Imagining Flamingo Estate Garden with Ben Falk

16 September, 2016

When he isn’t designing infrastructures to address climate change near his home in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, homestead and landscape architect Ben Falk has been helping us turn the grounds around our Flamingo Estate in Los Angeles into a living laboratory for integrated land use. We sat down with Ben to talk about the systems we’re about to put in place — and how they might make a difference in the future.

Your field of expertise is permaculture, which is a design approach based on patterns of natural systems. Can you talk a little about our L.A. ecosystem and how you’re planning to work with it?

When it rains in L.A., you can see water running off rooftops and across driveways, into ditches, heading straight for the ocean. All the steep slopes mean its flowing quickly, eroding soil, but not keeping the land wet for more than a few days after a storm, so fire danger remains high and infiltration remains low. We’ll be laying out the site strategically, finding ways for rainwater to be absorbed, such as through swales and improved roof-water rain catchments. With those in place, we’ll be able to hydrate the gardens and fruit trees, and distribute the value of each rain storm over weeks of time, not days. This happens to also reduce erosion while keeping the value of water where it belongs: where it lands.

Will there be other benefits too?

Absolutely. As land hydration is more balanced between wet and dry seasons, it supports a greater array and quantity of wildlife. These places become havens for ,migratory birds, amphibians, and many threatened species. We’re simply modeling nature’s example of wetlands, something sorely needed in arid, degraded landscapes like southern California. In this way, human presence on landscapes can become positive, not just less negative.

“Human presence on landscapes can become positive, not just less negative.”

Water’s obviously key to that process. But we’re more than a little water-challenged in L.A. How much do you think you can recapture here?

The site can be considered its own distinct watershed, from the top of the roof all the way down to the lower slopes, so it’s really just one living catch-basin. Around 670,000 gallons of water land on the Flamingo Estate each year, but we probably lose around 95% of it right now to erosion. With potential modifications in place, we’ll be able to absorb upwards of 80% of that rainfall, returning it to the groundwater aquifer and into plants here, to help the land be more evergreen year round. This in turn promotes more rainfall, since vegetable cover actually “makes it rain.” That’s how rainforests work. They perpetuate their own rainfall in a positive feedback loop, as plants transpire water into the atmosphere from which it rains again. This is the opposite of how deserts promote their own aridity and how deforestation almost always makes a desert in its wake. Our hope is that this can be a model for how California can fix its acute water crisis, while still being a productive (and not just “preserved”) piece of land.

Let’s talk a little bit about that idea of “productive” land. Are we going to have so many vegetables to harvest, we’ll have to start hosting a weekly farmer’s market?

(Laughs) I don’t know about that. But a longer growing season and richer topsoil means you’ll definitely get a spectacular amount of fruits and vegetables. There’s another benefit to that: we’re expecting around a 10% increase in soil carbon each year (which is huge compared to the mere fraction of 1% increase you’d find in even the most pristine natural site in the region (and being in a developed neighborhood, this site is far from pristine).

What does that increase in soil carbon mean?

That the property, if such systems are designed and installed, can be net carbon-negative, which basically means it pulls more carbon from the atmosphere than it’s emitting. And that’s not even our main goal: it’s a bonus, a by-product of designing a beautiful, ecologically-integrated garden.

So land that’s healthy is regenerative in many ways?

Right. It’s not just about the soil and the water, it’s also about the mind and body, and the ecosystem’s effect on it. I think you’ll find once the systems have been in place five years in, that the produce isn’t just more abundant, it’s actually more nutrient-dense too. There’s a definite connection between nutrient density and lots of health challenges, like obesity, diabetes, and even depression. So I think the Flamingo Estate Garden could become an example of how caring for the soil ultimately becomes caring for people. You can’t grow nutritious food on degraded land. If it’s not in the soil, it’s not in the food.

It does seem like a project that’s especially relevant here in Los Angeles, which is a North Star for that kind of health and wellness discussion.

It’s true, but I can also see Flamingo Estate Garden becoming an emerging place of significance on a national, or even international, stage. There are just so many implications to what we could do here. Think about those fruits and vegetables again: chefs in particular will be drawn by the sheer diversity of produce we’ll be able to grow and harvest on the site, and the chance to see how regenerative edible landscapes can thrive, even in a place as parched as L.A.


Words by The Editors.

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