We had the good fortune of connecting with Cassy Aoyagi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cassy, is your business focused on helping the community? If so, how?
We believe our work – and that of every LA landscaper – can save this beloved city and the world. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t! An abundance of data backs it up. LA’s landscapers can build social equity, improve health, mitigate “natural” disaster risks, and boost our environmental and economic resilience. Or we can do the exact opposite.
Here’s how we go about saving the world….
We design+build and maintain landscapes in a particular way that maximizes wellness and resilience. Our strategy mirrors the SITEs certification criteria promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council. During our more than 20 years in business, we have added nearly 1.5 million square feet of authentic, native habitat to Los Angeles.
As we design+build, we plant foliage that needs no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, as these toxins poison our bodies, the soil, and waterways. This foliage, and where we plant it, mitigates our wildfire risk. We create features that absorb rainwater to prevent slides and clean water before it reaches the groundwater table or ocean. This kind of landscape often costs less to install than a traditional landscape, saves on operational costs, and improves property values as it grows. It also saves the city funds related to water importation as well as stormwater and refuse management.
We prioritize wellness and resilience with our maintenance services too. We use electric equipment, lessening both noise and air pollution. We carefully schedule and route our work to minimize our carbon footprint. Even in landscapes with more traditional plant materials, we use no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, we work to balance the environment to thrive without these known carcinogens. That reduces symptoms of asthma, allergies and other heart and lung conditions throughout the city – and in our workforce.
Every garden has an impact. Sustainable gardens create a virtuous spiral. After 20 years in business, we now:
1- Save LA well over 10 million gallons of water
2- Reduce air pollution by an amount equivalent to that produced by of 59 annual commutes
3- Save the LA families families we serve approximately $700,000 a year in lawn care expenses
4- Keep 2400 lbs of toxic chemical fertilizers out of our watershed
There are a few other benefits that people have noticed more this year as they work from home. Our gardens fill with birdsong and butterflies, as they contain their preferred food and housing. Devoid of the tick-tick-tick of sprinklers and the roar of blowers and mowers, they quiet the neighborhood. In addition to herbs and veggies, edible native berries and blooms bring a sense of adventure to meals. Each of these qualities entices kids and adults alike to head outside and explore. These gardens are a refuge.
While we prefer to focus on the upsides of landscape work, it may be worth pointing out that “landscapes” of gravel, over-built sites, as well as traditional gardens, also have impacts – ones that are deleterious to our health and safety. The same is true of the “mow and blow” style of maintaining outdoor spaces. Unfortunately, these downsides are so familiar that people do not count their costs.
Because our profession can create exponential good or exponential harm, we take every chance we can to advocate for more authentic nature in LA. We believe it is essential to our wellbeing as a city to protect our green infrastructure just as we do our remarkable architecture and to expand it wherever possible.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
We believe our understanding of the impact of the landscaping profession sets us apart. It is what drives me, what I’m most excited about, and among the things that make me most proud. It’s also what underpins much of the joy in our client relationships – we are teammates working toward a better world.
Another thing that gives me great pride is that we have an exceptional team – at every level. Not only are our team members passionate about our mission, they take pride in their distinctive contributions, whether that is an innovative design, high-quality building, or skilled horticultural and systems care.
Starting a business, running a business, growing a business isn’t easy, and, frankly, it isn’t always fun. Convincing people to let us use natives in their gardens was hard work early on, and there were years where we felt like we had to compromise our values to earn work. This year and the economic downturn were exceptionally challenging, personally and operationally.
What we’ve learned is the more we lean into our values, our mission, the more we clearly communicate them and what underpins them, the better we do. We attract clients and friends with the same values. We have the energy and curiosity to effectively manage challenges.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
This city is full of favorite spots! A few…
Descanso Gardens, particularly the Oak Woodland and California Native Garden, which honors nurseryman Theodore Payne. Walking under the oak canopy brings an overwhelming sense of peace and delight.
The Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall – we love the city’s small town feel and strolling the tree lined main street. This garden ties the city to the wildspace in its foothills and is often full of people passing through, picnicking, and strolling.
Additional public gardens, like the Santa Fe Dam and Crescenta Valley Park are very special and great examples of how we could look and feel throughout the city.
Of course, (luckily!) our own backyard is my most favorite spot.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Oh there are so many! My husband and co-founder is my life and a constant source of support. My 10-year old son is a cheerleader, and the inspiration behind so much of our focus on health and wellness. My parents have been incredibly supportive of our business. They were among our first clients, and my dad has shown up to trade shows and worked the floor for us!
The Theodore Payne Foundation (theodorepayne.org), where I am the immediate past board president and taught design classes, shaped my understanding of native plants and their value. They’ve been a source of support as we built a very unconventional business. They are also a valued supplier of native plants, along with El Nativo, a wholesale supplier of native plants. Magic Growers stuck their neck out to expand their propagation to grow more natives according to our custom list for projects in our pipeline. We’ve also leaned on Las Pilitas Nursery for their exquisite photos of native plants and fun observations.
The California Native Plant Society, and specifically Snowdy Dodson, diligently works to help Angelenos understand the value of our native plant life.
Netafim, a supplier of smart irrigation, can take credit for a good portion of the water savings we achieve in our gardens. They are also a critical factor in why our gardens thrive long term.
We have also had incredible community champions, many of them clients. You know the indefatigable Hilda Weiss, who inspired the Shotgun House Coastal Garden (santamonicagardens.com). Roger Klemm, who rewilded the Sunland Nature Welcome Garden (sunlandwelcomenaturegarden.com). Suzanne Haller, Glenn Putnam and James Carlson, who championed the creation of the Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall (sierramadregardens.com). The Carlsons, Joyces, Rosens, Weiss’ and Woods who generously open their gardens to tours with great frequency, along with so many other clients who have provided this generosity!
Community champions who have improved our understanding of fire mitigation include Rick Halsey with the Chaparral Institute – a tireless fighter. J Lopez, recently retired from leading the Forestry Division of the LA County Fire Department, and Ron Durbin who currently holds that position have helped us understand nuances to firewise landscaping and community building. Marc Los Huertos with Pomona College has helped us understand the tradeoffs of various policies.
Part of winning gardens to achieve the impact we have is showcasing their beauty. The Pasadena Showcase House, early on, gave us the ability to do that, as did Dwell Magazine’s Dwell on Design. We are also grateful to Linda Lucks and the Venice Design Series for the opportunity to showcase our work to those interested in high-design. The Potted Store could always be counted on to help us beautifully and stylishly stage gardens for tours. Lesly Hall Photography captures the magic of our spaces.
There are those who have informed our understanding of how the landscape impacts social equity. These include Thomas Saffron and Associates, Wellnest representatives, Maria De Leon with From Lot to Spot, and Rachel O’Leary with City Plants.
The Los Angeles Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC-LA) has been an incredible resource for educating the planning, development, building, and architecture communities about the value of landscaping. This is essential to our mission and impact. Ben Stapleton, the current ED, has been a real champion, as has their publicist Julie Du Brow. Their immediate past ED, Dominique Hargreaves, who now serves in the mayor’s sustainability office, could also be counted on to say “yes and…”
Most importantly, our team deserves a Shoutout. From Isara Ongwiseth and Eric Crow have honed the rare craft of bringing a wide variety of dreams and styles to life with natives. John Cook who can be counted on to bring designs to their most-perfect implementation. Landscapes are not living rooms – they require continual, skilled work to thrive. Oscar Ortega and JT Wilkensen make sure our gardens grow beautifully. Mark Britten and Kimberly Wall keep the business on track – this work would be impossible without their expertise and much less pleasant without their good hearts. Can I list 30 more names? We have team members who have been with us for nearly 20 years, through ups and downs, learning and adapting as we grow. We have an immense gratitude for their trust, dedication, diligence and love.
…really, we feel like we could shoutout a good cross-section of Angelenos. We are so grateful to be able to serve this city!
Lesly Hall Photography for FormLA Landscaping