Going native: UCLA gives green gardeners a boost
A new partnership between UCLA and the City of Los Angeles helps train gardeners in drought-tolerant practices.
By Alison Hewitt
Originally published in UCLA Today
As more and more homeowners and the City of Los Angeles get behind the green movement to transform thirsty suburban lawns into native gardens, UCLA is working behind the scenes to develop a workforce of green gardeners.
Victor Narro, a project director with UCLA's Downtown Labor Center, is creating a job placement co-op for newly certified green gardeners. Day laborers with an interest in gardening are being trained in small batches by a Los Angeles city program, and the labor center is preparing a one-stop-shop to help homeowners find the right gardener skilled at installing and caring for drought-tolerant landscaping.
The co-op, Native Green, will be a worker-owned organization designed for green-gardener job placement, Narro said.
"No one wants to be a day laborer forever," Narro said. "This is a good workforce development model we can use to help someone transition from poverty wages to supporting themselves and their family. They learn new skills, and the city benefits with more sustainable gardens using less water."
The labor center, part of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, is developing a business model and marketing plan for the co-op, and creating leadership-development seminars for the newly trained gardeners.
"We're doing a lot of internal leadership development with the workers," Narro said. "Running a business will be new to them. We need Native Green to be competitive but still pay living wages, we need a customer-service model, and we need a marketing plan."
UCLA students are helping with some of those details. Law students are drawing up the documents to form Native Green, LLC. Meanwhile, undergraduate and graduate students in labor studies, urban planning and public policy are developing everything from a feasibility study to the business model for the co-op.
A few of Urban Planning Professor Goetz Wolff's graduate students produced an intensive study of the landscaping industry for the new gardeners.
"They found that the larger companies are serving almost exclusively commercial customers, so there's a real opportunity for these gardeners to find jobs in the residential market," Wolff said. The city is also struggling to address water shortages caused by droughts that are expected to continue due to climate change. "These are going to be growth jobs after the recession. There will inevitably be a transformation of all those green lawns in Los Angeles. They're just not sustainable.
"But people don't want dirt yards. They want attractive, drought-tolerant plants and better irrigation,” Wolff said. “All this requires some expertise, not the traditional so-called mow-and-blow gardeners. This is a tremendous opportunity for these new gardeners."
The gardeners are selected by coordinators at day laborer sites throughout Los Angeles, Narro explained. The intensive six-day training program teaches the workers about drought-tolerant plants and soil types, retaining and reusing rainwater, low-water irrigation techniques and high-tech irrigation controls.
The training program is the brainchild of Paula Daniels, an L.A. City Public Works commissioner, who approached Narro about developing the training. Narro, who has worked with day laborers in the past, helped connect Daniels with the Institute of Popular Education in Southern California, which now runs the training and certification program, allowing the UCLA labor center to focus on forming Native Green.
Narro and the labor center have already started outreach to neighborhood councils and homeowners' associations to find potential customers. Meanwhile, an ordinance is making its way through City Hall to create financial incentives for turning a water-wasting lawn into a sustainable garden.
"There's a lot of interest on the part of homeowners who want to get started even before the ordinance is ready," Narro said. "We want to certify as many gardeners as possible. We have just over 30 now, and a class of 80 coming through. We want to have a workforce that can meet the demand."
Published: Sunday, March 14, 2010