pathway

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!