How a Los Angeles Landscape Architecture Firm Is Reclaiming a Hillside for Native Plants

Terremoto is spearheading an experimental grassroots project to transform a neglected patch of public land with native species.
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An act of radical ecology is taking place on a hillside in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. In an ongoing project called Test Plot, landscape architecture firm Terremoto is working with the community to rehabilitate patches of a landscape whose ecosystem is being choked by invasive species. The key is replacing them with native plants. "If you look outside the circle, almost everything you see is non-native to the area," says David Godshall, cofounder of Terremoto.

Co-led by Terremoto’s Jenny Jones and Jen Toy of USC, and in collaboration with Saturate California, Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, and many weed-pulling volunteers, the project is now three years in, and that much closer to a beautifully replanted park we can all enjoy. Godshall spoke with Dwell about transforming the landscape, the benefits and challenges of native plants, and the pleasures of tending your own garden.

At Test Plot in Elysian Park, Los Angeles, Terremoto is rewilding the hillside using native plants, which nurture a more robust ecosystem and greater biodiversity. The scale of the plot was determined by the reach of the sprinkler.

Dwell: Many of your projects are residential. How did you decide to devote energy to this ailing public landscape?

Godshall: Half our office lives in Echo Park nearby, and we’ve always daydreamed of turning around Elysian Park, which we saw as ecologically woeful. In 2019, the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks nervously granted us permission to create four temporary plots. 

Where did the invasive species come from?

A lot of these plants are remnants of European colonization. People came and brought their agricultural tools. And then in California, these things just ran rampant.

What are the biggest challenges in turning the landscape around?

At the beginning, it was getting the weeds under control. Native plants need an opportunity to establish themselves before they can outcompete weeds. A team of volunteers has helped us manage the weed pressure over the span of three years, allowing us to plant monolithically with California natives like sticky monkey-flower, black sage, and Heucheras. The goal is for the native plants to begin to self-propagate and renew the cycle themselves.

How’s the landscape doing?

It’s still an ecosystem in disrepair, but we’re trying to help it out. The native black walnuts, elderberry, lemonade berry, California pepper tree, and toyon around us along the north-facing slope are all healthy. Introduced species, like the eucalyptus, are suffering.

Should we all be planting strictly native species in our own gardens?

I’m not puritanical. Terremoto’s gardens are about 70 percent California native species, but we also use regionally appropriate plants. I’m a big fan of Australian plants because they can adapt to our seasons and are drought tolerant. But when you are planting native species, get ready to weed hard for the first three or four years to allow them to become established. After that, they’ll ease into low maintenance.

Terremoto’s David Godshall works with a team of colleagues and volunteers to rehabilitate Elysian Park by clearing out invasive species and weeds.

Why not just hire a gardener instead of doing it yourself?

I’m not anti-gardener, but when people wholly outsource their land care, they can become disconnected from it. One of the best signs of success in the gardens we do is when the client becomes a gardener. Then they are taking care of it and it becomes theirs.

Is there a "wrong" kind of landscape to have at home?

I think people intuitively know now that having a grass lawn and foundation shrubbery is inappropriate. Sometimes it’s hard to drive around and see how consumptive gardens can be, with water and fertilizer. But it’s a big leap to move away from the conventional suburban lawn. That’s why I’m ok with creating gardens that are only 60 or 70 percent native. Citruses, for example, aren’t native, but I have a couple at home. And there is nothing better than grabbing a lemon from your tree.

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