Bougainvillea and palm trees are as common in Los Angeles as stop lights on the 101. Could that be a bad thing? “Bougainvillea, boxwood, Madagascar palms – none of them are native to this region,” landscape designer Lily Kwong said the other day. She stood outside her house on the east side of Los Angeles dressed in a khaki jumpsuit and leopard-print slides. “All of this was once boxwood,” she said. “It was just, like, dead. You would never see wild animals. Last fall, she uprooted it and replaced it with a meadow of native plants: yarrow, mallow, manzanita. “The way the native bumblebee flaps its wings is what opens the plant,” she said, stroking a squat, leafy shrub. “Non-native bees can’t get to it.”
Native plants require less water than exotic plants and are also home to more wildlife: your birds, your bees, a mother duck who recently warmed her eggs in a grove of white sage Kwong had planted at the JW Marriott in Palm Desert. . (The hotel chain has hired her to create sustainable gardens in several locations.) “Native plants provide habitat in a way that hydrangeas and petunias don’t,” Kwong said. “Like, what about the monarch butterfly that will only lay its eggs in milkweed?”
A former model, Kwong sold aesthetics. “I was the most depressed, anxious and exhausted I have ever been,” she said, pointing to the contents of a row of planters: lemon balm, chocolate mint and mugwort, which she says “can help you remember your dreams.” She grew up on the fringes of Muir Woods. Hobbies: “Leading a band of children in the woods, looking for plants, building forts” and watching his grandfather tend to a vegetable patch.
Kwong moved to New York to attend Bard College, but dropped out after a year: “It was a big financial burden on my family, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. She moved in with her cousin Joseph Altuzarra, a young fashion designer. “He tailored his first collection for me,” Kwong said. “I got tricked.”
Modeling gigs in Paris, London and Shanghai piqued her interest in cities and “how people connect”, she said. “It’s so dependent on public spaces and parks.” She modeled while majoring in urban studies at Columbia. Upon graduation, she booked a Tiffany & Co. campaign. Instead, she took a job with the landscaping firm Island Planning Corporation. She spent two years on job sites in Gabon, Miami and the Caribbean, setting up nurseries, “earning a fraction of what I used to earn. I felt my soul return. She started her own business in 2017. “The first jobs I got were because people knew I could haul seven truckloads of tropical plants in Bushwick,” she said.
She did botanical art for the High Line and Grand Central Terminal. In 2020, she moved to Los Angeles. “Living in New York for thirteen years with a planter, you don’t see the power of the natural world in the same way,” she said. His new school: The Theodore Payne Foundation, a native plant nursery and education center in Sun Valley. “My garden is not one hundred percent indigenous,” she said as she got into her SUV, “I’m not going to remove the trees that have been there for thirty years, even if they’re exotic palms, but to restore the underbrush – that’s something I can do.
Walking down Los Feliz, she pointed to the window. “These ginkgos are beautiful, but they come from Asia,” which means they harbor far fewer species of caterpillars than a native oak tree: “more than two hundred,” she says. “A brood of chickadees needs six thousand caterpillars to survive.”
At the nursery, she said, “Look at all the bees! They buzzed around Matilija poppies with egg-yolk pistils. Evan Meyer, executive director of Theodore Payne, approached wearing a baseball cap and denim shirt.
“First of all, the ferns are so happy, I just need more,” Kwong told her. “Then for the meadow, I have bald spots.”
“Maybe herbs,” Meyer said.
“The problem is that my husband” -Nick Kroll, the actor and comedian – “is allergic to everything,” Kwong said. “What can we do but herbs?”
Rounds were made, options were evaluated: yarrow, caterpillar phacelia with streamers like fuzzy seahorses. More mugwort? Yes. Yerba buena? “I’ll take five,” Kwong said. She asked Meyer about the origins of landscaping. “He has a kind of colonial and elitist heritage,” she suggested.
“It fits into a colonial framework of landscape dominance,” Meyer said. “Rather than being in conversation with your surroundings, you’re, like, ‘I’m going to make it exactly what I want it to be.’ Think places like Versailles,” he added. “Super linear oriented.”
“Boxwoods,” Kwong said. “So much boxwood.” ♦