Cool Green Gardens

Part I — When The Well Runs Dry

Summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime! It’s hard to think about summer without thinking about water. My Los Angeles suburban summers were all about spending the day in my best friend Scott’s pool or landing on our tailbones on a blindingly yellow Wham-O Slip ‘N Slide. With summer temperatures zooming past 100 degrees, our water use was partly about the fun and partly about survival.

Meanwhile, my parents were turning on the sprinklers, then forgetting about them.  Or dragging hoses around the yard to keep the very non-SoCal azaleas alive.

Not all climate zones can sustainably support a beautiful water feature like Portland’s Japanese Garden.

What about you? I’m guessing that water is very much on your mind this summer. I spend a bit of time at Twitter (you can follow me @coolgreengarden), directing smarmy comments at folks who complain about the rain ruining their weekends. My typical jealous retort is, “Pls send a few gallons west; we’re drier than a popcorn fart. Thx.” I’m known for my 140 character literary skills.




Water Conservation As A Way Of Life

Out here in Santa Barbara, we haven’t seen rain since early spring and probably won’t get another drop until November. That’s our normal Mediterranean weather pattern, but this winter was especially dry.  Exhibits A and B were the devastating back-to-back fires that put Santa Barbara in the national headlines in November ’08 and May of this year.

If you’re reading this post from a desert or semi-arid region of the country, you probably know where I’m heading. Water conservation has been a way of life since the earliest settlements, though our shortsighted community planning and landscaping practices have not always reflected the best practices. Not long ago, while I was in Palm Springs, I was floored by the acres of bright green lawns that irrationally festoon the desert. It’s the same everywhere–since the post-World War II housing boom, suburbia = lawns.

It’s Not Just The West

But what about the rest of you? Did last year’s water panic in the Atlanta area catch you off guard? What about the specter of the shrinking Great Lakes or how upstate New York reservoirs have sunk to their lowest historic levels?

A simple trickle of water can provide movement and
sound to your garden.

Perhaps it’s just a passing cycle, just a blip. Maybe next year the skies will open up and we’ll all be fine. I’m usually a cockeyed optimist, but not anymore—not when it comes to the big unknowns of climate change.

I think it’s time for all gardeners to assess how their plant choices and water management practices will be affected by a potentially diminished water supply. How will you triage your share of this life-giving liquid if your water purveyor tells you to get by on half your current allocation?

Will you stop drinking, cooking, bathing or washing your clothes? Not likely. Will you drive a dirtier car? You can probably live with that. If you have enough water left to irrigate your garden, I’ll bet that your fruit trees and other edibles will win out over the “Sweet Juliet” David Austin rose you sprung for at the garden show. Maybe not. Murder your lawn? Worth considering.

Start Adapting Today

Here’s my point. Although there are still those who deny global climate change, the overwhelming body of science tells us it’s here, now. You can start creating a more sustainable, water-wise garden today. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Many water agencies provide free water check-ups by trained experts to help you spot the easy fixes. Simple steps like fixing leaks, adjusting sprinklers and reprogramming your controller will reap big savings.
  • Move your landscape toward a more natural system by using native plants or those from similar climates to greatly reduce the need for supplemental watering.  
  • Trap water in rain gardens and retain moisture with a healthy layer of mulch. It’s just common sense.

In the thirty years that I have been designing sustainable landscapes for my clients, none have ever felt that they had sacrificed anything. Quite the contrary—their gardens are now more beautiful, more in harmony with the local environment and less of a financial drain.

In the remaining two installments of this series you’ll learn how simple modifications to your water management regimen and gardening practices, as well as minor changes in irrigation hardware, can reap huge benefits. You’ll lower your water bill, have more time to indulge in the fun part of gardening and help preserve a vital resource.

So for now, head out to your yard and write down three things you can do this weekend to make your garden a more water-wise paradise.

In the words of my governor, “I’ll be back.”

Read Part II.

View Comments


  1. Kate_Frank 07/09/2009

    Oh no you didn't. You did NOT use that dreaded popcorn phrase!

  2. GardenWiseGuy 07/09/2009

    Kate: I'm pretty sure I did. Wanna generate some traffic at this blog? I bit of jr. high eloquence is always a sure bet.

  3. Plantpassion 07/09/2009

    We've just had 3 weeks of dry weather here in Surrey, UK, - not months and months, just 3 weeks when the waterbutts have run dry and plants have not got their normal weekly downpour,and started to look very sorry for it. - if things are going to start to change, and the "dry as a popcorn fart" going to become a common place exclamation, then every one's going to have to look at water consumption, and you're right Billy, drinking, cooking and washing are going to come a lot higher up the list, - looks like more lawns will be murdered!

  4. cindylooo 07/10/2009

    Southern California get your rain barrels ready, El Nino is coming. Head for high ground. Duck and cover. Do something. Okay, plant your natives early?

  5. Rochelle013 07/10/2009

    From growing up in Seattle where there is a plethora of water to be had, to the Las Vegas desert has been a huge learning experiance for me.
    I want a lush beautiful green garden of the past, but my neighbors insist on growing a lush garden of rocks. Pretty rocks they are no doubt, placed very nicely. I'm sure they paid a lot for some of them.
    But it just aint me.
    So I have dedicated myself to having the garden that will grow here, I set the alarm (or the dogs wake me up) and turn on the soaker hose, and hand wand my garden anywhere from 4am to 5am.
    Things are working out nicely!
    I am happy to say that we have cooled down this week from 109 to 106.
    "Summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowing through the jazmine in my miiiiind...."


  6. Deziner 07/10/2009

    I'm in the same dry boat as you Billy.
    Not a drop here in N. California and there won't be for several more months.
    At my house we are conserving. The tiny patch of lawn ( if you could call it that) in the front yard is now a tiny patch of dead parched earth. What little water I use is directed to the most needed.
    I'm considering installing a permeable faux lawn to cut down on water use and mowing.
    On a professional level I've been doing water audits for clients to help them use their water more conservatively and lower their water bills.
    Some of the options we are implementing are : faux lawns, more mulch coverage, irrigation system renovation, plant removal, shade tree installation, hardscape installation to eliminate softscape, soil polymers and more.

    I haven't installed any grey water systems on a professional level but utilize my own grey water usage in my own garden. It's a rinky dink system that is fine for me but wouldn't pass professional muster.

    I need more instruction from both a code compliance perspective and a long term professional construction perspective.

    I think landscape designers have an opportunity , not to mention the responsibility to design environmentally conscience land systems , and water conservation is at the top of the list for us who live in arid regions.

  7. pomonabelvedere 07/10/2009

    I confess to loving a green lawn, but lawns look very weird to me in places where the rest of the grass is dry. Apparently they started as a status symbol in England: manors had lawns to prove they had enough land to NOT run animals or grow crops on part of it. As ever, the habits of the rich were adopted by the middle class in miniaturized form, then continued until everybody things the insanity is normal. I think it's one of our ways of pretending we're not really connected to the rest of nature.

    It is possible to have green lushness using appropriate plants in dry climates: I know this, because I've been doing it for years.

  8. denverwinegirl 07/11/2009

    I live in CO and moved here from NC; quite the change from high humidity to arid. I've spent 15 years building a waterwise garden and eliminating great expanses of grass and replacing with drought tolerant native plants.

    I quit using a sprinkler system after reconfiguring my lawn to fit the pattern of an oscillating sprinkler (not on purpose but maybe subconsciously?).

    It's funny, my neighbors have watched this effort but continued to water their big lawns, sidewalks and driveways and only recently have started to ask my secret to healthy grass with less water. Drought efforts have seen water prices rise as the water company needs to maintain revenue (got to love that, huh?) and with the economic issues many now face, saving some money on watering is now taking on a new importance.

    So, I've included my tips for this area in a blog post; not brain science, just some good fundamental tips for a healthier lawn that uses less water!

    We have had a lot of rain this spring, almost record breaking, so sort of moot points right now...but that could all change next week!

  9. conecrazy 07/12/2009

    We, as a nation, are the most wasteful people in the history of our planet. People in this country will only change their lifestyle when the last drop of oil is pumped out of the ground or all of our fresh water is gone. Until then we'll keep on driving big vehicles and water our lawns regardless if it needs water. That's one extreme. The other is let's murder our lawns. That's pretty extreme too. The answer is use common sense! Don't water when it's raining or at noon when it's 100 degrees.
    Don't make us lawn lovers feel guilty. You're damn right my lawn is a statement. I worked hard to get a great lawn. I know how to manage my green space organically and use my 10 zone irrigation system when needed. My landscape is full of wonderful bee, butterfly, and bird attracting plants. My yard is my oasis.
    Personally I think annual flowers are a GIGANTIC waste of money, time, soil, and WATER!!!!
    Now get off the computer and do some gardening!

  10. lavandula 07/20/2009

    It´s happening everywhere! We live in Chile. We used to have our fair share of Winter rains starting at the end of Fall (May). This year our first downpour happened in mid July which is well into Winter. We are still waiting for a few more showers but nothing. We run a medium size commercial orange and loquat plantation. We drip irrigate our trees (it´s done from an irrigation channel). The pump works steady from early Spring til the end of Summer. But the Summer seems to be extending into Fall each year.

    We installed a drip system in my garden as well (during the first year I had to use the well to irrigate). I has helped reduce dramatically the quantity of water spent and the plants love the consistency of the dripping system. They like their routine just like babies do. I have a beautiful garden. Everything has flourished. I sometimes indulge myself buying some roses and plants that require a bit more water but then I place them in more shady spots. The rest of my garden is almost drought resistant. I do not buy any more annuals because they require the same amount of work and water and cannot afford that. I would love to have a lawn for all to enjoy but I can´t. I wouldn´t be using my common sense. Nature around here, says no when it comes to lawns. So, the point in all this is to work with what one has gotten. I have plenty of rocks but still a lush garden because I choose my plants and flowers well, the same goes with bushes, and trees. And the drip system is magical!!!
    My husband is Irish and I lived 16 years in Los Angeles, California (I´m Chilean/American). I was never fully aware of the cause and effect of what we do and how it affects nature and us as a result. Not fully til we jumped into this farming project. It has opened my eyes to how nature works and the impact of our actions against it. Now I know that we cannot control nature. We cannot send a message and request rain and sun and else. The more we work against nature the more negative answers we will get.
    We have two small children aged 3 and 1.5. Sometimes I think of how we were raised. I never heard of anybody talking about climate change, the uncertainty of what the future would bring, disasters everywhere, etc. It can get pretty scary to think about the future now.

  11. philipwitak 07/20/2009

    pomonabelvedere [above] writes that lawns "...started as a status symbol in England: manors had lawns to prove they had enough land to NOT run animals or grow crops on part of it."

    for many years i have been under the impression that exactly the opposite is correct; that 'lawns' first developed as an unintended result of allowing livestock - primarily sheep - to graze continually on their property.

    can anybody confirm this one way or the other for me?

  12. ButterflyGirl 07/20/2009

    Hey Billy! We met in SF @ the garden show... good to see you on-line! My comments: i have let my lawns die each Summer for 3 years due to our West Coast drought... and am wondering what I am doing. The lawn in Summer provides what the English call "lungs" in the garden design. My "lungs" are brown, parched and make me not even want to be in my garden. After reading many comments, this is what I am thinking: find grass that is more drought tolerant, install in Autumn, water until the rains... then fertilize on a REGULAR basis and irrigate on a schedule to prevent brown-out during next year. My lawns are small, my garden is medium size. Usually, I have a high-water table and great water-holding soil. If I still lived w. sandy soil, I would plant CLOVER. This has great potential as a green "lawn" and brings nutrients UP from several feet underground... clover needs only to be mowed about once a month, and you must wear shoes (sandels) as the bees love to pollinate the flowers. it does not take alot of water, maintanance, and looks great year-around. I would also incorporate ALOT OF ORGANIC materials into the soil before making a lawn. The more the better. However, if your soil does NOT hold onto water for long, look into clover or the other alternatives... Thyme, Camomile, Ajuga, make great "lawns" that can be walked on some.... and check out the website for more ideas! ps. if you can support a lawn where you live- enjoy! we love croquet, ball games, laying around, and our grandchildren are learning about frisbee, hitting balls, catching balls, etc :)

  13. ButterflyGirl 07/20/2009

    opps - almost forgot:
    My David Austin Roses won out over my lawns!! and that, my friend, IS my compromise.
    I love Cottage Gardens, but YES! I am going towards more drought-tolerant plants each time I do research, design a garden, or go thru the garden centres.

    I do Garden Design for a living and LOVE plants. These choices are worth alot of our time and attention as we live thru yet another drought in the West.

    I am also praying for rain - as I do each year. Here in Northern California, we are having a very foggy and mostly cooler Summer !~ and I could not be happier, even if it has meant dealing with delayed blooms, and some weird things happening in my own garden.

    AND - one last thing: When you do water, it is best to WATER AT NIGHT, perhaps after 5-6 depending on when the sun goes down in your area..... and please, PLEASE, WATER DEEPLY. My father taught me that in the 50's (yes I am older, like Billy - na na na na! yeahh ) and it has been a great lesson to know.
    Water deeply, mulch, take care of your plants. The pleasure your garden gives you is worth ANY vacation, ANY time... and don't we all need that right now!!!

  14. GardenWiseGuy 07/20/2009

    I continue to be delighted and amazed at how much I continue to learn from all of your comments. Slowly but surely, people will learn that we need to work with what nature gives us, leave a light footprint on the planet and be resourceful. Thank you all for your thoughtful postings. More to come at this blog regarding our water use.

  15. mary lynn 07/20/2009

    In the words of the Carpenters, "We've only just begun" to feel the water crisis in the world. When we have to divert water from food production in Northern California to keep water flowing from taps in Southern Cal. as we do now, we have a biiiiiiiiig problem and that problem belongs to the whole country. The whole world, actually. Half the produce consumed in this country comes from Cal.

    Here in SoCal, my husband and I have built large, self-watering containers to plant veggies in. For about 30 gallons of water a week we have 4 tomato plants, 16 runner beans, 4 squash, 2 canteloupe, 2 watermelon, 4 pepper, 1 eggplant, 15 potato, 3 cucumber and numerous herb plants growing and producing. We will expand the garden next year.

    I read recently that most significant thing an average person can do to help combat climate change is to plant a veggie garden.

  16. Old_GA_Girl 07/20/2009

    think it's dry in Cal ? Georgia is drying up fast. If plants are'nt in by March-April you need to water them all the time. Freak summer now is a wetter one. Blazing sun on anything doesn't help. I plant veg out of necessity and economic disasters, to have something fresh, something tasty. Stores are too far away, vegetables expensive and old even with that green light they shine on them.
    I was amazed reading about MaryLynn's 30 gal water for a substantial container garden. My plants are in the ground because they have burned up in pots and planters. Interesting!
    As for GRASS - I cut it for mulch hay, compost, dig it out, or spray weed killer on it in the gravel driveway.

  17. mary lynn 07/20/2009

    Old_GA_gal, I expect as we move into our hot months that my water usage may double to about 60 to 90 gal/week but I still consider that trivial for all we are getting.

    I, too, have killed off numerous plants in containers before this. We're considering this our "Proof of Concept" year for both the containers and using heirloom seeds. It wasn't cheap to start, but everything can be reused.

    these guys were my inspiration:

  18. GlennC 07/21/2009

    Billy, billy, billy

    "Although there are still those who deny global climate change, the overwhelming body of science tells us it’s here, now". Puhleese Billy, get real.

    Scientists - you mean like Al Gore? - who denegrated every real scientist and geologist to push his agenda. Everyone who disagreed with him just has to be on the payroll of BIG OIL. Ya, Right

    But why don't you check to see what BIG AL has been doing - his net worth has gone up considerably - follow the money boys and girls - look to see what Gore is doing now. Every university that receives a climate study grant - shows positive results - and had better or there ain't gonna be any grant renewals.

    I'm not a pawn of big oil - but I am a Quaternary geologist
    - a geologist that deals with the sediments and deposits of the last great Ice Age - (look up Wisconsinan Glaciation for further info - and if real keen, the Sangamon Interglacial about 40-60000 years ago) I don't work for a university so I don't have a grant to lose. We (the human population) base our SHORT TERM observations on what has occured in our lifetime - weather was good last year or the last 20 years, grass and crops were great so why shouldn't they be good this year. BUT, LONG TERM 12000 years ago, northern Minesota, North and South Dakota and most of Canada were under at least a mile of Glacial ICE. Ocean levels were down by 600 feet and the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks were dry.

    Since about 10000 years ago the Continental ice sheet has been melting - as it continues to do today. About 8000 years ago Manitoba (central Canada and the northern United States was ice free) and we are now in what is called an Interglacial Period. Ocean levels continue to rise as mountain glaciers and the Arctic continue to melt. Climate IS changing but that started warming at least 10000 years ago and we are seeing at best a 100 year sliver of that time period. Don't forget, thousands of years ago the Sahara Desert was a lush vegetated area before "the climate changed" and it became a desert. Nobody will know that unless they have a serious interest in SCIENCE.

    The point I am trying to make is CLIMATE IS ALWAYS CHANGING and not always as we think it should. You may be bone dry in California and Atlanta, but up north here, we had a major flood this spring and there is is still so much water on the land that farmers couldn't get a large portion of their crops in. We've also enjoyed the coldest spring and summer in recorded history - Global what????

    The point is, don't whine, instead, adapt or die. Today is not yesterday and tomorrow won't be today. Can't grow grass and pretty flowers, then think about xeriscaping your lots - rocks are beautiful when interspersed with low maintenence plantings. I plan on doing this next year. There is so much you can do and I'm sure Fine Gardening has the answers.

    One thing Americans should really do is stop destroying aquifers by growing water intensive crops like corn and other similar food or oil crops for ethanol production. Do your research - search for the Great Ethanol Scam - and conserve your aquifers for food production and human consumption.


  19. ButterflyGirl 07/21/2009

    Glenn ~ I quite agree with you. This "new" Green Movement is just a ressurection of my coming of age time in the 60's & 70's. We were back-to-land people then, going Organic, being careful with our soil, land, water, seeds, etc ~ and the kids today are just learning all of that now. We did what OUR Grandparents did: kept farm animals, used their manure, made compost piles, learned how to save seeds, grew our own veggies & fruits, herbs & flowers. We learned how to garden HELPING nature, not destroying it. The beautiful flowers I grow ATTRACT so many beneficial insects, birds, etc and that keeps my garden in balance... then I do not need to rely on any artificial insecticides.
    Back to Glenn's comments ~ Yes, there is NO scientific proof of Global Warming my friends. This is TRUE. Here in Ca. we experience "periodic" droughts... there are several years there is little rainfall, followed by several years of good to extreme rainfall. I live in an area that has Redwood Tree Forests... our "average rainfall" is somewhere between 60-100". Lately, the past 3 years, it has only been 30-40"... and Yes, our Aquafirs (my sp. is horrible) are drying up, at an alarming rate. We are currently on water rationing. So, I am back to my 60's habits: I only shampoo my very long hair about every 3rd day... take really quite showers, or none at all, just little "sponge baths", we wash our hands & rinse our dishes OVER A BIG BOWL IN THE SINK... saving the grey water for some plants!! and on and on.... There are ways to be very conservative with water. I am also doing inventory of what space we have for new food crops. However, I live in a great area of farming people & each day there is a Farmer's Mkt. I can go to & support those great people. They grow much better produce than I do at this time. I grow only a bit - like lettuce & salad things that are much better right from the garden. My lawns are now brown & ugly, by my choice. I am going to install a Water Catchment System in the Autumn, and my Son-in-Law will be able to install this for us. It will provide a storage system for rainwater & pumps to give us back much needed water in Summer for our garden needs. This is the wave of the future! Esp. in the arid Western States, but really, anywhere that you need extra water for gardening. Consider doing this yourselves, using either a system above-ground or under-ground. It all depends upon what is needed.
    Meanwhile, enjoy your garden & keep getting inspired to take it to new levels.

  20. Loued007 08/14/2009

    I'l have to save this article for a rainy day - OPPS!! We can't seem to get a break from the rain in the Northeast. Mosquitos, runaway gardens and too-wet diseases are rampant this summer. Like us gardeners like to say...."You should have seen it last........."
    Thanks for the tips.

  21. BeWaterWiseRep 08/28/2009

    Having a water-wise garden is simple and it does help in reducing your water bill without compromising on the beauty of the garden. This becomes all the more important when fresh water levels have dropped significantly the world over. Simple tips can help save gallons of water per day. Some ways to a water-wise garden can be found at Pass this on to fellow gardeners and enjoy water-wise gardening!

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