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.