By Joyce Realegeno, Greenhouse Program Alumni, and Stacey Vigallon, Director of Environmental Education

If you’ve been a reader of the Western Tanager over the past few years, then you’ll recognize Joyce Realegeno. A graduate of the Baldwin Hill Greenhouse Program in 2011 and a UC Santa Cruz grad as of just this past summer, Joyce has continued to work with Los Angeles Audubon on plover and tern projects, as well as habitat restoration and environmental education. In this issue’s Interpreting Nature column, Joyce talks about how she and her family undertook their own “Kill Your Lawn” project, inspired by the comic book that Joyce helped create when she was in our program…

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Greenhouse Program alumna, Joyce Realegeno, holds up the Kill Your Lawn comic book that she helped create. [photo credit Robert Jeffers]

The summer after I graduated high school, I worked with a group of peers on Los Angeles Audubon’s Kill Your Lawn comic book. It was a year-long venture, spending the months in school refining as well as discovering art techniques that worked and looked the best. Each of us were assigned a specific page of the comic book detailing different beneficial aspects of replacing lawns with native gardens. Around the same time that I was working on the art project, my father had stopped watering our front lawn because it was too expensive to maintain. As much as he loved the green grass, it was easy to see that our water bill was incredibly high because of it. Once the grass began to dry up, my sister began digging it out and for a few months, we had two medium sized plots of mostly soil in our front yard.

After the publication of the comic book I left for UC Santa Cruz to start my first year as an undergraduate. The idea of planting natives in the front yard never really struck until the following summer. My sister and I started brainstorming all of our options - my parents had a large collection of mostly decorative plants (that they were given) in the backyard, so we figured the least expensive option was to just plant them in front. Although a lot of the work that I did prior to graduating high school revolved around native plants, creating a native garden in our front yard was simply out of reach financially. We were working with about an eighty-dollar budget. And, that was without asking our parents (my dad in particular) because they already had all of the bills and mortgage to worry about.

During the previous year the yard mostly resembled a cat litter box of extremely dry soil, but Los Angeles Audubon presented an opportunity to turn it all around. The following summer, the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program donated plants so we could start a native garden. Stacey Vigallon and Robert Jeffers took me on a trip to the Theodore Payne Nursery in Sun Valley to purchase native plants. I remember feeling pretty lucky because some of them were on sale, so I was able to buy more. When we came back, they helped my family and I place them into our yard. Nothing had been planted since removing the grass, so a lot of the ground was compacted and really hard to dig out. During the process my dad went out to buy two fruit trees to place in the middle of each plot. And, finally after a few hours of digging and watering the new plants in, the garden had been planted.

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The Realegeno’s front yard in summer 2012, on the day the native plants were installed. [photo credit Robert Jeffers]
 

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Joyce installs her native plants in the front yard, summer 2012. [photo credit Robert Jeffers]

Although the idea seemed grand, my parents were skeptical about whether the plants were going to live through the summer. We watered about two or three times a week up until I went back to UC Santa Cruz in mid September. I told my parents to keep watering them until they seemed a little stronger, and shortly after that I realized I couldn’t really call the garden my own.

In the very beginning I would work in the yard as often as I could. For the comic book, I worked on the page that was dedicated to wildlife, and it wasn’t until I saw a worm while I was weeding that the image of the garden really took hold. When everything was being planted in, the yard was completely devoid of life. As my parents began calling to tell me about the garden, they would also talk about the number of hummingbirds that would visit the fuchsia, or the mockingbird who always pecked at our cat, Randy. During the calls, the first comment my dad would make would be about how much the plants were growing— every time with more and more excitement in his voice.

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The Realegno’s front yard as of October 2015. The front garden is a mixture of California native plants, fruit trees and non-native decorative plants. [photo credit Joyce Realegeno]

 

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The Realegeno’s front yard in summer 2012, on the day the native plants were installed. [photo credit Robert Jeffers]

When I visited for holidays or extended weekends, I could see how much effort my parents had been putting into the garden. They added mostly decorative plants they had in the backyard, a few more plants that were given to them, and even red mulch. They now collect rainwater in buckets in the backyard, and they have a small bucket in the shower: whatever water is gathered goes to the fruit trees that need it more. The garden is completely theirs. Since finishing school, I’ve had to consult my dad before I trim any of the plants. I now mostly make suggestions or occasionally add a native plant wherever I can. He’ll occasionally ask about spider or bird species that he sees, so I’m considering buying field guides in Spanish for them.

Our yard isn’t a completely native garden—more like two thirds native and a third non-native, with a sprinkle of fruit trees. And that’s okay! It provides some wildlife habitat, some food for my family, and a haven away from the stresses of the inner city. Almost like a personal pocket park. It’s incredibly cherished and although it’s not 100% native plants, it’s firmly grounded in its ties to environmental and social justice in my neighborhood.

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