Take a drive on Arizona’s highways and byways and you might catch some color, depending on the season. Native wildflowers lining the road. Maybe some palo verde trees guarding the medians.
They didn’t get there by accident.
They got there by the good work of LeRoy Brady, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Lady Bird Johnson.
Brady explains. Ladybird Johnson made highway beautification her signature issue. With a little help from her husband, then-President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.
Among other things, it gave us wildflowers by the side of the road. And Brady helped put them there. He’s a landscape architect and manager of ADOT’s Roadside Development Section.
Native wildflowers are just part of the job. He and his colleagues add design elements to walls and bridges. An example is a sound wall bordering Interstate 10 in Casa Grande. It’s more than a bare slab of concrete. Its design reflects the community’s ties to agriculture and its mountain landscapes.
Brady’s work on roadside attractions goes back more than 50 years. The last 44 with ADOT. Make that 45 in June. He has his own parking space at ADOT offices in Phoenix. The sign fronting it says something like: For employee with over 40 years at ADOT. I think that beats employee of the month.
Brady, 77, started his career with the Idaho Transportation Department. Illinois claims IDOT. So Idaho goes with ITD.
His timing was nearly perfect. He had just graduated from Utah State in 1965 with a degree in landscape architecture and environmental planning. It was the year Congress enacted Lady Bird’s highway beautification.
Highway departments received federal funds for roadside landscaping and purchase of scenic easements.
So Brady became a landscape architect for highways.
“I started work in 1966,” he said.
Before college, he had lived in Boise, Idaho’s capital. He moved back there for work.
“I started a program of revegetating slopes, both on I-80 and I-90 in northern Idaho, using native plants or native plant seed,” he said. “Not just wildflowers but trees and shrubs, too.”
Maybe somebody from ADOT drove through. And liked what they saw. Arizona offered Brady a job. By 1974, he had a family with two young daughters. And his parents had moved to Phoenix from Canada.
“We didn’t have any grandparents in Boise,” he said. “It just made sense.”
He took the job. And found plenty to do.
Thousands of acres had been disturbed by road construction. Revegetation was largely left to chance. And that opened the door to invasive species.
“I looked all over the state, and I saw tumbleweeds all over the place,” Brady said. “I saw weeds.”
So he began a program of seeding the roadside with native plants. Brittlebush. Globe mallow. Lupine. And so on. He works from a list that’s grown to 25 species of native grasses and plants. Under his direction, the seeding started in earnest. By 1978, in four years, more than 1,500 acres had been seeded.
For some, the thinking went: Why bother? Native plants will reseed on their own.
“They don’t,” Brady said. “It doesn’t happen.”
Invasive plants move in too fast. Not all of ADOT’s vegetation was native, in any case. Not at the time. Starting in the 1920s, Lehman’s lovegrass was introduced for erosion control. On the roadside and elsewhere. But by the 1980s, it had worn out its welcome.
Roadside Development replaced all the lovegrass with native species, eventually.
“You only seed when there’s seed available,” he said.
The seed industry, in time, made adjustments. Now seed’s available when needed.
The actual seeding is done by contractors. Brady and ADOT work with three or four of them, including one from Casa Grande. Seed mixes are tied to climate zones. Arizona is more than just desert. The high country gets a different mix than the lowlands.
Even Interstate 10 to Casa Grande from Phoenix calls for an adjustment. A rise in elevation means more rainfall.
I mentioned a portion of I-10 with little in the way of roadside plantings. Namely a stretch of the Gila River. It’s bleak. It’s an area with very little rainfall, Brady said. And it hasn’t been seeded.
Still, past the river headed south, things pick up — especially in spring. It’s showtime for brittlebush. I call them the crazy uncle of the plant world. Yellow blooms sticking out every which way.
On my drives to Casa Grande, I thought they appeared all on their own. I was wrong. They got there by design.
Most of the seeding follows new construction, shot from a special gun or a hose. Straw is placed on top for mulch. After that, the plants usually reseed themselves from season to season.
Arizona has two seasons. The winter rains and the monsoons.
“We can seed anytime when a project is ready,” Brady said.
Saguaros and other native trees are often salvaged before construction. Then replanted afterward.
I learned all this — and more — seated in Brady’s office. It’s a small space bursting with 40-plus years of work and memorabilia.
Near the end of our interview, Brady went to a shelf and retrieved a past issue of a magazine dedicated to roses. It had pictures of the Mesa Community College rose garden, a near-labyrinth of rose bushes hugging grassy walkways.
It’s one of the college’s defining landmarks. And with nearly 9,000 rose bushes, it’s also the largest rose garden in the Southwest.
Brady designed it, volunteering his time. The garden, he added, was paid for by donations.
Brady, it happens, volunteers a lot of his time. He’s also board chairman for Boyce Thompson Arboretum, just outside Superior. It’s a nonprofit now tied to Arizona State Parks and the University of Arizona.
He first became involved in the mid-1980s. He laid out the arboretum’s demonstration garden. All on his own time, he said. He joined the board in 2010. Recently, under his leadership, the board decided Boyce Thompson should go its own way.
It’s cutting ties with state Parks and the university. The split becomes formal on July 1, Brady said.
My wife and I have an annual pass to the arboretum. The drives up U.S. 60 in early spring are the best. Rains bring out roadside wildflowers. Globe mallow, lupine and more.
Next time I’ll know how they got there.