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The Dry Garden: North East Trees' quiet greening of L.A.

July 8, 2011 | 10:33 am

NorthEast-GlendaleSchematic.2
Unless you are active in the field of urban greening, you probably haven’t heard of North East Trees.

Unlike the better known TreePeople, North East Trees has not seen its founder land on "The Tonight Show."

Rather, the nonprofit that Scott Wilson started in 1989 by planting 700 oaks at Occidental College in Los Angeles' community of Eagle Rock has quietly been planting many more trees (50,000 at last count), working with low-income communities to create parks, and partnering with city and county agencies on water-harvesting projects. North East Trees has been at the cutting edge of L.A.’s ecological makeover.

NorthEast-Wilson As Wilson sees it, what sets North East Trees apart is that he was a landscape architect when the group started. He built a staff of foresters, designers and educators with the goal of strategic greening, going far beyond planting a tree streetside and hoping that it lived.

“It’s not about how many trees you plant,” said Wilson, right, during a brief meeting last week in the courtyard of the Department of Public Works in Alhambra (more on that later). “It’s about the right tree in the right place and about how many of those trees live.”

NorthEast-Guardian Many of the 35 parks and street plantings done by North East Trees are along the Los Angeles River. Wilson's group is working on the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk, a half-mile pedestrian and bike trail near Griffith Park (a portion is shown at the top of the post). Perhaps you’ve noticed the "Guardians of the River" gate, right, a 1999 North East Trees project by artist Michael Amescua.

And so it goes with another nine mini-parks dotting the banks of the river as it passes Atwater Village, Silver Lake and Glassell Park to downtown.

Last week, this trail of good works led me to the offices of North East Trees in the River Center and Gardens in Cypress Park, where I asked staff members to describe not only their successes but also their failures. In the case of a 20-acre natural area at the Rio de Los Angeles State Park, which had been a remnant of a railroad switching yard in the industrial badlands between Mount Washington and Silver Lake, they experienced both.

NorthEastTrees-staff The group (pictured here, from left, Vivian Shu, Simran Sikand, Tom Dwyer, Kathleen McKernin, Theresa Rossoff and June Scott) made much of the cooperation between community groups, environmentalists, the state and the city of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. Yet the victory isn't complete. Restoring native habitat is hard. After North East Trees worked on replacing exotic plants with native ones in park wetlands, there was no effective long-term plan for maintenance.

“At the end of two years, the park looked fantastic,” said North East Trees designer and arborist Theresa Rossoff. “Then our contract ran out, and within six months, it was looking really bad.” 

Staff members wonder whether one of the companies involved in the project failed to use the prescribed herbicide to take out dormant weed seeds, but they are also combating seeds that blow in from neighboring areas. The most problematic ones are Bermuda grass and star thistle.

Proposition O money, the product of a bond voted by Los Angeles in 2004 to clean storm water entering our waterways and the Pacific, helped the group to create its first L.A. “green street” in 2007. The group replumbed Oros Street in Elysian Valley to capture storm water and use it to irrigate streetside gardens. (That's the "before" photo, below left, and "after.")

NorthEast-orosbefore NorthEast-Orosafter North East Trees landscape architect Kathleen McKernin is working with city partners on a massive rain-banking system beneath Garvanza Park in Highland Park. She smiles at the learning curve for city inspectors. “They come to the park and say, ‘This is not how we do it.’ And we say, ‘That’s right. We’re doing it differently.’”

Scott Wilson named his nonprofit North East Trees because he’s from Eagle Rock. However, if you live west of downtown, say near Baldwin Hills, you may see these crews working on La Brea Avenue installing new gateways for Kenneth Hahn Park, pictured below. The arroyo designed to infiltrate rain water? Theirs.

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North East Trees designs and builds its projects. It also hires local labor, mainly 18- to 24-year-olds, as landscapers and arborists.

In 2004, 65 of the oaks and sycamores that Scott Wilson planted at Oxy were ripped out because they stood on buildable land. He was at Public Works last week to protest the ripping out of more oaks, this time in Arcadia.

Throughout the greater L.A. region, trees need all the help they can get.

-- Emily Green

Corrected: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the Department of Recreation and Parks as the Department of Parks and Recreation. 

Photo credits: The Scott Wilson and North East Trees staff photographs are by Emily Green. All other photographs and the illustration are from North East Trees.

Green's column on sustainable landscaping appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

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-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable landscaping appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Scott Wilson and North East Trees staff photos: Emily Green. All other photos and illustration: North East Trees

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