Since you asked

Posted on | April 18, 2010 | 11 Comments

Interviewing Richard Schulhof should have been simple, a rote exercise of announcing that the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden has a new Chief Executive Officer, imparting a few quotes as to his plans, then wrapping it up with a time-will-tell remark. That’s the approach that I took six years ago, when the last CEO arrived.

It was about as successful as the last CEO, who in 2008 left the place much as he found it — an Arcadia picnic ground full of exotic plants and free-ranging peafowl.

The recent decision to interview the Titanic’s, excuse me, the Arboretum’s new CEO was a reluctant one. In fact, it was made only after Schulhof gamely responded to a dismissive reference on this site to the effect that the Arboretum’s 127 acres are a monument to the gardenesque philosophy that is draining our water supply.

“I thank you for throwing the gauntlet!” Schulhof wrote back in February. “We look forward to enriching those picnics with peacocks, and are making steady progress with new programs focused on permaculture, and the best of adapted plants for Southern California.”

I don’t recall having said anything about the want of permaculture programs, but he invited me out there, I went, and, last week, the resulting interview appeared in my column in the Los Angeles Times. It being an interview, it was fitting that he did most of the talking. He has nice ideas, which I hope were recounted respectfully. But since one of the things that he emphasized was that he is in listening mode, it would be remiss not to thank him by also giving him an earful.

As for the emerging permaculture program, it was all very nice to be shown a strange little corner with burrows, berms and folklorique cordage, but my criticisms weren’t about failure of the Arboretum to let hippies have a patch in which to play in the dirt. They were about water.

Crisis is upon us. During the six years that it took the Arboretum to chew up and spit out its last CEO, shortage has gripped all three of our main water sources, cutting supplies from the Colorado River, San Francisco Bay-Delta and Owens Valley.

Meanwhile, greater Los Angeles has been burning through its reserve water supply at such an alarming rate that it has the unhappy distinction of featuring in National Geographic’s April issue dedicated to international water disaster hotspots.

Our squandering of emergency reserves is in no small part down to the region’s utterly inappropriate landscaping, the tone of which was set (pre-Schulhof) by the Arboretum. Roughly half of our water consumption occurs out of doors.

If the Arboretum is to be part of a solution, instead of a driver of the problem, it must revisit its mission statement. Whatever “our mission is to cultivate our natural, horticultural and historic resources for learning, enjoyment and inspiration” means, the successive statement needs more than a pass through spell check. “We strive to reflect Southern California’s distinct climate, community and opennes [sic] to new ideas.”

Here’s an idea. Wake up.

While the impending water crisis is so acute that the region’s water suppliers are  paying residents to rip out lawn, the Arboretum is leaving the challenge of coming up with new landscape models to non-profits and activists such as our local watershed council, native plant society, TreePeople, Northeast Trees, the Theodore Payne Foundation, Heal the Bay and Greywater Guerrillas.

This is not to condemn the Arb’s nice, oh so nice, current approach to education. Why not teach botanical drawing and gentle exercise for seniors? Bend away! Draw that calla lily! Let the hippies dig in their corner. Make your meadow. Do a Korean garden (great idea). But don’t ask us to believe this is all you can do as we are imploding under the weight of our fresh water budget and the Pacific is dying from run-off of the pesticide and fertilizer-enhanced irrigation that we spill.

Think big.

Some suggestions:

1. Given your county connection, think of public solutions for public places. Do for landscaping principles what you did for plants. Test them. Address turf substitutes for medians, parkways and every odd irrigated corner whose sprinklers fill our gutters with dry season run-off.

While we clearly need trees to counteract urban heat island effect, do we really need herbaceous ground-covers around them on medians and parkways? What benefit do they confer other than drawing pollinators into traffic and costing local governments a fortune in watering, mowing and maintenance?

Don’t have a conference on how others should do this, then send confused attendees on their way. Build small scale models of alternatives at the Arboretum. Offer clear breakdowns of construction costs juxtaposed to the water and maintenance savings that they would confer over time. Then hold the conference. Involve municipal facilities staff, not designers. Call in the actual workers who take care of these forlorn patches lining our streets and institutions, involve them, get them so excited that they ignite.

2. Create a greywater garden where Arboretum visitors can see for themselves what plants thrive on reclaimed water and see how to install simple grey water systems, either at institutions or at home.

3. Create sample rain water-trapping demonstration gardens, then offer expert advice on how they can be adapted for homes, schools and public institutions.

4. Work with the county and local cities to change out their existing public gardens and parks for new ones that promote a conservation ethos. Even City Hall and the substations of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are surrounded by turf. This existing approach is the horticultural equivalent of smoking a cigarette while urging others to quit. To change it, you have to quit yourself. Demand ideas for a new, appropriate landscaping vernacular. Then develop small gardens at the Arboretum where you test the best schemes. Then popularize the ones that work.

5. Get involved with the Facilities department of the Los Angeles Unified  School District. The second-largest school district in the country has more than 700 campuses that waste amazing amounts of water on unlikely, badly managed blobs of green while still coming across as such prisons that nobody who could afford otherwise would want to teach there, never mind enroll their kid.

6. Stop imagining that conservation is the remit of somebody else. It’s down to all of us, the most powerful first. Every public institution must become a flagship for it, or we’re all gong to become emblems of waste.

7. Stop whining about the ravages of Proposition 13. It may have been foolhardy but more than 30 years later, your inertia is to blame, not a stupid initiative. Set goals of savings of 20% of water every year for 10 years. We waste so much that this is actually achievable. Do it and let us copy you. The money that you save on water and maintenance should pay for your program and more.

You’re a nice man, Richard Schulhof. You’re smart. You’re optimistic. You’re new. And, not to put too much pressure on you, if you fail, we all do. So don’t fuck it up.

* This post has been updated. Links have been added.


11 Responses to “Since you asked”

  1. Owen Dell, ASLA
    April 18th, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    Woo-hoo! Yes! You tell it. I wholeheartedly concur and I shall look forward to the response to your strong and much-needed words. Let’s hope that response includes meaningful changes to all of the many dysfunctional landscapes of Los Angeles. It’s way past time. Thank you, Emily, for stepping up to the plate.

  2. Grace Phillips
    April 18th, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    I would second that emotion. I spend my days ripping out little bit of lawn by little bit of lawn, having to talk till I am blue in the face to get homeowners to be the first on their block to be – gasp – lawn-free in their front yard. It is an uphill battle and I often can’t get them to see the sense – they are too wedded to the idea of Los Angeles as the West Coast’s grassy Cleveland.

    I encourage people to go see new, important, relevant landscaping – like Garden Garden in Santa Monica. I never ever ever tell people to go to the Arboretum. It’s not worth it. In fact, it would completely undercut my argument that we have to change our outdoor habits. I would love nothing more than to have a large-scale showcase where we could show what works – to not only home owners, but school and city maintenance crews.

    Right now I visit the Arboretum once every few years – it’s a nice place to have a picnic and see some flowers when relatives come to town.

    If the Arboretum became the top-tier showcase for relevant design, you would see me there weekly. With anyone and everyone I could bring with me.

  3. Ilsa Setziol
    April 18th, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    Yes, yes, yes it would be great to see the Arb blaze the trail.

    And certainly there should be more native plants in this garden.

    I take a small exception to the characterization of their classes. I’ve attended many highly relevant classes at the Arb–none of them calisthenic.
    Ever speaker in Lili Singer’s class is held accountable for the foot print of their recommendations.And, of course, there are some fine short-haired practitioners of permaculture.

    As to lawns, as we ask people to yank their private lawns, perhaps public spaces are one place they’re justified? Especially if they’re irrigated with reclaimed water.

  4. Ilsa Setziol
    April 18th, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    Oh, but I’d love to know how much water they’re using and how it compares with other botanical gardens! How much is reclaimed? I don’t think any water at the Huntington is. Not to mention that I’ve seen that garden watering lawn at noon on a hot day. Which was explained to me as the result of limitation in their irrigation system. Apparently less important than building that new fortress in the new Chinese garden. But I digress.
    What’s the water budget per acre at Rancho Santa Ana?

  5. EmilyGreen
    April 19th, 2010 @ 7:59 am

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. The Arboretum needs new ideas and I believe Schulhof when he says he is seeking them.

    Whatever anyone’s ideas about what the Arb could be doing are, now is the moment to speak up. The place has been lagging behind the times for too long. We can’t afford to have our horticultural beacon be a monument to the past. And we can’t give it a pass on the fact that most public landscaping in Los Angeles is an expensive, bedraggled failure. lf the Arboretum isn’t responsible for the ideas that led to this, then who is?

    Ilsa, of course there is Lili, who has for decades been doing singlehandedly what every horticultural organization worth the name should have been doing. Thanks for emphasizing that.

    Lawns in public spaces are certainly legitimate, but again we have the problem of do as I say, not as I do. Until the Arboretum gives us meaningful alternatives for front yards, medians and parkways, it is part of the problem.

    Comparing the Arboretum to the Huntington doesn’t make sense to me. The Huntington is a model of excess, but it is not a county facility with the connections to affect county legislation. If every time we ask public institutions to become more efficient we allowed the defense, Ah, yes but X private superrich neighbors wastes more, we’d never get anything done.

    Good question about whether the Arb uses reclaimed water. If it does, it should be popularizing that for every city and organization within the county of Los Angeles.

    Schulhof stressed how impressed he was by the younger generation coming in and making gardens. I am too, but upon reflection, it’s not necessarily that there weren’t hip gardeners doing different things all along, but that the Arb wasn’t reflecting them. Suzanne Jett is by no means young, but her superb Garden/garden in Santa Monica should be at the Arboretum. The annual garden show repeats exhibits by the same predictable designers. Where is the variety? Where’s Robert Perry? It’s not an age thing, it’s that the Arb has been run in too clubbable a way, and dominated by self-publicists. There’s no excuse for the same designer appearing twice at a garden show exhibit. I could go on and on and on. This is exciting, but it’s also scary, because for Schulhof to succeed, we have to get in behind him and take the place over with him. I’m not sure that force exists. We’re too used to shrugging the place off as a bastion to fuddy-duddiness. We can’t allow him to fail.

  6. Wynne Wilson
    April 19th, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    I have a very simple question for Mr. Schulhof: WHY NOT?

    Why not create one of the most important, pertinent, and beautiful arboretums in our state? Water wise gardens still have beautiful flowers and green areas. It is simply how the garden is laid out, water is managed, and which plant choices are made.

    Why not illustrate water saving means in a state that is penalizing water customers if they use too much water?
    The City of Los Angeles is already supporting homeowners who utilize water reclamation and conservation on site. Show people how! They are very interested.

    Why not share water wise planting ideas and have more educational interests for a city whose population is desperately asking for it? This includes ALL generations.

    These are not difficult, radical changes, just design challenges that will exist in any reworking of the Arboretum’s design. Now is the time to get to work and do it in a manner that supports all of us.
    Why not go in this direction?

    If Mr. Schulhof has the ability, foresight, and determination to succeed in a sustainable direction, I have not doubt that if he builds it, they will come.

  7. Diana B
    April 19th, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    And, by all means, contact Northeast Trees, specifically Scott Wilson, who has forgotten more about rainwater capture systems than anybody else will ever know. It works at a local elementary school, so there’s no reason at all it can’t work at the Arboretum!

  8. Drew Ready
    April 19th, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    Thanks Emily.

    There is so much to love about the arboretum. I still have a major penchant for some tropicals. The new Epiphyllum/Rhipsalis shadehouse, the tropical greenhouse and the “tropical bowl”, a little known spot up on the hill where some unusual things grow, are always a frequent stop for me. It’s in those spaces where I am taken by the exotic (those native to somewhere else) and especially when staff and docents like my father, share stories about how the plants fit into their own far off native ecosystems. Like many others though, I’ve long since given up creating similar spaces in and around my home. It wasn’t just ethics and water, it was a ton of work.

    No doubt there is more the arboretum could be doing and not just on water use efficiency. I’ve been after them for years about restoring the amazing remnant Engelmann oak grove up on Tallac Knoll. They could wind a raised pathway through there; what an opportunity to teach young and old about the wonders of oak woodland ecology. School kids could grow and outplant seedlings in the understory – the curriculum potential is beyond exciting. They have lost some trees in recent years and there is little if any natural recruitment.

    I was surprised a few years back when the display cases and panels were taken out of the drought tolerant, Mediterranean garden. Though dated they did spell out the problem and hint at some of the efficient irrigation and plant material solutions. I tried to reconnect staff with a source of grant money to reinstall and update the displays to no avail. This little garden is now out-wowed by the desert and Madagascar displays and without signage, people have even less invitation to visit.

    I’ve talked with staff about this and other issues of sustainability on the grounds recently and they’ve shared some work they have quietly accomplished towards these ends. Money and lack of staffing does play a significant stifling role; if the rumor is true, imagine what could be done if the County simply let the arboretum keep the majority of the film location fees -large test plots for drought tolerant turf varieties, efficient irrigation demonstrations, invasive species education, native plant gardens, oh and while they’re at it why not a Center for Sustainable Landscapes!

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long. Thanks again for this piece, I can’t help but think that at your urging and with this light that you’ve shed, sustainability will play a larger role in their endeavors.


  9. Drew Ready
    April 19th, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Here are the fixed links to the aerials.

    Mediterranean Garden:

    Engelmann Oak Grove

  10. Marilee Kuhlmann
    April 20th, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    Thanks as always Emily,great discussion so far.

    Here’s some info and ideas:

    The idea of turning the Arboretum into the Los Angeles local resource for information about and experience with the plant communities native to our part of the world is very exciting.

    The big objective could be to transform the existing “landscaping” (parking lots, walkways, entrance, lawn, and gathering areas) into truly native Los Angeles gardens — there are several micro-climates so it wouldn’t be difficult to show all of the plant communities in our area. The existing native garden would simply be expanded to include all of the common areas and landscaped areas that are not devoted to specific collections or demonstrations.

    Not an easy task, and would cost a lot of money, but presents an opportunity to bring the community (not just landscape profs, but local businesses, cities, and water agencies too) into the discussion of using the re-building of these landscaped areas as demonstration projects. And the demonstration could be viewed as a classroom providing hands-on experience designing, building,and maintaining such areas organically. Funding could come from unlikely sources outside of the Arboretum’s direct surroundings. Non-profit organizations might be able to provide labor and/or technical expertise and materials.

    We see this as a natural place to train Green Gardeners, unions, CLCA, architects, designers, and homeowners.

    Time for the sacred cow great lawn to be reduced and re-envisioned as native turf or other near native turf-substitute landscaping. No reason that the functionalist can’t remain the same — just the aesthetics of swaths of something other than turf, removed without chemicals, properly irrigated with low-flow irrigation, maintained with compost tea. Such an endeavor would fuel classes on turf removal for months!

    The water budget and designed water use for each of the landscaped and collections /demonstration areas should be calculated and clearly indicated in signage and brochures. This is an Arboretum of the 21st century – not a relic of the Victorian age. The water and resource consumption of the gardens will inspire others to learn about and adopt what they experience at the Arboretum.

  11. Jessica Hall
    April 21st, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    I sound like such a slouch compared to so many of you. I haven’t been to the arboretum since I had to go there for a sketching class years ago. And sure enough, I drew a palm tree arching towards the pond of Fantasy Island fame. That’s a tough legacy to live down, and while the Arb serves as a botanical resource for many people with a specific passion for plants, I think it is for many more a really nice park. The kind of gracious park parks used to be before we were mandated to cram exercise equipment, fenced off playing fields, and prison-quality furnishings into them (yes, that’s a little bit of a Prop 13 rant). But the Arb is a uniquely LA animal too in that it, like many fine LA institutions, is largely inaccessible via public transit. So it remains mostly terra incognita to me, as I gotta have a really compelling reason to drive +1 hour and it’s not to hang out on a lawn (admittedly the peacocks raise the ante a bit, it’s the Fantasy Island thing, but still hmmm, no).

    I second the ideas – go native, go reclaimed and greywater, is there a buried stream on the property (1906 map shows a lake fed by two fingerlet creeks – is this a dammed drainage, a natural sump, a spot, like so many in the San Gabriel basin where the groundwater pushed up to the surface)? Herald the new ethos, work with the natural processes of the land. But at the end of the day, I think it also needs to continue to hold the legacy of the stately park of the past, so we don’t get too used to the idea that the butchery we see in so many LA City parks is the way it has to be.

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