holt_1039_04.CR2Will no one speak up for California gardeners ?  Will the on-going drought guilt-trip us to live in concrete, asphalt, rock, and dead earth urban wastelands ?

An April 1 executive from Governor Brown order mandates a 25% cutback in water used for gardens, and according to my Facebook friend Teresa Doss:  “In the 24 hours since this announcement, I’ve noticed that all the FB comments complaining that 25% isn’t enough, are coming from people who don’t live in California.”

I am on record as officially opposing water waste.  I am on the Lawn Reform Coalition; own and operate summer-dry.com, a web photo resource to illustrate appropriate garden plantings; co-authored The American Meadow Garden;  participate on the Advisory Committee of the Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Garden Coalition; and actively write and speak on the use of California native plants to beautify gardens.

Beautiful gardens with summer-dry plants are water efficient

I have spent the better part of my career trying to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in a garden photograph and think I am qualified to speak for sustainable, climate appropriate gardening.

Gardens are essential, period.  No garden is sustainable without water – but no culture is sustainable without gardens. When a conversation turns to sustainability we must factor in the water that must be stored for societies to survive.  It is a given that we sustain ourselves with delivered water.

Gardens are oases of breathing earth that make living in the urban jungle possible.  They need water.  Sure, there are succulent gardens and native plants that can survive without any supplemental water, but these are usually not inviting enclaves of garden making artistry.  We, as a culture, need gardens to sooth the soul, to provide urban habitat for birds and bees, for the microbes that keep the earth alive.  We need to allow for garden water.

Supplental water keeps native plant gardens heathy

I won’t go into the advisability of millions of people choosing to live in deserts.  It’s a fact.  I won’t rant about agriculture using 80% of our water – or farmers who are not mandated to cut back or to plant crops that might benefit Californians.  I have farm clients.

Farm irrigation of cauliflower crop

What I DO want to argue for, is water for gardens.  The new rules do not require us to rip out every plant.  I hope well meaning homeowners will not be duped into lawn replacement schemes that instill insipid landscaping with plastic mulch and mounds of colored rock.  I hope there is some sanity in applying the new rules.  Do gardeners in Eureka, where reservoirs are full, have to cut back as much as the Orange County country clubs ?

Southern Callifornia front yard with Purple Muhly grass.

Water IS scarce and everybody DOES need to conserve, but when we argue about who gets the limited water we do have, I want to be an advocate for gardeners.  Others will advocate for farmers or the fish, for groundwater conservation or for dam building.  Someone needs to speak up for gardeners.



  1. Very good post Saxon. I do hope things improve in your area, it seems my area has gotten all the snow this year. The gardens are soaked and we are even getting rains. I am not sure how many of my “dry garden” plants will survive or bulbs for that matter. The problem with maintaining any type of garden is that any weather change or yearly fluctuation that occurs means whatever was planted for one type of garden will likely mean we all wish we had what was planted for another type of garden. I was going to rip out all my hydrangea this year because of our droughts, but last year the weather normalized for our area. If this weather pattern continues, they may stay.

    • All plants are drought tolerant in their own climate and that is the trick (and art) of gardening – to find interesting plants that are climate tolerant. Yearly fluctuations should not really affect climate tolerant plants ash with good gardening techniques – mulching, pruning, careful supplemental water, gardens can be quite sustainable.

  2. Saxon, as a writer about ‘dry gardening’ I think home owners generally will be slow to adapt to the new reality.

    Climate compatible gardening is difficult because most have already committed money, effort and time to doing

    gardening in spite of local conditions. There’s emotional and psychological investment too. So despite our

    advocacy there are acceptances and accommodations to be made, not the least among landscapers, designers,

    nurseries before home gardeners will sense the impetus for change. Really all ‘we’ can do is keep on advocating

    for change. The cause of the angst among gardeners and farmers is that they are totally un-prepared for what

    has so suddenly hit them. Neither group can change quickly so there is a tumultuous time ahead but then what is

    really more important – flowers and grass, or food crops? I think Govt. will probably decide that, even in a free

    market such as that of the US

    • I think you are absolutely correct in saying we must keep on advocating. Eventually it sinks in, especially when crisis appears. The hope is theta when homeowners do commit emotionally and monetarily they do the right thing to start wit. That is where my job comes in – showing beautiful gardens that are climate compatible.

  3. I have a small lawn path (my cats love it )in the back garden and all the rest is gone- I never water this lawn path, it has to subsist with run off from the garden. It looks like crap in August , but I can live with that. Many of my neighbors seem completely oblivious to the waste of front lawn watering . I can’t blame them, they are not gardeners and don’t know what to do. American Canyon, an otherwise dreadful place, will be banning front lawns in new housing , and we do have a cash-for-grass program in the city of Napa . I water my garden with a network of soaker hoses once a week in high eto months–July and August. Mulch has been heavily applied this spring. I’m here to say that even roses can get by without much water if you train them right.

    • Hi Kathy – y’know gardens are not supposed to look like much when they are dormant. We just have to get used to late summer being our dormant time in a summer-dry climate. Lawns go brown when dormant.

      It’s interesting to compare gardening notes with other summer-dry regions to see what survives. Here in Northern California we have a lot of clay that stores water, so things like roses get by once established.

  4. Many, many plants we use in our landscape are ‘low water’ users. Plants and lawns can thrive on a lot less water. Plants are not the problem! The culprit is over watering! It is an educational process. Homeowners need to how and when to water. Sprinkler systems that were installed ages ago need to be re-evaluated to fix over spray onto sidewalks and driveways allowing water to flow into the drains. If we mastered this, we could have a decent impact in conserving water.

    • Dicksey – Certainly sprinkler systems need to be evaluated and maintained, and indeed, if landscape plants ARE ‘low water’ use we can kill them by overwatering, but there are still too many gardens that do not use low water plants. Traditional lawns are the most obvious problem for Western gardens where I am. I don’t want gardeners to give up, just use the water wisely and efficiently.

  5. In 2008, I was given a scholarship to train as a “Sustainable Landscape Expert”. This followed with my commitment to “teach sustainable methods”, which I did and still do through a Recreation and Park District. I found in the beginning that the majority of homeowners, “which was the target audience had a parochial idea about lawns. If you wanted to win them over you had to tip toe around the topic of “ditch the lawn”. Many water companies, began to offer free classes to their customers and columns appeared in local newspapers with ideas. Government and publically owned properties continued to have vast expanses of lawns and golf courses. Businesses and schools started to pay attention and it was in fits and starts to establish drought tolerant installations. It seems a lot of industries were/are being threatened, i.e. lawn feed, mowers, landscapers and everyone who depends on this vast millions of acres of lawns for their living. We need to instill in our mainstream thinking that “Gardening should be a joy, not work”!

    • Hi Carol – Part of changing the thinking for those who are resistance is to show them alternatives, which is why it i so important for the media to show successful low water gardens – change the aesthetic of what they expect to see. Since I am such a meadow lover, I like to say “lawn alternative” as part of the “ditch your lawn”. In most cases we are trying to educate them in ways to save water (as well as go green); we don’t mean no water gardens of rock and black plastic, but using plants appropriate for the climate.


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