Planting Native at the 5Cs

Brown. Scraggly. Flowerless. Ugly. Native Southern Californian plants tend to be viewed in a negative light—although they may be “sustainable,” they are not aesthetically pleasing enough to be incorporated into the actual landscapes of the Claremont Colleges. Yet, environmental advocates across the colleges challenge this view. They argue that not only is sustainable planting a valuable enough goal to pursue in its own right, but also that native, sustainable plants can be beautiful and campuses can maintain their unique identities while incorporating sustainable plants into their respective landscapes.

Pitzer and “The Outback”

What four years ago was a three-and-a-half-acre wasteland on Pitzer College’s campus, filled with trash and invasive species, is now slowly returning to its native roots as part of the desert chaparral biome of the greater Los Angeles area. This transformation of “the Outback” is thanks to the Outback Restoration Program, run by Pitzer environmental analysis professor Paul Faulstich. Faulstich teaches Restoring Nature and Practicum in Exhibiting Nature, two classes in which students restore and preserve the Pitzer Outback through this program.

In the Outback, students learn about restoration—from which plants are invasive and harmful to the importance of their own labor—so they may educate and inspire other students to help with the project or sustainability in other ways.

Sam Sapon PZ ’13 was a first-year when the project began, so he took part in establishing the goals for the project.

“I would say the main goal of the Outback Restoration Project is to make the space more inviting so that more students can enjoy it and gain an appreciation for it,” Sapon said.

Sapon thinks this appreciation is important in preventing Pitzer from building further into the land, as it did with its new dorms, as well as in “breed[ing] an interest and educat[ing] people to do more Outback work.”

With regard to the other colleges, though, Sapon believes their self-images would be too damaged by a landscape like Pitzer’s.

“What we do at Pitzer wouldn’t work on any other campus,” Sapon said.

So, what exactly is it that Pitzer does that wouldn’t work elsewhere? It uses mostly sustainable, drought-resistant plants in its softscape. Although these plants are non-native, both Sapon and Faulstich believe their use is still valuable for sustainability because of their drought-resistance. Sapon said that desert chaparral plants are often difficult to keep alive and are less aesthetically pleasing than the sustainable plants Pitzer has now.

“In an idealistic world, they could all be desert chaparral,” Sapon said. “But it’s just not practical.”

Landscaping at the 5Cs

In conversations about 5C sustainability, Scripps College’s supposedly unsustainable, grass-dominated landscape was a recurring topic in which Faulstich’s opinion seemed to represent the majority of Pitzer environmental advocates.

While Faulstich said that “each campus should have their own aesthetic identities, just like their own intellectual identities,” he also said that he “would love to see Scripps, for example, be more ecologically attuned. It’s undeniably beautiful, but also undeniably inappropriate for our ecological region.”

Scripps Director of Grounds Lola Trafecanty acknowledged the criticism Scripps receives, but asked that people “evaluate the social and cooling value that [the lawns] provide for a college campus.”

“The lawns serve as ‘outdoor rooms’ where major venues occur throughout the year,” Trafecanty said. “Without the lawns, we would not have a place to host many of our events as our buildings could only host so many people in one place.”

Trafecanty also said that Scripps is currently, and historically, on the 5C forefront of water conservation as the only campus with isolated irrigation meters. The college is also a member of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and works with the group Sustainable Claremont.

In addition to these efforts, Scripps is slowly replacing the current groundcover with a more sustainable plant. Scripps and Harvey Mudd College are working together to remove portions of lawns and replace them with native or drought-resistant plants.

“We are constantly working on improvements in making our campus as sustainable as possible,” Trafecanty said. “Unfortunately, it takes time to make some changes, but there has definitely been progress.”

Similar to the belief behind these current efforts, Faulstich said he believes that the differing aesthetics in the campuses’ landscapes should be in their hardscapes, not softscapes, because each of their softscapes should ideally be sustainable. Softscape refers to live plant components of landscapes, and hardscape refers to man-made components. He also recommended using sustainable plants of particular color palates to convey the look each school intends to uphold.

“The priority should be that we’re ecologically sensitive,” Faulstich said. “Our campus landscapes are education landscapes, and they teach every bit as much as in our classrooms. What kind of message do we want to be sending to our students? An ecological one. Ecological and beautiful.”

The Bernard Field Station

Another ecological resource of the consortium is the Bernard Field Station (BFS), an 86-square acre plot of land located just north of Foothill Boulevard in Claremont. There, students of the colleges research and maintain a space comprised mainly of desert chaparral.

With native Los Angeles area plants, should BFS be a model for the 5Cs and their landscaping choices? Faulstich says no.

The Field Station is not manicured and is not intended to inspire practical use at the colleges. Its purpose is research of native L.A.-area plants. Faulstich does not advocate using BFS as a model for the 5Cs, but he said that some of the plants could be incorporated into the campuses’ softscapes in a manicured way.

The Ralph Cornell Society

The Ralph Cornell Society, a Pomona College native plants club, supports the use of native Southern Californian plants in landscaping on the 5Cs as opposed to simply drought-resistant ones. The club believes the use of native plants will “restore some of the elements of Southern California landscaping, making Pomona more in touch with its surroundings,” club member Na’ama Schweitzer PO ’13 said.

The club also strives to prove that native L.A.-area plants can be beautiful through arrangements that include native plants that flower almost year-round.

Club founder and co-president Peter Pellitier PO ’14 said he particularly encourages the use of native plants on Pomona’s campus because after only one year the plants no longer need external water, which is good for the environment and the college’s budget.

“We’re trying to use plants that use less water and that are already adapted to the Southern California area,” Pellitier said. “These are the plants that used to be [at Pomona], so we’re just kind of bringing them back.”

The club is able to replace turf and non-native plants around Pomona thanks to its collaboration with the Pomona grounds crew. Pellitier said he does not think such collaboration would be possible on all of the other campuses, but he said the club welcomes students from all five colleges, in hopes that these students will gain knowledge about native plant use that they can bring back to their own campuses.

Being “Stewards of the Land”

Despite the differences in approach among the varying organizations and landscaping practices, the Claremont Colleges are all attempting to become more sustainable in their softscapes through the implementation of more native or drought-resistant plants. The colleges are attempting to educate their collective student body about the benefits of sustainable planting and to extend sustainability across all five campuses while allowing each to maintain its individuality.

“We should be stewards of the land,” Faulstich said, “[…] in a healthy relationship with the land, rather than one of domineering the landscape.”

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