Designing for the Drought

Photo source: The Argonaut, by Izumi Tanaka

Photo source: The Argonaut, by Izumi Tanaka

From the Argonaut, By Claire Kaufman, July 9, 2014:

What previously was a cramped yard with nothing but a nondescript, eroding path and grass that needed constant watering is now a water-tolerant paradise. A flat stone walkway weaves through the garden, interspersed with decomposed granite and lined with colorful bursts of salvia and lavender. Logs crackle in the outdoor fire pit as water shimmers down a six-foot wall. Adjacent to the swaying Japanese and weeping maple trees, a wraparound staircase leads up to majestic French doors through which the whole garden can be viewed from indoors.

This garden on Stewart Avenue in Mar Vista is just one example of the growing movement toward eco-friendly landscape design. Socially and environmentally aware Westside homeowners are taking control of their carbon footprint — and ballooning water bills — as they move away from glistening bright-green lawns and toward succulent-filled havens with edgy water-saving technologies and edible gardens.

“In the Association for Professional Landscapers, 99% to 100% of designers are hired for drought tolerant water-saving landscaping instead of more traditional garden design,” says Westchester professional garden designer Linda Rose Levine, who oversaw the Stewart Avenue garden’s transition.

Experimentation is key in creating playful and funky drought tolerant gardens, Levine says. The real fun comes after tearing out the lawn, when creative possibilities for refilling the space seem to be endless.

Any and all organic materials are fair game, including plants, rocks, boulders, decomposed granite, pottery and succulents. In fact, Levine explains that she often constructs fountains for her clients out of pottery and salt stone. In her own backyard, Levine has a “pond-less waterfall,” which recirculates and filters water to prevent waste.

In stark contrast to the uni-color spiny cactus gardens of the past, landscapers are using succulents of multiple hues and tones. Levine even chooses to use florae from the Mediterranean belt, which “come in a great, colorful variety and don’t require a lot of water,” she says. Other than the vibrant lavenders and effervescent roses, Levine tries to seek out exotic “showstopper” plants, such as spider lilies and black lilies. Her favorite plant is Dracunculus Vulgaris (also known as the dragon arum or voodoo lily), a genus from the Mediterranean that blooms once per year, revealing a long, fleshy appendage which can reach a length of about 20 inches.

Edible gardens are becoming characteristic of the new trend in landscape design. Due in large part to the local and organic food movement, Westsiders are more conscious of the “food miles” their produce travels to their tables. Instead of a simple “carrot-and-turnip” planter box, Levine suggests taking vegetables and intermixing them with flowers “to create a funky, bursting color palate that makes the garden more interesting.”

The options for water-saving technologies don’t stop at drip irrigation —new, innovative sprinklers such as MP Rotators and bubbler nozzles are an increasingly popular choice for their efficiency and higher aesthetic appeal. Techniques to curtail runoff and unnecessary spray range from staggering sprinkler timers to allow the water time to soak in to grouping plants in distinct zones according to water needs.

Beyond a reduced ecological footprint, people crave a natural, cozy yard that’s comfortable to spend time in.

Despite sunny days throughout the year, “I’ve had people tell me they’ve never even sat in their backyard,” says Levine, who makes it her mission to change that.