Drainage in drought prone areas

water will carve its own path

Over time, water will dig its own pathway if no other drainage is provided.


After four years of extreme drought, gardeners in drought prone areas have been thinking about using as little water as possible. Then comes the inevitable rainy year. In Southern California, everyone prepared for the big rains of an El Niño year. And it never came. But that doesn’t mean we won’t get rainy winters. Sooner or later, there will be some torrential downpours to deal with – even in drought prone areas. So how do we garden for heavy rain, flooding and erosion as well as serious drought? We factor in proper drainage.

Like anything in life, it’s all about balance. Water-wise means being thoughtful about using water wisely whether there is too much or too little. So, a well-designed garden will make provisions for all possibilities. Drainage, water storage, efficient usage of applied water, smart plant choices, landscape areas that don’t deal with water at all – these are all aspects that combine in a successful, sustainable and good-looking garden.

mud flow

Unguided water flows downhill turning hillsides into mud flows.

Before you consider installing a backyard landscape make sure you attend to the drainage. Not only can the most beautiful landscape be ruined by poor drainage, but the integrity of any structures—including your home—can be at risk for water damage. Provisions to improve backyard water drainage should be made at the beginning of landscape installations. You can retrofit drainage, but you will have to dig up your garden to do it. If you find yourself having to retrofit drainage and you do not have time to avoid damage from imminent rains, use stop-gaps. Dig temporary trenches to direct water to a safe exit point, pile sandbags to wall off vulnerable areas where damaging precipitation can rise and flood, and make sure all run-off routes – whether they are pathways, gutters, mud vee-ditches or anything else – are open and clear of debris.

If you are building or retrofitting a landscape, start with placing drainage at the lowest point(s) of your back yard. All general land surfaces should have a slope of at least 2% toward your drainage area. Many backyard properties, especially in more recently built homes are constructed with a gentle swale. A swale is simply a mild depression in the land that will conduct water away from the house. If you have no swale look for the lowest level in the lay of your backyard ground surface. This is where water will normally pool so it is the best place to consider placing a drain. A swale will guide water out of harm’s way. (You can dig your own swale if you need one.) Adding underground drainage beneath the swale offers a pipeline for extra security and to handle large volumes of water.

Dig a trench that follows the existing swale or create your own swale using the low areas of your back yard. This will be the collection area for the water to flow. Make sure the channel you create is at least six feet away from the walls of your house. The drainage needs to cross your back yard and right angle down the side of your house to open onto a street or other acceptable drainage area. Ideally, you should run exiting drainage down both sides of the house making a “U” shape.

Lay 3 inch or 4 inch corrugated, perforated or unperforated pipe made specifically for this purpose into your trench at a depth of six inches or more. You can use prefabricated connectors to extend pipes or to turn corners. (The fewer turns and the wider the angle, the faster water can flow away.)

Slot tee joints along the drainage pipe at least every ten feet, especially where the pipe lines are at their deepest levels. Either end of the tee will join the two parts of the main line pipe together. Point the stem of the tee upward toward the sky. The open end of the tee should rise up level to the bottom of the swale.

Place a pre-formed drainage grid over the open part of the pipe. It will slot smoothly over the top of the pipe. The grid will keep leaves, stones and other materials from pouring into the pipe. Plan on regularly checking the depressed area that conducts water into the grid since blown leaves and other material can collect and clog the drain surface.

Bury the pipe leaving the swale or depression in place above so water will collect there rather than sheeting toward the house or gathering in places where it isn’t wanted. As water from heavy rain pours into the lowest ground levels it will be guided down through the opening into your pipe system created by the upside-down tee joint and safely conducted away.

Great ldeas for lawn replacements

This drainage conducts water down a hillside and out to the street with the illusion of being a dry riverbed.

These are guidelines for setting up a basic drainage line, although some materials and local codes will vary from state to state. There are more involved designs you can use and different materials — like French drain concepts — where broken stone, rock or chopped concrete will form an underground channel to guide water where you want it without using a pipe (or to surround and enhance water flow around an underground pipe). Variations on this can take the form of decorative dry riverbeds, artistic channels cut through outdoor flooring, brick waterways or other passageways. You can make drainage into part of the design of your landscape or hide it so it functions without drawing attention. However you decide to design your drainage, just make sure you include it.

Drainage in drought-prone areas can be easy to overlook, but flooding can happen even without rain. Broken water lines, flooding from over-filled swimming pools and neighbors’ water overflows can lead to disaster if your property is not equipped to handle excess water. Pretty or not, the safety and beauty of your home and garden can be dependent on a good drainage system.

Growing the ‘New Climate’ garden


rain clouds

A well designed garden will thrive with rain or drought.

As the weather becomes more extreme all over the world, polar ice caps melt, technology shrinks distance with instant communications and the biggest population of human beings ever to walk the earth are now traveling from one place to the next transporting lifeforms of all types planet-wide, Mother Nature is finding her own ways to adapt to a changing world. We can individually reclaim harmony and sanity with a sustainable garden to adapt to nature’s changes.

mixed vegetables

A crop of mixed vegetables from a small garden

We need to look at the bigger picture. Gardening, something too many people are ignoring in the frantic demands of everyday scheduling, is quietly becoming one of humanity’s greatest tools for survival. Food production is changing. Profitability has thus far triumphed over sustainability and long term human health. So avoiding chemical and hormonal additives as well as eating nourishing fruits and vegetables is now a project for each individual. Chemical pollution (plenty of which is added by the home gardener) threatens water resources – again something we individuals can impact. And so many diseases are being traced back to the stress we impose on ourselves – another area where our gardens can help us heal.

Whether your local area is experiencing cold, heat, dry or wet weather, you can grow a garden that will help you and your family to grow a ‘New Climate’ garden that can make a difference to your quality of life. You can deal with extreme weather by designing good drainage and places to trap and store water.

rain barrel

Rain barrels can blend with attractive landscapes.

You can build in protected areas to shelter your favorite plants from too much cold or heat and even recycle old tubs and glass shower doors, turning them into protective vegetable gardens or cloches to extend your food growing season. (Recycling will save you from having to buy new materials while increasing trash in your home or in landfills.) Add decorative umbrellas or overhangs to provide shade from hot sun. Or plant in pots (or creative recycled containers like old sinks, broken fountains or even old toilets for a bit of humor) in sunny spots in gardens that have too much shade.


Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs beckon visitors to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Look to your garden to extend your living space, add a place for rest and relaxation, meditation, play, hobbies, entertainment, outdoor rooms, sports and whatever else can give your mind and body a chance to heal from daily stress. There is always some nook you can fill with herbs, a dwarf fruit tree in a pot, a favorite vegetable – or a whole vegetable garden for fresh, healthy food. Surround yourself with beauty. In our fast-paced techno-society we are losing the magic of fine arts, replacing them with quick, cheap forms of immediate gratification and we seem to be finding ourselves more impatient, angry and frustrated than ever. Surround yourself with the shapes and colors of nature’s garden and in will fly birds to supply natural music and butterflies to brighten your heart. We are learning how very important ‘mindfulness’ is to our mental and physical health. Ironically, we have everything we need provided for us naturally. We can then add our human ingenuity to create works of art, spaces for fun and activity and centers for delicious food, rest and relaxation and places to share our ideas, laughter and love.

backyard entertaining

Design your yard to entertain.

Yes, the ‘New Climate’ may be changing the weather, but it’s larger than that: it is a loss of being grounded to the bigger picture of life. There are so many great ideas to help you create a thriving garden despite changes in weather. You don’t have to look far to enrich your life by balancing the speed and demands of the changing technology and social climate with the secrets of wisdom mankind has known for thousands of years. Look to your own garden. You may find you can thrive better with your own version of a new climate to grow in!

What to do with holiday plants


mixed conifers

Little Christmas tree holiday plants can grow into lovely, but massive trees.

After the holidays decorative house plants can start to wear out their welcome. But don’t just throw them out. Depending on the kind of plant and where you live, you may be able to repurpose your ornamental living holiday plants  into year-round friends.

The most common indoor plant at Christmastime is the Christmas tree. True conifer trees – whether in small table size or big pots – are not ideal house plants. Almost all commonly sold for Christmas will live outdoors, though, in almost any part of the country. Most will be able to go outside even in the winter where they can be kept regularly watered in large pots until they are needed for next year’s holiday, or they can be planted permanently in the ground. Move your tree gradually into the open winter environment. It will need to adapt a little at a time over a week or two from the warm, dark indoor climate it has been used to. One word of warning, before you plant out your Christmas tree, check what variety it is. Most trees are only little immature versions of the 60’ – 120’ monsters they will grow to be. If your tree is one of these, only plant it where a very big mature tree will have room to grow!

Flowering potted bulbs are often colorful holiday visitors. The showy amaryllis is a favorite gift and is versatile enough to spend years indoors as a decorative plant. Other bulbs may re-bloom year after year if given the care they need. Some are happier planted out in the garden if soil is not frozen. Hyacinths are commonly forced into bloom (brought into flower at a time of year not typical for them to bloom) for the holidays and, although they will skip their usual spring flowering, they will settle right into your garden if you plant them out after the holidays. (Again, let them adapt to the cooler, brighter outdoor climate a little at a time.) They will slip back into their regular flowering schedule the next year.

The Poinsettia is another well-known potted plant gracing holiday rooms. If you live where frost is uncommon, you can probably plant yours out in the garden. Expect it to grow large and lanky, but bloom reliably at the end of future summers. You can also experiment with overwintering it and forcing it back into bloom for next year’s holiday by controlling daylight hours.

A curious tradition has popped up of spray-painting Poinsettias and cacti bright colors or sprinkling them with glitter. These are temporary ‘costumes’ and should be allowed to fade away as new, normal colored growth takes over. It should have no effect on transitioning plants (again, slowly) to new outdoor homes.

Gardenias and Azaleas are also popular holiday plants due to their Christmassy red and white colored flowers. Christmas cactus plants, orchids and begonias are also good plants that can adapt to indoor living year round if they are given good light, proper soil and water. The last three are tropical plants and can go outdoors only in warm climates or gentle summers. Boxwood and rosemary Christmas trees are shrubs that will do well out in the garden if your climate is a match.

Too Much Sun? Too Much Rain? What’s a Southern California Garden to Do?

Southern California wiinter garden

Southern California garden in the winter


Prepare the Southern California garden for whatever the weather offers

Although the holidays are forefront in many people’s minds, the winter is beginning and 2016 is just around the corner. What will the weather bring us? How will affect us and the Southern California garden? Forecasts have this winter as being a record breaking deluge. Or maybe the rains will miss us altogether. Time will tell. Filling up our water storage reserves will be a welcome event for California, but too much rain all at once can spell disaster. Don’t let the weather ruin your holidays. Keep your home and garden prepared so you can focus on family and fun.

One of the reasons I advocate “water-wise” gardening is because the term takes into consideration the best ways to efficiently put water to work in your landscape. That needs to cover drought years, El Niño winters of heavy rainfall, and years of in-between precipitation.

Planting in Southern California

Prepare your Southern California garden in winter months. (Sketch by Jane Gates)

Historically, we live in a dry climate; low humidity, low rainfall. Most of our soil is low in organics due to millennia of sparse, desert-like native growth (as opposed to the thick acid soils that have evolved in heavily forested parts of the country where rains are plentiful and centuries of these plants breaking down into natural compost has created an entirely different soil structure) and high in minerals from rock erosion.

Also, historically, we have gone through many extreme droughts that have lasted from a few years to a several decades. All have been peppered with rainy years, some even offering torrential rains.

If we are to receive pounding rains this year, here are some actions you should take right away.
• Clean out your house gutters, downspouts and drain areas so water will not back up.
• Dig out filled-in vee ditches (those cement vee-shaped depressions that were built to protect you from sliding mud).
• Walk your property and note depressions or low areas that can fill with water – especially if they lead up to your home or other structures. Then dig a swale (a channel that leads to a safer drainage area) to conduct the water safely away.
• Have your roof checked for potential leaks.
• Clean up your yard so there is no material that could blow or float into a water dam (or catch on fire should wild fires burn in your area).
• Cut off dead tree branches or living branches that could scrape against your house in wind and rain.
• Tie down or put away items that could be blown over, swept into swimming pools, smack into windows or structures or become dangerously airborne.
• Consider building in ways to save water in your landscape.

Think about designing your yard to be water-wise in drought or rain. Cool months can offer opportunities for sketching out ideas, building and planting new designs. New plants will establish roots better with natural, aerated rain than with treated, expensive city water. Digging is easier in moist (but NOT wet) soil. And there are some excellent new designs out there to create your own water storage in both underground tanks and above-ground barrels as well as other ideas for rainwater harvesting. These can be integrated into artistic designs and become aesthetic assets as well as practical water (and money) savers. Designing to make your landscape efficient and easy-care can actually make your garden look showier if done right.

Take steps now to make sure your landscape and home are prepared no matter what weather we have this winter. And consider redesigning your outdoor space so you never have to be anxious about extreme weather or the inevitable, increasing water rates (which, as I understand it are scheduled to increase considerably over the next few years to pay for growing population demands, additional home construction and infrastructure repairs – whether we have more rain or not!).

Now’s the time to prepare your landscape for this year’s winter to keep your home safe. Then enjoy the holidays — and any other time of the year — with more peace of mind. And look forward to enjoying a gorgeous, useful, low-maintenance garden come the springtime! Are you ready to begin?

Berries are the best


growing berries

black berries on the vine

People have grown and picked berries from the most primitive times. There is something so basic about picking berries that it almost rivals a session with a top therapist. When I was young, I loved wandering the woodlands of New England and filling cans with tiny native blueberries that would later be baked into pies with an intense flavor and inky blue-black color that has never even been approached by those huge, bloated, flavorless “blueberries” sold in markets today.

In England I delighted in fingers stained red and black from cropping raspberry and blackberry vines. In hot, dry Southern California I still look forward to the early summer picking of boysenberries and grapes. Last year I added the brilliant scarlet-orange ovals of Gogi berries. I’ve even been able to decorate boring rain barrels by topping the barrel off with a bowl of cascading strawberry plants.

There are all kinds of berries on sprawling plants, vines – some spiny, some not – and shrubs. The harvesting is as much fun as the baking and in most cases, there are more eaten while cropping than make it to the kitchen for cooking. They are great in pies and cookies, salads and sauces for poultry and other meat dishes, raw with ice cream, whipped cream or mixed together with other fruits. There are recipes galore for all types of berries.

The good news is that there are berries that grow in practically any climate or soil so you can grow them in your garden. They cover walls and fences, wind over archways, form neat shrubs for edging or backgrounds. Their versatility allows to them to fit into any style landscape.

Growing berries is the best. You get vitamin D from standing in the sun cultivating and cropping them. Eat them for their flavor, nutrition and fiber. If you grow enough, you can share them with family and friends or with the wildlife that has known how good they are for a long, long time.

And then there is the health value: all of a sudden medical researchers are discovering berries are storehouses of anti-oxidants, low in calories, offer soluble dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, are considered antimicrobial and show cardio-protective effects as well as protection against urinary tract infections. Neuroscientists found feeding blueberries to rats seemed to delay mental deterioration due to age. More connections have been made with improving eyesight and cholesterol reduction. The list goes on. If even just some of these benefits are true, eating delicious berries should be at the top of your health benefits gardening list.

Since berries are decorative in the garden, come in a wide range of flowers and growth habits and are not demanding in culture, it seems like every garden should consider finding a spot for at least a plant or two. You can even add them to a design for an edible front yard. Considering the health benefits and joy of harvesting bowls of colorful little fruits along with all the other pluses, I can’t help conclude that berries are the best. Since there are so many kinds, there’s no excuse not to grow them in your garden. At least one, two or ten kinds should do well where you live. So which berries are going into your landscape next?

Will El Niño save California gardens?


Sustainable garden

How can we grow sustainable gardens that look good with rain or drought?

It seems to be an amusing quirk of human nature: we tend to believe that the way things are now is how they will always be. Even though we have brains that allow us to understand abstract thought like past and future and how nothing in the existing world stays the same, we conduct our lives conveniently forgetting to use this ability. Californians have been resisting the concept of our being in overall drought conditions for the past decade. We didn’t have time to worry about it, and there was at least one year of memorable high rainfall (yes, a moderate El Niño) several years ago. But with the last three years offering such dismal precipitation it’s becoming difficult not to notice dying trees, high water bills, drying wells and disappearing water storage levels – along with all the high profile media warnings.
California gardens are feeling the impact of the drought on landscapes, and, of course, the water boards have made everyone sit up and pay attention with escalating water bills and irrigation restrictions. Still, there are people who deny there is any climate change. There is no guarantee that they are wrong and things could turn around in the first of a series of rainy winters. With the expectation of a coming El Niño year, everyone wants to expect weather will return to normal (or within previous climate expectations) and everything will go back to the way it was. Magic. One year of rainfall and everything is all better.

But reality is that we don’t know what the future climate will be over extended years and some damage (like the permanent lowering of land where too much subterranean water has been extracted) cannot heal. Mother Nature always has some variety to offer each year so even if we are in a permanent or temporary cycle of drought, it is inevitable that some years will offer breaks in the pattern and offer rain – maybe even lots of it.

We need to look at the larger picture. For the last three years experts forecast El Niño rains in California that never materialized. The latest predictions seem pretty convincing. Only time will tell. But even if we have huge rains in a single season, much will run off of drought-hardened soil and wash into the ocean. If rain continues and starts to soak in, we could see mud, erosion, slipping hillsides and flooding. But those same experts also warn it would take several consecutive years of heavy rainfall to replace all the water that has been denied over the past decade. So if the winter of 2015- 2016 does offer heavy precipitation, it will still not be enough to return all our resources to normal storage limits – not with the demand of our large and ever-expanding population.

Whatever happens with coming rainy seasons, the best thing we can do is to be ready for…anything. Rather than discussing drought-tolerant gardening, I’d prefer calling it water-wise gardening. We need to be wise about how much water we use when there is a limited amount available and how we can store it when faced with excesses. A water-wise garden has excellent drainage to protect all structures from water damage in heavy rain, cisterns – like rain barrels, underground storage or other provisions for saving extra water, permeable paving to resist erosion, and plantings that drain well with rain yet remain firm in hot, sunny drought. We can build these landscapes. If design well they can be stunning to look at. With changeable weather they can be durable. Gardening with forethought of the bigger picture will avoid expensive disasters, create sustainably with the environment, offer outdoor spaces that not only look great but are useful and fun, and are easy to maintain. We can be victims of the weather or we can act now to turn our landscapes into gorgeous protectors of our homes, lifestyles and the environment. This is an opportunity to come up with better-than-ever gardens.

To landscape our properties wisely means we don’t have to hope for El Niño to rescue our gardens while fearing the damage from heavy rain. We don’t have to flinch at water use regulations. We can see the ‘new gardening’ as an excellent opportunity to rethink habitual gardening that has been stuck in the same place for a century. This is not a bad thing. Instead it is a chance to extend the renovations we’ve been doing on the interior of our houses to the outdoors and make our lives better and easier.

Everything changes. Even the long-term weather. Will we be in store for more drought or flooding? We can worry about it or hope that El Niño will rescue our gardens this coming year and put out of our minds what might follow in the next years. Or we can use those creative, abstract-thinking minds of ours and take this opportunity to use our outdoor property to improve our living conditions, surround our lives with beauty, and work with nature to get the best out of our land, our lives and our homes.