Story by K. Reka Badger
When local nurserymen began stocking their shelves with imported plants in the late 19th century, they sparked a transformation of the arid South Coast. Dazzled by the novel greenery, homeowners replaced native chaparral and oak woodlands with exotic species—from banana trees to Egyptian lotus—creating lush, yet unsustainable landscapes. Today, as water bills soar and usage is restricted, residents are turning to landscape professionals to help them restore their browning yards. In the bargain, they hope to transform thirsty wastelands into water-wise wonderlands.
Brady Redman, founder of Apiana Native Landscapes, promotes California’s native plants as fundamental to successful garden design in drought-stricken times. “Established natives use a fraction of the water of conventional landscapes,” Redman says. “I try to use only California plants, but I do use succulents from South Africa and Mexico. They’re colorful, drought tolerant and go well with the natives.”
Redman believes the first step toward conserving water is to eliminate lawns, outdated status symbols adopted by mid-century homeowners eager to announce that they no longer needed to grow food. Redman bluntly describes lawns as “basically weed pits.” “Using mowers and weed whackers spreads weed seeds,” he says, “and the amount of money, chemicals and water it takes to keep it green isn’t worth it. When you plant a drought-tolerant yard, you don’t need machines to maintain it. If you do it right, everything grows to the right size, so you don’t have to prune, and maintenance is reduced.”
“Natives don’t like drip irrigation,” he explains. “It tends to shorten their lifespans by creating [wet] pockets of waste microbiology, and it doesn’t wash off the leaves. When there’s dust on the plants, it’s hard for them to use the sun to produce energy.”
Echoing Redman, Eva Powers, owner of Creative Garden Design 805, urges clients to replace water-guzzling plants and turf with hardscape elements, such as pathways, dry creeks, seating areas and rock walls. “What I do and what homeowners can do,” she says, “is sketch features of the yard, such as the house, driveway, patios, trees, electric and gas lines. Then [add] future garden rooms, entertainment areas and functional dry creeks to take advantage of rainfall.”
To define garden areas, Powers suggests arranging shrubs, fences, antique doors and freestanding arches as barriers, frames and windbreaks. Although she prefers native California species, because they support local wildlife, she does use drought-tolerant Mediterranean and Australian varieties.
For Margie Grace, founder of Grace Design Associates, devising a beautiful, efficient landscape requires a painterly eye and close attention to the site’s natural colors. “The key is to have a unifying palette, whether the native stone is red, gray or brown,” Grace says, “and use texture, form and tone to create visual interest. Homeowners can lay out a flat plane of gravel, buy a couple of dramatic plants, push them around until they look good and that’s where you plant them. You only need a tree, three decorative pots, some mulch and you’re done! It’s a patio with a shade tree and lovely architectural details provided by the pots.”
To enhance water conservation, Grace favors replacing inappropriate plantings with useful spaces, using materials that don’t need to be irrigated, such as bocce ball courts, horseshoe pits and gravel patios. She does, however, advocate for the judicious use of water features. “A recirculating pot or bubbler in a flat stone doesn’t take much water,” she declares, “and in a dry environment, we need to provide some water for the critters. If you have a rock with a divot that holds water, but dries up before mosquito larvae hatch, that provides moisture and a big hit of protein in a bird’s world.”
Pat Brodie, of Pat Brodie Landscape Design, creates a tropical feel by using drought-tolerant succulents with broad fleshy leaves. For eye-catching contrast, she combines them with sages, native grasses and flowering specimens, such as Mexican marigold. Brodie recommends spreading a generous layer of mulch between plants to give the garden a tidy look, while also helping to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and regulate soil temperature.
Where drip irrigation is used, Brodie plants in zones, grouping together species with similar needs, so that emitters to drought-loving varieties can be shut off when necessary. She also instructs clients to make regular visual inspections of their irrigation systems, which can also save water. “When the irrigation systems are checked regularly it helps,” she smiles. “Just doing that is helpful, because you find leaks and plants that have died, and they’re watering where nothing’s growing.”
Brodie champions the installation of outdoor living spaces—patios, kitchens and fire pit areas—rather than expanses of needy turf. “We create usable spaces in the garden,” she says, “places to sit, maybe a decomposed granite path with a little cutout for a fountain, all low maintenance and drought tolerant.”
Mary Lou Sorrell and her husband, Jon, operate Sorrell Design, an architectural and landscape design firm that specializes in building traditional historically-based homes and gardens. “Our designs are predicated on outdoor living,” Mary Lou says. “[We build] seating, walking and dining areas outside, instead of just gardens to look at, which means more hardscape and less plants.”
The plants Sorrell uses tend to be mature specimens that provide instant shade and, because of their large root masses, generally require less water to become established. It’s not unusual to find 75-year-old olive trees in her designs for spacious gardens. As the drought deepens, Sorrell counsels clients to incorporate regular feedings into irrigation schedules to help legacy trees that are struggling to survive in their yards. “When there’s very little water, there’s nothing to sustain these old trees,” she says. “A lot of people think you feed plants every six months, but the systems I work with feed them every time they’re watered, so they’re getting continuous nutrition, which helps them stay green.”
Sorrell encourages homeowners to recycle household greywater for use in irrigation lines, emphasizing that “it’s filtered, so it’s not harmful to the plants, and it provides quite a bit of water.”
“I think people are hopeful the drought is a temporary situation that’s just going to go away,” she muses. “But I think water will become more of an issue as time goes by, and we must conserve it, regardless of whether or not it’s a drought.”
Fortunately for all of us, garden designers and landscape architects alike offer reassurances for the future. Through careful planning and plant selection, they advise, we can have inviting gardens that are green, glorious and, yes, wonderfully water-wise.
Apiana Native Landscapes
141 Mail Rd., Lompoc
Creative Garden Design 805
341 Arden Ave., Buellton
Grace Design Associates
3010 Paseo Tranquillo, Santa Barbara
Pat Brodie Landscape Design
1115 Coast Village Rd., Montecito
Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine, Spring 2015.