Posts Tagged ‘water’

I’ve had a few conversations recently that revealed to me what a dumb thing it is to call a plant “drought tolerant”.  Wikipedia gets this right technically, but leaves us without enough to apply the information: “Drought tolerance refers to the degree to which a plant is adapted to arid or drought conditions.”

Well, okay – so when we say a plant is drought tolerant, what the heck does that mean?  It means that plant has some degree of adaptability to drought.  But here’s the thing – how much adaptability?  How do I use this information?  What does this plant do in response?

2014 mid march 040

Iris douglasiana

Saying a plant is “drought tolerant” is like saying there is a temperature outside.  Is it cold, warm or hot?   See what I am getting at?  “drought tolerant” only means that there is some degree to which the plant may tolerate (not die immediately) a shortage of water.

More information is needed: enter WUCOLS.  I won’t bore you with the details and technical stuff behind WUCOLS, they do well enough – read through their website.  Not bored yet?  Good!  Now read through the rules on WELO, the California ordinance for water efficiency in the landscape.  Bet you’re bored now.

The deal is that these classifications in WUCOLS mean something.  They quantify how much water a plant wants in a particular region of California.  This does not take into account sun/shade exposure, sun orientation, wind, soil type, or any of the other factors involved in meeting a plant’s water needs.  It is not a perfect tool, but it is the best thing we have going.  WUCOLS isn’t the only resource, you can get information from nurseries and books also, but it is the most helpful hydrozoning tool I use.

In WUCOLS, the classifications are “very low”, “low”, “moderate”, “high”, or it may say “inappropriate” or “unknown”.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but what is most interesting here is that ETo is a reference point – a baseline of sorts.  So a “high” water use classification means 70-90% of the water needed to keep a 4″ tall cool season turf VERY well watered and super lush, or to put it another way, the “high” water classification is 70-90% of a whole lot of water.

I indulged online – I pulled up an article on “drought tolerant” plants from Sunset magazine.  Of their 12 plants in my home town of Oakland, one was classified by WUCOLS as “very low”, one was “moderate”, and the rest were “low”.  Nassella tenuissima / Mexican Feathergrass is listed as an invasive plant by PlantRight and should not be used at all, but WUCOLS isn’t about invasiveness, it is about water, so shame on Sunset!

It is bad juju to mix water use classifications.  If you absolutely must, then the classifications should be next door neighbors – so “low” and “moderate” is kinda okay (provided you irrigate at the higher amount), but “moderate” and “very low” is no bueno.

Next I went to the “drought tolerant” poster child:  succulents.  Low water use, right?  Drought tolerant?!  erm…. no.  Again, WUCOLS demonstrates my point.  In the plants WUCOLS lists as succulents, the same 3 classifications are included – very low, low, and moderate (screen shot is just of the alphabetical early birds, I didn’t pick favorites here).  So much for that assumption.

succulents wucols

So really, drought tolerant is anything that will grow with less than 70% of a boatload of water.  That could still an incredible amount of water, folks.  Granted, the lower classifications are pretty good and some plants truly do have a relatively dry footprint, but all plants need extra water during their establishment period, that is a post for another day.

Oh – and about those drought tolerance adaptations emphasized in the first paragraph:  a drought tolerant plant might go dormant, drop all or some of its leaves, wilt, or shrink in size in times of stress (the drought they’re tolerating) as a way of coping …. and if not watered in time, drought tolerant plants die.  Tolerance is about not being dead yet – it has nothing to do with living well, being healthy, or looking good, it is about living to drink another day.

Thanks for listening!





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You’ve heard that you should water trees deeply and infrequently, right?  I take that approach a bit further and use it for everything – trees, perennials, roses, everything.  I’m careful with my water anyway having grown up in Los Angeles during the 70’s drought when we let our yellows mellow, removed or reduced lawns, and collected shower water.

See, we’re in for some serious growing pains while we struggle to understand and adjust to mandatory water restrictions now in 2015 – I don’t need to repeat the advice, you already know it (ditch the lawn, add compost and mulch, etc).  But what we need to be doing is more than just using less water, we need to use water more wisely – to help our plants fend for themselves better.  I see water as a training tool and my plants as smart, but slow.  They can’t fetch and training them to do much of anything takes years.

As of my last water bill, I’m down to 36 GPD (gallons per day) including landscaping.  Before you bow in awe to this amazing feat, you should know that I irrigate my garden a little differently than most and I’m not watering anything I don’t want to keep.  Let the rest die, they’re out of here anyway.  april 2014 Magnolia installedHere’s where I water differently:  I bought a 15 gal. Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’ (that baby green tree in the background left-side).  It is rated as having “moderate” water needs in Oakland by WUCOLS.  Moderate isn’t exactly water-wise, but I’ve got a theory…..  and so far, so good.  I planted the tree a year ago this month.  At the same exact time, my client in Mill Valley had three planted (guess whose idea that was).  Their landscape contractor did exactly what they usually do – they amended, fertilized, and watered the hell out of those trees.  My client’s trees bloomed and grew and leafed out beautifully, gained stature nicely.  Mine didn’t.  Luckily for them, theirs are next to a lawn that I’m sure they’ll keep as long as they can, where I have no lawn.  Below is a better shot of mine last May (1 month after planting).

may 2014 MagnoliaI planted mine with a bit of compost, watered it in well that first day, and walked away.  It looked fine for a while, then it got all stressed out and started dropping leaves.  I watered it again, a nice soaking, and it threw out some new leaves.  We did this all summer:  I kept an eye on it, watering only when I found signs of stress in the leaves, but then not again until I saw more stress.  It was nerve-wracking.  The tree did not visibly thrive, and it sure as heck didn’t get much bigger.  I’m pretty sure it would slap me if it could…. but it survived.  While it was dormant over winter and I held my breath to see how it would do come spring.  This spring when it started blooming, I was delighted with how many (albeit smallish) flowers there were on my young tree, and now it is leafed-out for the season.   I’ll be doing the same this summer, soaking the presumably larger root-zone, but as seldom as possible.  I’ll also be adding more compost on top (not working it in, that’s the worms’ job) and maintaining a good layer of mulch over that.

I believe that what I am doing will be better for my tree’s long-term durability.  I believe that I gave it reason to throw energy into its root system in search of water, and that I rewarded deep root growth instead of fast, exciting foliage and gains in stature.  Over the winter, its root system likely continued to dive and while I watered, soaking further and further down but less and less often, we’re working together to train this “moderate” water needs tree to survive more like a drought tolerant tree.   Here it is today, not much bigger, but doing just fine:

150413 magnolia tree 015I don’t water fast enough that it trickles off, doing by hand what irrigation designers call “cycle and soak”, making sure that the water goes into the soil and nowhere else.  I’m also taking advantage of the few light rains we had to water further than the rain itself went = deep watering every time.

I can’t tell others to do this, the tree looked like hell that first year of establishment and I think most people wouldn’t watch closely enough nor would they enjoy the experience (even I was a bit nervous).  We’ll see how things go this summer, but I can tell you that I don’t water much, maybe once a month?  I avoid watering if it is overcast or cool outside.  I look closely at my plants in the most stressful times – when it is blazing hot, sunny, and/or dry and windy.  If I see stress, I’ll water.  If not, forget it.  I’ll keep you posted on how things go this summer.

150413 roses and MagnoliaThe most impressive thing, though, is what I noticed in putting together this post – look how much my roses LOVE this treatment – they get watered only when the tree gets watered and I have yet to see them look even a little stressed.  You can see the change best between the second photo and the one above.  They’re the hybrid tea ‘Stainless Steel’ (my favorite).  Here’s the original one (now on the right in the photo above) blooming in my old garden in Alameda in 2010 and again in 2012:rose 'stainless steel' jun 2010Rose 'Stainless Steel' full on 2012

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d 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateI am so excited to tell you that I’ve been asked to serve on an advisory board for the Dunsmuir Estate!  I’m told that this is the first advisory board since the City of Oakland took over care of the property, so I feel truly honored.

I was just over there last Friday because I made an effort to remember to visit during their insanely restricted hours (it is an effort, even bank employees would drool over these hours!).  I work from home not very far from this place and even still, I can’t seem to get over there while they’re actually open…. never-mind the times they should be open (imho) but aren’t, like weekdays squeezed between major holidays and weekends (I tried to go last Black Friday for example).  BUT, that’s not the point I’m here to make.

a 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateThis place is a gem in the rough.  Anyone who has read my blog before knows how much I enjoy visiting historic estates and gardens, but this one eluded me until a few months ago.  SO, without further delay – a few photos from last Friday to celebrate my budding relationship with the folks who are working so hard to keep the place up and promote it.  I’m plain ole thrilled about it.

b 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estatec 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estateSo above you see the Main House and the entry, ducks, fountain, and gazebo (drought?  what drought?)….

f 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate e 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… and two benches with gobs of personality…

i 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estatej 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate h 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… a couple of shots that I think exemplify the magic of the character of the place….

g 30 jan 2015 dunsmuir estate… but I’ll leave you with a shot of my favorite thing, the pool and pool house.  I could do a whole post just on this one item, and I probably will, but it is such a magical, beautifully proportioned thing, I wish I had drawings of it to study, find out what it is about the space that is so magical, apply those ratios to my own work (even though I don’t design by mathematical formula, I just want to “get” it and be able to replicate it).   I dearly hope that this can someday be restored, but in the meantime, I’ll stare at it and imagine what it must have been like.


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Two years ago this month I visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Az.  Even though I was in Phoenix for the ASLA conference, I think I was more excited about visiting this garden than anything else.  This year, they’re celebraing their 75th anniversary – SEVENTY FIVE YEARS!

8 Desert Botanical Garden 52The Desert Botanical Garden, despite being in the desert, has beauty, drama, softness, and life.  There’s a word that I hate (it starts with a “x” and ends in “scaping”) that makes most people imagine a particular layout and use of plant materials that just makes my head hurt.  Things have changed, though, and design of water wise planting has evolved!

1 arborThe folks at the Desert Botanical Garden have done a beautiful job with the materials they use.  Most of the arbors, gates, trellises, and things like that are made with raw steel and rebar.  They’ve oxidized into being gorgeous rusted pieces that are both crisp in their design and rustic in their finish.  2 Desert Botanical Garden 41Next up is the use of concrete – oh yes, concrete is wonderful stuff!  This board-formed concrete wall with the wood bench attached to it is so nicely detailed!

5 Desert Botanical Garden 23 6 Desert Botanical Garden 247 Desert Botanical Garden 25 There’s this lovely seat wall with a green stone inlay that becomes a very discrete water feature at the other end.  The water aspect of this would be easy to overlook, it is not showy or loud.  Water, of course, is important for many reasons, but a big gurgling fountain would be out of place here.  Tempting, but not appropriate.

3 Desert Botanical Garden 1 4 Desert Botanical Garden 10I only recall one other water feature, also a nice quiet, appropriate piece.

12 Desert Botanical Garden 54Nearby were some very cool butterfly chairs with white slipcovers – they even looked refreshing – which caused me to realize that even if you don’t sit or touch the water, the visual cue of taking a break is still a powerful (refreshing) force.

10 Desert Botanical Garden 45 11 Desert Botanical Garden 51Above you can get a real feel for the place – materials retain their integrity; for example, stone is used like stone, and it isn’t just veneer.  The colors belong here, and boldness is introduced sparingly.  Here, the planting not only steals the show, it IS the show thanks to strategic restraint in all the other materials.  Take a peek at the next several images – notice how the materials are used honestly, With color and a sense of place in mind, here are more of my favorites:

9 Kornegay cast conc container 13 Desert Botanical Garden 72 14 Desert Botanical Garden 12 15 Desert Botanical Garden 16 16 Desert Botanical Garden 05 17 Palo blanco trunk 18 Desert Botanical Garden 26 19 Desert Botanical Garden 93 20 Desert Botanical Garden 7 21 Desert Botanical Garden 9 22 Desert Botanical Garden 71 23 Desert Botanical Garden 86 24 Desert Botanical Garden 44 25 Desert Botanical Garden 87 26 Desert Botanical Garden 88 Last, but not least I leave you with the parking lot (that’s right, the parking lot) and a bunny with two quail (the quail blend, just behind the bunny to the right, in front of the succulents).

29 Desert Botanical Garden parking 1 28 Desert Botanical Garden bunnyBotanical gardens and arboreta are a big influence in my life and someday I hope to work on another one.  In fact, I really should buy a lottery ticket because if I ever won, I’d buy some land and …. oh, do I have ideas!27 Desert Botanical Garden 92

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The front of my new place is awash with purple Lantana (Lantana montevidensis).  It is lovely stuff if you are both color blind (unless you’re into this sort of purple, nothing wrong with that!) and an admirer of wildlife.  There are butterflies, bees, spiders, and lizards all over it.  It is absolutely marvelous for year-round blooming and needs no supplemental water once established (at least not here, I turned the irrigation off last fall).

lantana HQ 043

The flowers are the pepto bismol of purples – not my favorite, though maybe someday I will find a companion plant with a color that mitigates the pepto purple hue.  Meh, maybe not.  A dear friend of mine said that the overwhelming amount of purple Lantana in my garden made my place look like a retirement home.

lantana HQ 044

As much as I’d like to be able to retire (I’d still spend my time designing gardens – I love it that much), I am not ready to live in a dadgum retirement home!  Talk about death by association; I can’t look at it anymore without thinking about retirement homes.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, my lovely boyfriend thinks the foliage smells like poo (the flowers smell nice at night).  Charming: a poo scented retirement home.

lantana HQ 039Here’s my vexation:  as much as I intend to remove the Lantana and put in other stuff, it is happy, healthy, requires no water, and supports oodles of critters.  So for now it stays…. providing food and shelter for all those bugs and lizards, but lookout, Lantana!  You’re living on borrowed time.  Wanna know what I think might fill the space above?  I’m considering a collection of spineless Opuntia that my friend Melinda sent me from Texas along with a few I’ve collected on my own here.  The ones from Texas are rooting in the shed right now – cross your fingers that they all take!

IMG_3647So there’s my dilemma – removing the Lantana removes habitat, but goodness gracious, there’s so danged much of it, I don’t really like it, and the new design/plants aren’t ready yet.  Patience….

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While I was away neglecting my modern web-presence-building duties, I enjoyed working on a particularly wonderful little project…. a Bed and Breakfast in Italy!  I have never been to Italy, but when my good friend and talented architect Glenda Flaim showed me her work on Casa Incantata, I asked if I could take a stab at the planting design which had yet to be finalized.  Neither of us had any idea what would happen.  Come on, what do I know about plants in Italy?!  Niente.  The way we worked around that, and got the garden done was a genuinely collaborative effort involving Glenda, the Owners, their gardener, some dutch visitors, and me:

First, Glenda sent me a photo of the site with notes (in green) on her thoughts for the planting:


We chatted about the decisions on the photo – why the hedge, what is the lawn for, stuff like that.  I studied snapshots of the building and tried to imagine what it would be like to be there in person.  Glenda mentioned that the house  had just won a national award for sustainable architecture, and was photographed soon after I started noodling with the design of the garden on paper.  You can see pre-garden professional architectural photos here and here.  She sent me a computer drafted file of the site and I gathered photos of plants that came to mind.

I started the planting design in June 2012:

120619 Flaim House Italy pltg concept001I mapped out the planting design in areas with palettes.  The areas got names:  there was “lawn”, “spicy”, “meadow”, and “hedge”.  I wrote a description of how each of these areas would be different from each other, what forms and colors I was trying to emphasize, and what colors I wanted to avoid entirely.  I wrote out how these plants would change with the seasons and the desired effects.  With lists of plants and their written intentions, the memos were translated into Italian and back into English through Glenda.

The Owners and their gardener started looking for the plants and sent word back what was available and not, and we figured out plants that might work instead.  More memos handling spacing and layout were translated back and forth, plant research was done on both continents.  Plants were purchased and installed as they were found; this took a few seasons to finish.  Some were purchased in Italy, some shipped from the U.S., and the last, elusive bulb was a gift from some visitors from Holland who learned of the missing bulb in discussions of the garden during their stay.

Over the last 2 years, I’ve gotten a couple of photos a season so I could see how the garden was doing.  They had wasted no time getting plants in the ground.  Later that same year (fall 2012), the lawn (Hernaria glabra) which also extended between the pavers, was getting its start:


By the following Spring (2013) it had filled-in very nicely!


The other plants were coming along too:


By that Summer, you could see the different zones expressing themselves:

photo 5 photo 1

And just last month, I got another update:

2014 June

It is challenging to know how a garden will look when you’re designing it, and there were many anxious moments when I knew they were investing in my advice and I could only hope that the Owners would like the results.  I’m not sure it is possible to tell if the image in my head matches what the garden will become.  I can’t know ahead of time if the Owners will like what the garden will become, and yet it is dependent on them and everyone who takes care of it to continue to support the design’s intention as the garden is maintained.

I am finally able to share (two years later) how things are going here in this post.   I can also share that the owners are very happy with their garden, and conveyed to me this sentiment:

 Il giardino che ho sempre sognato!!!

(The garden I have always dreamed about!!!)

I couldn’t have asked for more.

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I am sorry to say that despite the incredible amount of coverage that water use gets these days, almost none discusses some of the long-term effects of inappropriate watering practices.  I am not going to start counting how many gallons you can save by switching to drip irrigation, or the fact that spray irrigation can lose 50% to the wind and evaporation before your plants get any of it….nope, I’m not.  I do want to mention a few things that I’ve learned through being a Landscape Architect and a gardening enthusiast:

Roots: I read a letter to the editor in our glorious Alameda Journal (23 october 2009) in which a woman complains about street tree roots buckling her walkway.  I have not seen her property, but I would bet a whole lot of donuts that the problem can be traced back to shallow irrigation.   Roots know what they’re doing, they take up water and nutrients for the plant (tree, shrub, whatever).  They will go where the water is, and if the good stuff is to be found in the top layer of the soil, that is where you will find the roots.  This goes for a tree, a shrub, all plants including a lawn.  So when your sprinkler system is on for 10 minutes and soaks in maybe 3″, or you stand outside with a hose for half an hour, you can expect the majority of roots to gravitate to that topmost layer, including those of walkway-bucking trees.

Here’s the part I wish those water-wise articles would mention:  IF you water your plants deeply and less frequently, their root systems learn to dive deep to find it.  Even a lawn can have roots that are a couple of feet deep!  Water deeply, and the water lasts longer, is available to the roots of your plants, and then when there is a drought, those plants have a better survival rate thanks to their deep, probing root structure!!

Containers: I prefer terracotta pots for the numerous ways in which they have been a good home to my plants over time (oh yeah, this is about water, not pots… I’m getting back on track now).  Whatever containers you use, when the root ball dries out, it shrinks and pulls away from the sides.  The next time water is poured into that container, the water runs around the rootball (not through) and out the bottom, doing the roots of your plants no good.  There are goofy weird products on the market that claim to hold moisture in the soil, or add water over time, blah blah.  I’ve tried many and never liked one.  In my garden, I have a 1/8″ thick wire stake of forgotten origin that I use to poke holes into the rootballs of neglected container plants when I water.  The holes allow air to escape, water to penetrate, and roots to get what they need.  If I have been particularly rotten to my container plants, I fill a bucket or my wheelbarrow with water and I soak them in it to allow them to really soak it up.  A note:  I don’t think self-watering containers work well.  The photo below shows a lovely display from the Los Angeles Getty Museum gardens several years ago – I wonder, though, are they hand-watered?  is the water allowed to drain out?  Was I just lucky enough to see this display before that water stained the paving?  Container plants need water and drainage in order to stay nice for more than a short time.

succulents at the Getty

Watering Practices:  I love walking around in the evening, winding down after my day.  I see a lot of irrigation at night, though, and wish that more people understood the benefits of watering in the early am instead.  Plants lose most of their moisture during the heat of the day as a byproduct of photosynthesis (evapotranspiration from photosynthesis is where plant-released oxygen comes from), so watering before plants need it is ideal (but if you have wilting, dry plants at noon, they need it asap!).  If you have good drainage, so much the better because the (assuming we’re not growing aquatic plants) roots won’t be left to wallow in suffocating muck.  Leaving plant roots in cool, damp soil as the temperature drops (evening watering) can promote the growth of undesirable mold, fungus, and plant disease.  Please also pay attention to the drainage of your soils!  The water here is pooling due to being both trapped by the edging and also because the soil in this area is so over watered, it has developed a scummy skin that keeps their irrigation efforts on the surface for hours after each watering.

Please know that there are evapotranspiration (ET) irrigation systems that can adjust automatically (with the help of a weather station) to turn the water off when it is raining, adjust for seasons, soils, slopes, and planting types!  You do NOT have to rely on remembering to run out in the rain to turn the thing off or waiting for your maintenance service to do it for you.

bad drainage suffocating muck

Runoff: Okay, so we’ve talked about water and your vegetation, and we know that we don’t want to water the sidewalk, but what about all that flooding that we get in a good storm?  Permeable paving products hope to help solve the problem, see this report adopted by the California Coastal Commission in March, 2007.  I would point out, however, that permeable paving solutions are dependent on proper maintenance, and that even compacted soil can resist water penetration as well as any hard paving material.  So, not to get into a discussion of style or design, I would encourage everyone to consider where a permeable solution can be used.  It is far nicer to have all that lovely rainwater seep into the soil than to run off our urban and suburban surfaces, filling up the storm drains instead.  I was given this book on Rain Gardens as a gift about a year ago, it is worth reading.  I bring up runoff, because I’ve noticed several water-saving lists recommending adding non-planted areas to cut down on the amount of water needed to irrigate.  I think that suggesting this is misleading and not necessarily an environmentally friendly practice.

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