Planting Pride in Communities with America in Bloom

Residents of Elfin Forest sowed more than sixty pounds of wildflower seeds to win points in the Floral Displays category. Author’s photographs

Residents of Elfin Forest sowed more than sixty pounds of wildflower seeds to win points in the Floral Displays category. Author’s photographs

In towns across the country each summer, communities prepare for a visit by judges from the America in Bloom (AIB) Competition. This is a friendly competition between like-sized towns, but it is not just a beauty contest. Judges evaluate communities on eight criteria: floral displays, landscape, urban forestry, environment, tidiness, community involvement, turf and groundcover, and heritage. The goal of the program is to make America a better place in which to live, one community at a time.

The program’s international heritage derives from Canada’s “Communities in Bloom” program, Ireland’s “Tidy Towns” competition, and France’s “Villages in Bloom” contest. In 2005, as the AIB program enters its fourth year, nearly eighty towns will have participated, competing against towns of similar size. Reaction to the program everywhere is enthusiastic. People often greet judges saying, “We’ve already won, just by entering. Our town has never looked so good.” The program brings together people from all parts of the community, to work together on projects that make a visible difference, such as cleaning streets, eliminating eyesores, putting out colorful planters, eradicating weeds, and holding local beautification contests. New friendships are formed, new traditions develop, and residents report a greater sense of satisfaction and pride in where they live. The cleanup and planting efforts are often contagious: as one property improves, the neighbors get the idea, and, before long, entire blocks sparkle with pride and new plantings.

Three California communities have participated to date (along with other communities in the Pacific Northwest). Elfin Forest (an unincorporated community of 800 residents near Escondido) and the city of Encinitas entered in 2003; both will compete again in 2005. Rancho Santa Fe entered in 2004 and won its population category, as well as the overall award for landscaped areas.

What does it mean for a community to enter this contest? First of all, entering initiates an assessment of a community’s strengths and weaknesses. A contest committee is formed with the goal of developing winning strategies and bringing various parts of the community together to carry them out. The local garden club alone does not make it happen. School children, church groups, scout troops, 4H clubs, historical societies, retired people, businesses, chambers of commerce, and the local government all work together to showcase their town.

In the heart of Rancho Santa Fe, a sheriff’s substation enjoys its home in a historic building, appointed with lush and dramatic container plantings

In the heart of Rancho Santa Fe, a sheriff’s substation enjoys its home in a historic building, appointed with lush and dramatic container plantings

AIB judges visited Rancho Santa Fe in May, 2004. Located fifteen miles north of San Diego, Rancho Santa Fe is the oldest planned community in California and takes great pride in its architecture and landscape. In fact, the entire community is designated a California Historic Landmark. Nine buildings and homes in Rancho Santa Fe are on the National Register of Historic Places. The “covenant” that established the community requires the preservation of the rural character and its natural landscape.

One of the judges’ first stops was the historical society for a walking tour of the historic downtown and an overview of the town’s colorful history. From there, they took a driving tour, taking in the sights at preserved open spaces, a senior center, the Rancho Santa Fe Association headquarters building, and the reservoir. Judges want to see more than flowers. They regularly ask to see such things as the waste handling and recycling facilities, water treatment plants, and sewage treatment plants. It serves as a reminder that even utilitarian facilities can be clean, attractive, and well kept. The judges also visited some of Rancho Santa Fe’s world-class gardens. What impressed them, beyond the year-round plantings of seasonal and perennial flowers on the main streets, was the fact that people living in the Rancho were practicing integrated pest management in their groves before there was a term for it. The community does a wonderful job of recycling: for example, trees being removed are cut and stacked in one of the community’s open space properties where the logs are then available to residents as firewood. Excess stones and boulders from construction sites are salvaged for use in local landscape applications. Because their community is in fire-prone Southern California, they developed a unique fire prevention program of thinning the chaparral in canyons by fifty percent. All the removed brush is chipped and blown back into the chaparral to encourage the reseeding of native species. The Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School has a garden curriculum that includes different levels of gardens and greenhouses for different grade levels around the school building.

Committee chair, Donna Ferrier, also president of the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club, said, “Rancho is such a special place, and sometimes we take it for granted. It takes getting involved with a program like America in Bloom to remind us of what we truly have here.” Donna cited the enthusiasm and community-wide commitment to the program, as well as one hundred percent support from the Association, which is the Ranch’s equivalent of a city government. “Everyone pulled together and worked as a well-functioning team,” she said.

A private cutting garden in Elfin Forest wowed the judges with its colorful flowers

A private cutting garden in Elfin Forest wowed the judges with its colorful flowers

In Elfin Forest, a much smaller and more rural community than Rancho Santa Fe, preparations for the 2005 competition include sowing bucket-loads of wildflower seeds along the main roads and staging a garden festival (www.elfinforestgardens.info) to raise funds to pay for the entry fee and judging expenses. Committee chair, Eric Anderson, said that competing in the contest is one of the most exciting and positive things that the community does.

In Encinitas, a town of approximately 65,000, the competition is managed by the city’s staff, who work with local garden clubs, Quail Botanical Garden, the chamber of commerce, and other groups to develop and implement the town’s beautification efforts.

Contestants learn the results of the judging at an annual symposium, held in a different location each year. This three-day event is an opportunity for learning and networking with like-minded people from other towns across the country. Win or “lose,” participants come away knowing that they have won simply by entering, because they have, in so many ways, made their community a better place to live.

A list of past winners and more information about the America in Bloom program are available at www.americainbloom.org.