An Artist Tries to Fill L.A. With Wildflowers
Fritz Haeg is looking at a house on Google StreetView and contemplating its front yard. Haeg is an artist who's perhaps best known for his works converting grassy suburban front yards into so-called "edible estates" of vegetable gardens. But it's not an edible garden he imagines for this front yard. It's a field of wildflowers.
Nate Berg The state park–inspired wooden sign to be posted on each of the 50 vacant plots selected to participate in artist Fritz Haeg's countywide wildflower planting project, Wildflowering L.A.
His mind's eye has replaced not only this front yard with wildflowers but 50 vacant lots, yards, school grounds and other under-vegetated lands throughout Los Angeles County. It's a project he's calling Wildflowering L.A., presented by the Los Angeles Nomadic Division, and the 50 sites chosen to participate will be sown with native wildflower seeds and put on display for the public to enjoy. It's a distributed landscape intervention that, come springtime, will climax in a countywide smattering of wildflower fields.
Haeg was contemplating this front yard last weekend, at the L.A. Arboretum, as he and his crew met with people who had volunteered sites for the project. It's sort of half job interview, half gardening tutorial, where first Haeg evaluates the sites people are proposing and then specialists from the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants advise how and where to plant the seeds.Haeg says the project is about how the natural ecology meets the urban ecology, and the mix of sites so far exemplifies that intersection. There are schoolyards, hillside vacant plots, an empty Caltrans lot–turned–community garden and typical residential front yards. The landscape of Los Angeles is no longer a "natural" one, whatever that means, and that's the point. Haeg wants this empty-lot intervention to highlight both the ways we've used the land in Southern California and also, as he says, "to call attention to what this land was before we got here."
The Theodore Payne Foundation is a logical partner, and something of a coincidental one. During the process of planning this project, Haeg found out that the foundation's namesake, a landscape architect and horticulturalist, had actually embarked on a similar vacant land wildflowering campaign in L.A. nearly 100 years ago.
Nate Berg Volunteers from the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants measure out wildflower seed mixes for people who have volunteered to sow vacant lots.
Haeg also takes inspiration from Reyner Banham, the English architecture critic who broke with the common L.A.-bashing of his era to celebrate the unique qualities of a city too often held up to what were irrelevant standards of other world cities. Banham's most notable work, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, published in 1971, breaks the city's architecture down by the four conditions that, he argues, ultimately shape the form of the architecture and the function of the city: the flatlands, the beaches, the freeways and the foothills. Haeg and the Payne Foundation have created four specific wildflower seed blends that mimic that categorical breakdown, and each vacant plot will be prescribed a blend based on its locational condition.
Payne and Banham, Haeg says, were "two men who really paid attention to the landscape here and really contributed to our ideas of what Los Angeles is and one of the most interesting things about the city, which is the way it confronts the landscape around it."
Some of those confrontations are less overtly interesting than others. Amanda Millett attended the first wildflower workshop to volunteer a site at her children's school, Eagle Rock Elementary, which she says is in deep need of some plant life. "It's just blacktop," Millett says, "and it's really super-depressing."