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.

Save your garden in the California drought!


Use pavers in patterns to form a pathway in a useful area that needs no water in a California drought landscape.

How to grow a spectacular garden despite the California drought

Changing weather patterns are making headlines all over the country. While gripping cold and smothering snow and ice may grab the headlines, a quieter and more insidious weather phenomenon is making dangerous inroads on the West Coast: the California drought.

Three years ago the winter rainy season was stingy in California. Last year many spots broke records for lack of rainfall. This year the whole state is water-deprived and the open lands remain barren of green. Snow packs are severely low and life-giving water is not falling from the skies.  In the normally wettest month of the year there was no measurable precipitation.

Life can survive most extreme weather, but it can’t exist without water. As homeowners continue to spray lawns and gardens with automatic sprinkler systems, starving wildlife has begun invading houses and gardens in search of food and drink. And the ‘dry season’ hasn’t yet arrived.

The first impact will be seen on our gardens. Water restrictions are likely and supply prices will soar. Maintaining the average California garden will become expensive and difficult. So far we are being asked to voluntarily cut back on water usage 20%. This is not enough.

Even now, farmers are unable to plant their usual crops and due to escalating feed prices stock herds are being culled — meaning less meat supplies in the future. This will inevitably push up food costs across the board all over the country. Yet with the large population on the West Coast, drinking water must be a priority.

Californians will finally take this seriously when they see their water bills triple and are subject to rationing. No one wants to see their groomed front yards go brown or watch their landscapes die. But the gardens are going to be the first victims of a severe drought.

So with this dire outlook, what can we do?

Happily, this is the time to reinvent your landscaping – now, before the heat of spring and summer arrives. Your garden can look spectacular no matter what Mother Nature sends your way. Yes, cactus gardens are a good solution and can be designed to look great. But if that isn’t your style, there are other alternatives. Here are some approaches you can use to turn your outdoor space into something you’ll love that won’t drain the precious water supply – and will still look wonderful should the rains come.

Give up the lawn! Lawns were never native to California and there are many other options that will be ornamental and/or productive. Replace them with artistic patterns of colored gravel, brick, stone, decomposed granite or even tumbled glass. Or use artificial grass where you really want an area of lawn. Synthetic lawns are safer and more realistic than ever before. There are also ground cover plants like Dymondia and some of the eco-lawn seed mixtures that will be less thirsty for areas that must be green.

cactus landscape

Slab rocks and cactus plants gives a contemporary look to this Southern California garden that will easily survive the California drought.

Plant California drought-tolerant plants or plants from other parts of the world with a similar climate. Group plantings to create lush effects and surround them with non-living materials.

Build raised garden beds for edibles so the water is focused where you need it and not spilled away elsewhere. These beds can be defended from hungry wildlife with fencing and wire.

edible front yard

Raised vegetable gardens can look lovely and be productive. This yard is grown by Rosalind Creasy

Carve out useful spaces like entertainment patios, seating and dining areas, sport courts, outdoor rooms, child or pet play areas or decorative dry river beds. They use no water and expand living space.

Make your garden magical with art. Add sculptures, build colorful shade structures or pop in a small fountain of recycled water to calm the mind with the illusion of bountiful moisture (while using very little).

Provide deep watering for your trees since these are the hardest to replace if you lose living material in your landscape. Dig in deep tube feeders and line moats with slow-delivery soaker hoses.

‘Redesign’, ‘prioritize’, and ‘get creative’ are the catch-words that will help you create an artistic and low-water garden.

Saving water in a California drought will not only make your garden withstand dry years but it will save you maintenance labor and money. Using wisely chosen plants where they will have the greatest visual impact, surrounding them with non-living materials and adding interesting décor will make your property safer from wildfires and less dusty from winds while creating a three-dimensional artistic landscape.

This is the real point of “sustainable” gardening. The extreme drought gives us an excuse to try out real water-wise gardening and allows us to flex our creative thinking muscles. If even half of the California residential homes converted their gardens to this kind of redesign, even our severely reduced water supply would be a much smaller threat to the population. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, 50% of residential water use goes to outdoor landscapes. The percentage increases with the drier inland communities. We can make a difference in our personal lives and the welfare of the whole state during this extreme drought – and even after – by designing our gardens wisely.

So take a moment: what improvements can you make in your own garden for the California drought? How can you make your property more spectacular, less water-dependent, easier to care for, and more sustainable? Why not take the first steps now, while the temperatures are cool and comfortable so you will be ready to sit back and enjoy your smart but beautiful garden when the heat sets in? You can grow that, enjoy it and reap the benefits. As the gardens of your neighbors succumb to dry and heat, yours can remain beautiful and you can be the envy of the neighborhood!

What are the best palm trees?

palm trees

A group of assorted palms

Palms are very popular trees for landscaping, especially where the effect sought is a Mediterranean or Tropical look. Personally, I prefer to use plants that are native – or at least evolved reasonably close by. After years of designing for homeowners, however, I am aware that local natives don’t always offer the kind of effect wanted for the landscape design desired. Whether using local palms or not, it is important to use palm trees that are best for the area where they are being planted – both for appearance and for cultural needs. The best palm trees are those that will thrive and show off well in your landscape.

Two things to keep in mind are that unhappy and unhealthy trees will never look good, and young trees – including palms – can look very different than the mature specimens. It is important to choose the kind of palm that will grow well and look right when full-grown in the spot where it is to be planted.

Many palm trees handle a lot of heat but not all of them can tolerate the same degree of cold. Some are low growing whereas others tower high into the sky. Here is a quick reference list of the most commonly grown palm trees with their sizes and temperature preferences to help you select which palm trees are best for your landscape.

Smaller palms are best for limited space, to plant in groups or to mix into garden bedding areas.


  • Pigmy Date Palm (Phoenix roebelinii): can grow up to 10 feet high, but does so slowly. Temperature range is about 25°– 105°F
  • Dwarf Saw Palmetto Palms (Serenoa repens) can handle cold temperatures down to 0° F and grow only to 10’ – 12′, but heat and cold tolerance seem to vary widely depending on soil and location.

There are plenty of medium-sized palms. They are the most frequently used trees used in residential landscapes.


  • Mexican Blue (Brahea armata): grows 20 feet tall with a head of about 10 wide. Prefered temperatures are from 20° – 120°F.
  • Guadalupe Palm (Brahea edulis) reaches 20 feet in height with a diameter of around 15 feet. Give it from 20°- 105°F.
  • The European or Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamerops humilus) reaches about 30’ tall and 15’ across. It can grow with multiple trunks. Give it temperatures between 20° – 120°F.
  • Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei): grows 15’ tall with a small head of only about 5’ across. This is an attractive palm that can branch into multiple trunks, too. Temperature range is 10° – 115°F.
  • Pindo Palm (Butia capitata) stretches 20’ high with a relatively wide head of 15’. This palm is found in single stem or multi-trunked forms. It does well in temperatures from 15°- 120°F.
  • Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) is a very popular palm planted in Southern California. It will grow to 30 feet tall and is best at temperatures between 25° – 115F°.

Use large, tall palms only where they have the space go grow an where they will look proportional with the rest of the landscape.


  • The California Fan Palm (Wahingtonia filifera) is a very tall palm topping out at 60’ to 90’ tall and dwarfing its own 15’ wide head. It will grow at temperatures from 10° -120°F.
  • Chinese Fan Palm (Livistona chinensis) is another palm with a wide head growing to 40’ high and 20’ wide. It will handle temperatures in the range of 20° – 110°F.
  • The Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta) is often seen towering along Los Angeles streets on its single trunk soaring up to and over 100’ high. It’s easy to grow  but often looks more like a sky-scraper telephone pole. It enjoys temperatures from 15° – 120°F. It self-seeds very easily and fruit/seeds are carried distances by birds, often germinating where not wanted.
  • A more graceful grower, the Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis) grows slowly to 60’ tall with a wide head of 35’. Not liking it really cold, give this clump forming palm a temperature range of 25° – 110°F.
  • Also attractive is the Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) which also reaches 60’ tall with a wide head of 25’. Like the Canary Island Date Palm, grow it in temperatures from 25 °– 110°F. This one can also form a multi-trunked clump.
  • The Senegal Date Palm (Phoenix reclinata) is one of the widest of the clump forming palms. It grows to a modest 40’ tall but fills a large space with a 30’ width. Not very frost tolerant, it needs temperatures between 30 °– 110°’F.

This is not a comprehensive list of palms for landscaping. There are many more, but these are some of the more popular, multi-use varieties. Use them in rows for living walls and fences, groups to create oasis clusters, individual specimens as a focal point, or spaced for shade. Keep palms cleaned of dead leaves for smooth trunks and to avoid attracting pests.



Preparing the Garden for Planting in the Southern California garden

Garden bed prep

Getting your soil ready to plant

In Southern California and other mild-winter climates, winter months offer cool weather to make working in the garden a pleasant job and enough rain to make digging soil easier. Winter is also the best time to prepare new garden beds for planting. Whether you are starting a new garden or cleaning up an old one, here are some suggestions you can keep in mind to make sure you start out right. Start by properly preparing the garden for planting. Good preparation can make the difference between a great garden and a disappointing one.

Prepare your garden soil. Dig over the upper surface of your soil and remove larger stones and sticks. When you dig over the soil, you will be aerating it and cutting down on weed germination. Deep digging is usually not necessary and can disturb the natural balance of living and non-living materials below.  Turning the soil is the perfect time to add any organics or other soil amendments that might make your soil into a better home for the plants you plan to plant. For native California plants, many drought-tolerants and most cacti and succulents, add no extras to your soil. Most of the inland chaparral has the well-drained, low-organic soil these plants want. City areas tend to have more clay which is rich in minerals, but drains poorly so these soils will do well with added sand, pebbles or other soil conditioners.

Add compost for the more traditional garden plants, and if you want to try any of the acid-lovers like azaleas, camellias or gardenias, plan on digging in plenty of peat, moss or other acid soil amendments. Expect to babysit acid loving plants inland as local hard water might be neutralizing all your efforts to keep these plants happy. They are best grown in small, contained beds or pots where you’ll have the most control over keeping down alkalinity. Most of the Southern California city areas have softer water and will find it easier to grow acid-loving plants.

Remove as many weeds as you can. Hand removal and hoeing are easiest when weeds are small. If you have a new garden bed where there are likely to be left over roots or weed seeds that will become problematic in the spring, you might want to lay down a covering of black plastic that will heat up in the sun and fry some of those nascent problems below. Layers of newspaper will also help to suffocate unwanted weeds in the unplanted soil. Leave the covering on top of the soil for at least a month during winter before planting. Expect some tough roots like dandelion or Bermuda grass to survive despite your best efforts.

Build your new garden bed with provisions to discourage pests. Line the bottom of new planters with hardware cloth or small gauge chicken wire to discourage gophers from burrowing up from below. Try surrounding beds with solid or wire walls or where rabbits can are looking to feast off of your young plants. Preparing for pests when the garden planter is new will save you a lot of frustration and retrofitting later.

Make new vegetable beds safe. Be cautious about introducing toxic materials to edible gardens. If you are using railroad ties or treated wood for construction, you may want to line the vegetable plot with plastic sheeting. Railroad ties can leach creosote into the soil and there is some concern about the chemicals used in preserved wood, though the question is still under debate. Both these materials make good surrounds for gardens, but you might want to stay safe by lining the interior of vegetable gardens.

Factor in irrigation early. Most garden plants will need extra water during Southern California’s hot, dry summers. If you install your watering systems before planting, you will avoid damaging the root systems of your plants. A successful landscape will have more than one type of irrigation. Woody plants and drought-tolerant plants usually appreciate slow, deep watering. Lawns prefer staying moist within the top inch or so of the soil. Popular bedding annuals and the majority of vegetables like plenty of water. Container gardens need carefully placed irrigation. And hillsides should be treated differently from level areas. There are a lot of different systems to choose from even within the categories of drip, sprinkler heads, soakers and water flooding applications. If you do a little research you can set up the best system for each area you plant encouraging strong, healthy growth with little water waste. Once you start placing your plants, you can tweak the spacing and volume to make your irrigation efficient.

Plan out your garden beds before planting. Then buy plants and set them where you want first. It is easier to move them around before you actually put them in the ground. Plan them out for their full growth size leaving plenty of room for them to grow. Again, spending a little extra time in the preparation is likely to make for more successful new garden beds.

It may take a little more time to set up your garden planting carefully at the start, but the savings in time and expense later will more than pay you back. Plus, seeing your plants thriving and showing off beautifully as they grow in will certainly make the effort worthwhile.



Summer is fine for planting cactus and succulents in Southern California

succulent landscape

Cactus and succulent plants make decorative and easy care landscape gardens in Southern California.

Summer can become very hot in Southern California. The beaches stay cool from the influence of the ocean and this is probably why coastal areas are so heavily populated. As you move inland air dries and temperature ranges increase making 90 to 110 degree (F) daytime highs commonplace, depending on where you live.

All areas in this part of California experience little to no rain during the summer months. That means that gardens should be well planned to fit the soil conditions and climate. Cactus and succulent plants have adapted to handle periods of drought by storing water in their stems or leaves. The result is the fascinating array of sculptural shapes and forms that these plants grow in. Because they come in all shapes, sizes and colors, cacti and succulents can be as decorative as flowers. Plus, they will handle the long dry summer season of Southern California better than most other garden plants. Summertime is a good time for planting cactus and succulents.

Because water can be stored in plant tissues, these plants are not totally dependent on their root system. They need a good root system to take up water and to support their weight, but the system does not have to be as extensive as one that needs to supply a constant intake of water.

Water is a headline-making topic for all of the Southern California area. And it’s not going away any time soon. So using plants that are adapted to periods of drought in your garden is clearly a smart idea.

In the dry heat of the summertime, it can be a challenge to plant trees, shrubs and flowers, especially in more inland gardens. They will all need special attention – unless you use cactus and succulent plants. Not only do these water-storing plants enjoy the sunshine and dry air of Los Angeles County and San Diego area  summers, but they prefer to be planted dry. That means you don’t have to fuss over them. A dry, sandy soil is ideal, but they will adapt to any fast-draining medium, including the decomposed granite common to the hills and canyons. Planting cacti and succulents in dry soil encourages the roots to stretch out in search of water, growing the root system into surrounding soil for stability.

The one thing you want to avoid with cacti and succulents is the combination of cold and wet together. If you live in parts of Southern California where temperatures drop during the winter rainy season, make extra sure your plants are set in sandy or stony soil that quickly drains water away from the body of your plants. These areas are best planted in the summertime. Cacti and succulents do well in coastal gardens, too, and are safe from frost damage in the winter. They can be planted any time of the year, but the dry summer is still preferred.

Summer is the perfect time to get these plants established in Southern California. Check into the varieties you are buying to make sure they will match your micro-climate. Some cacti cannot handle any frost and some succulents will burn in full sun.

Use these plants mixed in with other garden flowers, in beds of their own, as lawn replacements and/or to cover hillsides. Use big, bold plants like the agave as a focal point or small plants like sedum for ground cover. Create a succulent dish garden in a flat container or by using a pot. Or make your landscape into a three-dimensional painting by adding rocks and garden décor. There are so many ways these plants can be an asset to the garden while fitting in nicely with our water concerns here in Southern California.


Australian native plants for Southern California landscaping

Australian flower Grevillea

Grevillea Mason Hybrid (Photo by Jane Gates)

As sustainability in garden design grows in popularity, gardeners and designers alike search to expand the palette of plants and visual effects. In Southern California water is likely to become more of an issue due to our large population whether or not we get a year of good rainfall.  We really need to make sure we design our landscapes for our dry climate. And there are some fine possibilities offered by Australia’s native plants for Southern California landscaping.

Although conditions in different parts of the world will vary, many Australian native plants will thrive well alongside other drought-tolerant and chaparral plants from the Mediterranean, California, South Africa, Texas, Arizona and other low rainfall climates. With some very showy flowers, leaves and growth forms, many native plants from Australia are becoming available in garden centers for the waterwise garden.

Some Australian native plants will probably be familiar to you like the often-used Bottlebrush or many of the Eucalyptus trees. Some varieties of Australian garden flowers are simply too fragile to do well in the harsher higher elevations or inland areas of Southern California, despite their eye-catching beauty; plants like the flamboyant Proteas or Banksias.

But here’s a little information about some more interesting drought-tolerant Australian plants that will do well in many Southern California landscapes. You might want to incorporate some of these into your garden.

Most Australian plants have evolved on lean soils with a lot of sun and periods of drought. If you are going to be successful growing them, you will need to give them conditions that mimic the ones they developed in. These plants, on the whole, prefer a slightly acid soil and most of them are shy of phosphorus so avoid using it in your plant foods. Some will take frost, but most will not survive hard frosts so if you want to grow them in the higher elevations where winters get snowy and icy, you will have to do it in a sun room, greenhouse or a pot so you can bring them inside in the winter.

Not all the Eucalyptus plants will fare well in all parts of the state, but now that the devastation caused by the invading lerp insect has lessened, you might want to plant the red gum tree or the cider gum tree (Eucalyptus gunnii ‘Silverdrop’) where conditions are more harsh than near the coast. The latter tree offers branches that are often used for flower arrangements. Eucalyptus trees can grow from small-sized specimens to very tall ones. Most have fascinating bark that can come in colors and textures. And most have very showy flowers.

Callistomon Little John

A young plant of Callistemon ‘Little John’ (Photo by Jane Gates)

The familiar Bottlebrush is an Australian native tree that has a smaller, shrubbier, more appealing variety you can use in your garden. Callistemon ‘Little John’ grows to only 3 – 5′ tall and will have the same showy flowers without the lanky, overgrown look common to its larger cousins.

The Hardenbergia is a graceful vine. This plant will drape over walls, trellises and fences. It is evergreen with narrow leaves and thin, twining stems so it has a delicate look to it. In late winter it covers itself with panicles of hanging purple (or pink) flowers that dangle like little grape clusters.

Desert Cassia

Desert Cassia in bloom (Photo by Jane Gates)

Check into the family of Acacias or Cassias for some very showy yellow or white-flowered shrubs and trees. Acacia or ‘wattle’ is a big family of plants that range from ground-cover plants to small trees. Most bloom with bright clusters of fuzzy yellow flowers. Often Acacias have a wonderful perfume. Try the decorative Knife-leaf Acacia (Acacia cultriformis) for a graceful, fanning, large shrub or small tree with an artistic flair. Or cover your hillsides with the low-growing, ground-cover Acacia redolens ‘Low Boy’.

Grevillea noelii

The Grevillea noelii (Photo by Jane Gates)

There are spectacular flowers offered by the Grevillea family. This is another large native family that offers low-growing plants, medium shrubs or trees. The blooms have that Australian hook-like brush appearance, mostly in a cone shape, and come in a whole range of exciting colors. Some also have somewhat decorative leaves while others look almost spruce-like.

The Hakea family tends to be made up of shrubs and small trees, too. Blooms can be very showy and come in a lot of different colors. Most Hakeas have brittle or scratchy foliage and some can look a lot like small fir trees when out of bloom.

The Anigozanthus, or Kangaroo Paws, are becoming quite popular in gardens because they are so unusual-looking. They do need good drainage and some varieties will need protection from cold. There are small varieties to 1′ tall and some that grow to 5′ in height. They grow in clumps of strap-like foliage and throw up curious flower spikes with fuzzy paw-like flowers. Varieties come in reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and greens — some in a unique bright blue-green. These, too, make good cut flowers as well as powerful accents in the garden.

These are only some of the many amazing-looking Australian native flowers and plants now available for the garden. There are many more. Use these plants in the Southern California landscape to add texture and beauty. They will illicit curiosity and envy from all your garden visitors!