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The Dry Garden: At lawn-loving UCLA, a small yet seismic shift in the landscape

June 4, 2010 |  9:30 am

LAndregan_Sitting

Nobody ever said that doing the right thing was easy. Students in UCLA Extension’s landscape architecture and horticulture program now learn this before leaving with a certificate. “All of our advanced design classes used to be make-believe,” said Stephanie Landregan, appointed program director two years ago. “Now every one of our advanced classes is involved with the community. Every one of our students has real projects and reality checks. The big ideas get tested.”

Just such a test happened in November, when an undergraduate from UCLA’s environmental science department contacted Landregan wanting to know how his class might introduce a water-efficient landscape somewhere on the 400-plus-acre campus. Landregan partnered his class with a group of her graduate extension students, and the team soon learned that although UCLA might teach environmental ideals, facilities managers practice something else entirely. Every inch of waterlogged sod, every rose bed, was sacrosanct, she said.

Landregan_AgaveBefore UCLA boosters bristle, I'll add that hypocrisy is hardly unique to Bruin culture. It is ingrained in institutions across Los Angeles, be it City Hall, the Department of Water and Power, the Los Angeles Unified School District or the county and city parks departments. All preach water and energy conservation, but all tend their own premises like climate-change deniers.

Progress toward more sustainable practices is excruciatingly slow. After seven months and five plans, Landregan's students have indeed installed a dry garden in the tangle of green that is the UCLA campus. In the closing weeks of May, a tiny strip of the campus border at the intersection of Wynton and Hilgard avenues was newly planted with water-efficient copper pinwheels, fox tail agave and blue fescue.

The dimensions of the new garden, about 15 by 40 feet, are small by domestic standards, never mind institutional ones. As if aware that the new planting might be seen as trivial, even depressing, Landregan arrived to a site meeting carrying a roll of student drawings that recounted a series of design defeats. An early, slightly larger iteration of the plan that would have taken out a ficus mangled by campus tree crews was nixed. Accent boulders called for by the students didn’t make it off the drawing board. Neither did the flax, sage or kangaroo paws. The students not only fought for this patch, she said, “they did it for free, all on their own time.”

Spend time with this pixie-like 60-year-old and one can understand why her students busted a gut for free. Landregan is a hope monger. Hear her story and anything seems possible. Landregan trained in the arts and only took up landscaping in midlife by taking the UCLA program herself, which she completed over four years while working a full-time job.

Landregan_HawkinsFramed After graduating from the UCLA program in her 40s, she served as chief landscape architect for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, during which time she took a lead role in creation of the Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park.

Landregan_HawkinsParent Enter this 8-acre park and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Pasadena. Grassy reception areas surrounding a Craftsman-style learning center give way to a cactus garden and wetlands. An amphitheater's seats are covered by mosaics made by local children. Recent budget cutbacks showed in the dormant state of a vegetable garden, but the total impression was of a park that is thriving. Families lolled over picnics. Fathers bounced babies. Little girls chased through a cactus garden whose plants were donated by the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Landregan_HawkinsCactusThe spaces around the entry were but a portal. Soon the park ended and wild lands began, intersected by paths where older children reconnoitered and lovers canoodled. The sense of mystery was enhanced because of the hilly terrain. (The parks bluffs were built out of soil trucked in from Pacific Coast Highway mudslides.)

After emerging from the oaks and sage, Landregan asked two children careering around the grassy areas on bikes what they liked best about the park. “We like nature,” said one.

“Cool,” said Landregan.

After working on the Hawkins park, Landregan’s other projects with the conservancy included one of the state’s first large-scale uses of porous concrete in a water-trapping project for the gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Since taking over the directorship of UCLA’s landscape program, she also has consulted with the Los Angeles Department of Public Works on a low-impact development ordinance, which may become law this year.

Landregan drove off in her dirty white Prius after leading the Hawkins park tour, and it was impossible not to rethink the import of the new water-wise patch done by her students. It may be but a postage stamp on the outsize envelope of UCLA, but suddenly this student project didn’t look puny. It didn’t look puny at all.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday.

CORRECTED: An earlier version of this post implied that Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park is in Compton. The park is in a South Los Angeles neighborhood that The Times classifies as the Central-Alameda, about five miles north of Compton.

Photo credit: Emily Green

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