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Imagining a Network of Native Plant Nurseries for the L.A. River

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Image: Grown in L.A./Mia Lehrer + Associates

One key feature in every Los Angeles River-adjacent project is the use of native plants. It's a good feature, but hardly anyone ever stops to wonder, "Where does Los Angeles get all those plants?" It turns out, sometimes those native plants are shipped from San Diego, or even as far as Oregon. It's native, in a sense, but not really.

"We need to be creating a viable, native source, locally collected native plant material intead of farming it out to these other areas," says Kat Superfisky, a project designer for Mia Lehrer + Associates.

Los Angeles has ambitious plans to restore an eleven-mile stretch of its previously neglected waterway, plus many more water conserving projects are coming online in a city gripped with drought. A key feature in all of these are native plants, which are quickly dwindling in supply, an issue we've covered previously.

Now, a widespread collaborative of federal and state agencies, non-profits, and private firms have come together to solve the Los Angeles Rivers' native plant supply problem, in an initiative called Grown in L.A.

"The current native plant yield at nurseries around L.A. is far below what will be needed for these types of River restoration projects, as well as all the water-wise initiatives being promoted, such as turf removal," says Superfisky. She says that a simple back of the envelope calculation revealed that the city would need millions of plant material just to meet the demands of projects on the books right now -- trails, parks, United States Army Corps of Engineers projects. If one includes all the water projects that will soon be introduced, that number could balloon up to the billions. "We really need to start planning and working on this now."

Grown in L.A. is a network of native plant nurseries and storage areas around the Los Angeles River watershed. Not only that, but Superfisky says that Grown in L.A. is meant to be much more than just a nursery. "It's not just about seed collection and propagation. It's looking at all the ways we can transform and reshape L.A. by using the mechanism of growing plants in the meantime."

She outlines a closed loop system for Grown in L.A., where the nurseries make use of underutilized, vacant, or privately-owned land all around the city. Aside from growing from the ground, Grown in L.A. also hopes to build communities by educating people through public programming, as well as building green job opportunities in nursery operations and seed collection. The collaborative is exploring training the homeless and veterans in these green skills. "It's a pretty complex project with a lot of initiatives," says Superfisky.

By growing truly native plants in the watershed, Grown in L.A. is adding to the urban biodiversity, which is a great benefit. Not only will the initiative be working with K-12 institutions, but also research institutions. "It's really this full circle approach," says Superfisky. "We're thinking about transforming our environment, but also really actually working with our social and economic systems to transform Los Angeles as well."

Grown in L.A. involves many agencies including the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, California State Parks, Council for Watershed Health, and Mia Lehrer + Associates. The collaboration is continually looking to add more to their ranks, realizing that it would take a broad coalition to get the initiative off the ground.

Image: Grown in L.A./Mia Lehrer + Associates
Image: Grown in L.A./Mia Lehrer + Associates

The wheels are already turning on the initiative. Superfisky reports that Grown in L.A. is already in talks to open up nurseries in four locations. Griffith Park Commonwealth Nursery is a 1920s relic nursery that Grown in L.A. is looking to re-activate along with the Los Angeles Parks Foundation and Nature Conservancy.

Another location is at the Bowtie Parcel. Grown in L.A. is working with California State Parks and Clockshop on a concept design for a nursery that lies on four acres of the 19-acre site.

It is also working with Grow Good, founded by Brad Pregerson, which develops garden-based programming as catalysts for healing, aimed at the homeless and veterans at the Salvation Army Shelter in the city of Bell. Grown in L.A. currently has a proposal to expand the current nursery at the shelter, so the 250 residents there can also learn green training skills and get supplemental paychecks that will help them transition out into the working world while building up plant supply for Los Angeles River projects.

The site that's furthest along is in Debs Park, at a ¼-acre relic nursery. The National Park Service and Audubon California rehabilitated the existing nursery, which the L.A. Conservation Corps originally built earlier this year. It is currently in the middle of growing plants.

There certainly is a lot to accomplish in very little time, says Superfisky, and one major hurdle Grown in L.A. is currently facing is the perennial issue for any initiative such as this: funding. There's a lot of enthusiasm for the initiative, but Grown in L.A. has experienced difficulties in securing money because it doesn't yet have a test site to offer as proof of concept.

"We've gone after grants, but they usually need a constructed project like a functional nursery, which is difficult. You need staff time, money to construct, and people on-site to make it a reality," explained Superfisky at a recent Los Angeles River Cooperation meeting.

A small scale and barebones kind of nursery could be accomplished for as little as $50,000, added Superfisky, but the price increases incrementally with the addition of features such as demonstration gardens and educational spaces, which is where Grown in L.A. sees itself doing. "We want to not only activate and provide public access to currently underutilized sites throughout Los Angeles, but also create beautiful spaces that are welcoming to Angelenos and worth spending time in. After all, Grown in L.A. is not just about plants, but is also about the impact that plants have on people -- especially in urban areas," says Superfisky. Such a vision could cost anywhere between $500,000 to multiple millions per nursery site.

But a good idea never dies. As Superfisky presented Grown in L.A., its merits soon appealed to the L.A. River agencies present at the meeting. At the end, Grown in L.A. was tasked to Romel Pascual, Associate Director for Environment at Mayor's Office, who expressed optimism. "This fits in so many types of boxes. Do we want to go down the restoration route, economic development route, or pure local job route? We've just got to hone in on what best fits Grown in L.A.," says Pascual. "The drought isn't going away. The demand is only going to increase. I'm surprised no one is taking the opportunity to grow this type of business."

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