payne would take walks and gather wildflower seeds. He encouraged property owners of vacant lots in Hollywood and Pasadena to plant his seed mixes, showing others what the true landscape of L.A. looks like,” Haeg said. “When LAND [Los Angeles Nomadic Division] approached me about doing work in the city, I thought about this history and the Theodore Payne Foundation and the work they are doing with plants.”

In partnership with LAND and the Theodore Payne Foundation, Haeg put out a call to the public, inviting those with publicly visible land between 500 and 2000 square feet to apply. Owners of the 50 chosen sites received a seed mix and attended workshops to learn how to sow and care for wildflowers. The seed mixes were evolutions of those created by Thomas Payne and also inspired by Reyner Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. “Depending on the site, we prescribed a seed mix based on their location: Coastal, Flatlands, Hillside, and Roadside,” said Haeg.

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Each site also received a numbered sign designed by Roman Jaster and fabricated by Knowhow Shop. “The signs are the most important design element of the project,” said Haeg. “They look like a state park sign and that’s the whole point. When you see them, you have this subconscious trigger like, ‘Oh, something precious and important is worth paying attention to in the landscape here.'”

The signs were particularly important during the time between sowing, in November, and when the plants started to come up in spring. “There was a great deal of puzzlement about the fact that we pulled out a perfectly good lawn,” said Wager of Site #44. “People thought were were foolish, especially when it was just a patch of dirt. Now a lot of people stop and say how pretty it is. The kids especially love stopping and we put out a pamphlet so they could learn more about the flowers and see that this is something they could do themselves.”

Of course, getting the wildflowers to grow was not as simple as planting the seeds and waiting. In a record drought year, watering was necessary and frequent in the beginning. “The sad story of the project is that people had to water these native plants, or they wouldn’t come up. In some ways you could think of this as the worst possible year to do our project,” said Haeg. “But I think we’re also all very conscious of our landscape, water, and climate and what grows here and doesn’t grow here.”

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Genny Arnold, Seed Program Manager at the Theodore Payne Foundation, explained further. “The soil and the seeds need to be kept consistently moist to germinate. After a few inches of growth, you can back off and water as needed. The idea is that people will have to water less and less each year. Wildflowers can become more tenacious and may even pop up without watering.”

In addition to the flowers, the homeowners are now seeing animals appear, too. “After the flowers bloomed, it has been unbelievable,” said Mandel of Site #44. “You wake up in the morning, the sun starts shining on the flowers, there are bees everywhere, there are birds — super colorful ones I’ve never seen before. It’s been exciting to see this beautiful meadow in our front yard.” Wager recently witnessed a hawk swoop down upon a songbird in the yard, further illustrating the new little ecosystem that has formed.

Andy Wilcox has seen a similar increase in wildlife as well as people. Wilcox is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona and has Wildflowering L.A. sites at the university (Site #37) and his home in Eagle Rock (Site #38). “At Cal Poly Pomona we had a 2,000-square foot of patch of turf that had been there for 40 years and never really got used,” said Wilcox. “Now we get people stopping by every day saying it’s the most interesting thing to happen on campus. People just sit and watch the butterflies and birds. The biology department is there doing an urban pollinator study. I even saw field mice the other day. This has also brought attention to importance of social space on campus.”

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By now most of the sites have already peaked or are currently peaking. “As we go into summer, everything will turn brown and go to seed,” said Arnold. “Some people might want to deadhead or cut the flowers because they are no longer colorful, but there are two reasons to leave them. One, the wind will disperse the seed for you and you can get more flowers next year.”

“Another reason is that birds will consume the seeds. If we deadhead, we take away the food within the habitat that we’ve provided. I’ll let my wildflowers go until mid-summer, and then when fire season comes and there are no more seeds, I’ll up pull the brown stalks. Planting a mix of annuals and perennials can also ensure that you will have an interesting and not totally brown garden.”

Haeg described Wildflowering L.A. as a “living, alive, ephemeral project” with a sense of discovery as participants noticed where and when different flowers popped up at each site throughout the county. (Or didn’t grow at all, as in the case of one contaminated site in an industrial part of L.A.) “This project officially ends in June, but it can be a gateway to showing people other things you can do with your lawn besides grass. And compared to most gardens, wildflowers are really easy.”

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Members of the public can visit the 50 sites in person or online through Wildflowering L.A.’s interactive, continually updated website. The website also has resources such as a North East L.A. biking tour map and descriptions of the four seed mixes. A culminating exhibition with installations, family activities, music, and conversations was presented April 26 and 27 at THE SHED in Pasadena.

See more photos from the event here.

Emily Han is a writer, recipe developer, and educator on topics such as seasonal and local food, wildcrafting, and nature awareness. She is a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and Food Swap Network.

Gregory Han is a Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips. He is Tech Editor at Design Milk & Special Contributing Editor at The Wirecutter.

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This is the fifth event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.