Friday, May 24, 2024

What it Means to Build a Garden

Download a PDF of this article Download Article PDF
Share this article:

LADWP’s Hollywood Reservoir Pollinator Garden shines a spotlight on people.

When Meliana Tanzil was studying landscape architecture at California Polytechnic University in Pomona, California, she already had a concrete idea about the types of projects she wanted to pursue post-graduation. Tanzil wanted to craft designs of public spaces where community members could find respite from the frenetic pace of modern living and learn more about the natural world. She also wanted to work on highly collaborative projects that elicited the best ideas from her colleagues.

Though she couldn’t have known it as a student, Tanzil was describing the newly installed pollinator garden at the Hollywood Reservoir in Los Angeles, California. “When I took my major in landscape architecture, this is what I envisioned, and now I’m doing it,” said Tanzil, a Senior Architecture Drafting Technician at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

The quarter-acre garden will be unveiled to the public at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 1, 2024. Even in a city known for spectacle, the garden is a remarkable location for an event. The garden features meandering pathways and is dotted with teak wood benches where visitors can soak in views of the iconic Hollywood sign and the arched concrete Mulholland Dam built in the 1920s that makes the reservoir possible.

Even those who prefer to keep their eyes focused on the garden will have plenty to look at. The garden features three dozen California native, drought tolerant, and pollinator-friendly plants, which were selected because they provide essential habitat for native pollinators such as the local California Sister Butterfly, Anna’s Hummingbird, and various wild bees. The plants include a mix of colors and sizes that bloom during different seasons—so that pollinators always have a source of food—and include three types of Manzanitas, Canyon sunflowers, California wild rose, jellybean red Monkey flower, and Milkweeds. Among all the hotel options in Hollywood, the Hollywood Air Bee n’ Bee may be the most wild! It provides both a refuge for the important pollinators and education about their importance to visitors.

Building on LADWP’s Commitment to Sustainable Land Management

The public ribbon cutting that officially opens the garden will be a festive occasion highlighting pollinators and local speakers, including the Mayor’s office, plus free native seeds and plants for people’s own pollinator-friendly gardens. The bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators deserve the attention. Healthy pollinator populations are a critical linchpin in providing about one-third of the food the world eats, including strawberries, coffee, and the cocoa beans used to make chocolate. Unfortunately, a mix of habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, and invasive species threaten the pollinator populations the world needs.

Education about the importance of pollinator conservation is the understandable focus of the ceremony. But it’s part of a larger story about LADWP’s commitment to biodiversity and the natural world. It’s a story worth telling to understand how the Hollywood Reservoir Pollinator Garden came to be and to inspire other utilities eager to manage the land they own to achieve society-benefitting goals.

The genesis of the Hollywood Reservoir pollinator garden traces back to a Strategic Landholding Analysis (SLA) LADWP completed with EPRI in 2020. “The strategic landholding analysis was a way to better understand the environmental and ecological benefits of our landholdings beyond meeting our compliance obligations,” said Maria Sison-Roces, Manager of Corporate Sustainability Programs at LADWP. “It was about understanding the lands and natural resources that LADWP has and what the opportunities are to manage them to achieve sustainability and other goals.”

As the largest municipal utility in the U.S., LADWP manages hundreds of thousands of acres in Los Angeles, Owens, and Inyo Counties. The SLA process developed by EPRI follows a rigorous methodology, including facilitated discussions to define company goals and the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze and rank parcels of land for their potential to achieve utility objectives. One of LADWP’s sustainability goals is to support habitat and biodiversity, especially for pollinators. With that objective in mind, the SLA guided LADWP through an analysis of its land to identify those most suitable for pollinator habitat conservation.

A Reality Check

Once the list of potential sites was winnowed down, LADWP and EPRI looked closely at several properties to see if a project would be viable. “It was a great opportunity to sit down and, within that shortlist, figure out the reality of each of these parcels. Can we actually do something?” said Helen Grace Olivares, Manager of Property Management in the Water Operations Division at LADWP.

Even when GIS data and natural resource information about a parcel of land look promising, there is no guarantee that it will be suitable for pollinator habitat. Some properties, for instance, may require so much land restoration work that the resource requirements would be too high, or there may be legal restrictions limiting vegetation management options supporting biodiversity. To answer those questions, LADWP staff and EPRI Principal Technical Executive Jessica Fox visited several sites. Fox is a conservation biologist specializing in California species and the founder of EPRI’s Power-in-Pollinators Initiative. When Fox surveyed the land around the Hollywood Reservoir, she was struck by how healthy it was.

“It was just remarkable. The vegetative community was really solid. We got there and started identifying individual species, the bees and birds and flowers, and I looked at the soil and said, ‘We have to do this project,'” Fox recalled.

It was clear to Fox that LADWP’s vegetation management staff was exceptionally good at supporting native plants and that building a pollinator garden would leverage skills the utility already had. “They were already managing this site well, and the more than 500 acres of habitat around the reservoir was in great condition,” Fox said. “But they weren’t telling anybody about it and weren’t using it as an education opportunity.”

Finding a better place to inspire the public about pollinators would be hard. The 3.2-mile pathway around the reservoir’s perimeter, also known as Lake Hollywood and the home of the famous Hollywood sign, attracts upwards of a million tourists and local walkers, runners, and cyclists yearly.

A Commitment to Collaboration

The design and construction of the Hollywood Reservoir Pollinator Garden required both extensive collaboration across different departments within LADWP and support from EPRI. After the site was selected, Tanzil began working on two garden designs.

Tanzil solicited input and plant suggestions from Noe Gomez-Romero, John Willett, and Eusebio Serna, who all work in the utility’s landscape group and have deep expertise and experience working with California native and drought-tolerant plants.

LADWP ultimately settled on a natural design that mirrored the garden’s surroundings. And in October of 2023, Gomez-Romero, an LADWP Park Maintenance Supervisor, and his colleagues began translating the design into reality.

Having input into the plant selection was important for Gomez-Romero, Willett, and Serna because they are acutely aware of how species will fare in the varying climactic conditions across Los Angeles. To be sure, LADWP is eager for people to carefully monitor its approach to plant selection, especially at the Hollywood Reservoir pollinator garden. “We want to provide a model for what people can do in their own gardens,” Willett said. “We want to educate people about drought-tolerant landscapes that support pollinators, are easy to maintain, and are pleasing to the eye.”

Overcoming Challenges

The Hollywood Reservoir pollinator garden was completed in about five months. But its translation from initial idea to reality wasn’t without hiccups—which, Gomez-Romero says, is inevitable with any landscaping project. An early challenge came after the LADWP landscaping crew assessed the area’s soil. While the surrounding natural lands supported a variety of healthy soils, much of the soil in the specific location selected for the garden was heavily modified during dam construction and was now hard clay and decomposed granite.

Though it slowed the project down by a couple of weeks, LADWP opted to remove about 160 yards of the existing soil. The soil was replaced by sandy loam. “That was the most challenging part of the construction,” Gomez-Romero said. “We had to dig out the existing soil and replace two to three feet in depth so the plants would have enough room to root and thrive.”

Another challenge the LADWP crew had to overcome was providing a water source to irrigate the plants. The plants selected for the garden are drought tolerant but require irrigation early in their lives to get established and healthy. “If there is no water, there is no life,” said Serna, whose job it was to deliver water to the garden. Fox noted, “native plant restoration in the arid west brings some challenges, particularly in the first five years when we need to ensure the flowers bloom and reseed. We considered various options for this project, especially as a public demonstration area, but determined that targeted irrigation made sense, following a ‘right rate, right place, right time’ approach.”

Serna oversaw the installation of a 400-foot pipe to transport water to the garden. He also worked with plumbers to incorporate a smart irrigation system, which is now standard in all LADWP landscaping projects. “The system detects how much water is being used, and it can be controlled from the computer or a phone just in case it rains or is cold and you don’t need to water as much or if one of the areas needs to be watered more,” Serna said. “We are working on ways to use less water and get it to plants when they need it.”

California’s rainy winter delayed work on the project because LADWP had to wait for the soil to dry out before planting. However, the rains also provided an opportunity to test how well the garden drained rainwater. “We weren’t sure how the water would flow because the road that runs alongside the garden tends to act like a storm diversion channel,” Olivares said. “Having it rain during construction helped us identify how to avoid flooding or risk the garden washing out in the future.”

Another challenge to completing the garden included the placement of two large decorative boulders. A forklift had to be brought in, and holes had to be dug to keep the boulders in place. Adjustments also had to be made once the boulders were in place. For example, one of the boulders had to be moved so that a plaque with the garden’s name could be affixed to the stone’s flat face. The garden is named after Cindy Montañez, a former California assemblywoman, LADWP executive, and environmental champion who passed away in 2023.

In placing the boulders, Gomez-Romero and his staff were also aware of how they would impact visitors’ experience. “We needed to have it in the perfect position and angle so people could take pictures and get the boulder, the placard, and the Hollywood sign in one shot,” Gomez-Romero said.

A Passion Project

One benefit of the collaboration needed to build the Hollywood Reservoir Pollinator Garden is that it raised awareness within LADWP about the importance of pollinators. That awareness is helping to build momentum for more pollinator projects. “Initially, the focus has been more on water conservation, which remains a high priority in the region. But just in the last few years, our landscaping group has led the charge to include native pollinator-friendly landscaping, which are both drought tolerant and fire retardant. It’s really about understanding our role and responsibility to care for nature and the environment, especially in our landholdings,” Sison-Roces said.

In fact, LADWP’s Board of Water and Power Commissioners recently passed a Biodiversity Motion that directs LADWP to institutionalize and integrate biodiversity, habitat enhancement, and nature-based solutions throughout its operations and management of assets while balancing operational needs and ratepayer impacts.

While just one garden, this project has the potential to inspire millions of local and international visitors to take action in their own homes, companies, and schools. For LADWP, this single quarter-acre garden and the SLA assessment that identified this opportunity has supported broader consideration for the intersection between pollinators, climate, and social equity at the largest municipal water and power provider in the U.S.

For the people who did the hard labor, there is an emotional connection. Even before the garden’s official opening, Gomez-Romero says their work attracted a lot of interest and questions from passersby. He welcomed the opportunity to chat about pollinators, plants, and LADWP’s sustainability work.

“We feel proud and excited about it and love to share what we do. We encourage people to implement gardens in their own lives,” Gomez-Romero said. “People wonder what we do, and they can see here what we are doing for the city, the environment, and pollinators. People think we just provide water and power. We are also giving back to earth.”

EPRI Technical Expert:

Jessica Fox
For more information, contact