Lush, Colorful, and Water-wise: An Impossible Dream?

By: Judith Carlson

Judith Carlson is an independent nurse consultant whose primary work is with a Minnesota  software company that designs electronic health…

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Purple garden penstemons (Penstemon hybrids), pink Gaura lindheimeri, and red kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos ‘Big Red’) flank a dry streambed. Author’s photographs

A water-wise landscape goal + inland Southern California + blistering summers = cactus + dry, scrubby, uninteresting vegetation + large expanses of bare ground + little shade. To many people, this equation seems an unavoidable and foregone conclusion that deters them from taking the leap to a drought-tolerant and water-wise garden. Fortunately, this is not always the case, and we are happy to share our success story of a lush, colorful, and water-wise garden that stops passing motorists and pedestrians in their tracks.

We  live in the city of Riverside, in the heart of the Inland Empire region of Southern California, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Decreasing water supplies, an average rain- fall of 10.22 inches, and average highs well over 90°F in summer provide strong incentives to plant thoughtful, drought-tolerant gardens.

In September 2010, we began the transformation of a tired, water-hungry, turf-dominated front yard to an award-winning garden that provides us with water savings, shade, and beauty. The existing turf of Bermuda grass was sad; large expanses of dry sod, due to an antiquated sprinkler system, prompted our decision to research options other than merely replacing the existing irrigation. Though novice gardeners, we had a few local resources at our disposal. We made several trips to nearby demonstration gardens, including the Western Municipal Water District (WMWD) water education conservation garden in Riverside and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. We also toured some past WMWD water-wise landscape contest winners in our area and were delighted to see that we could have a beautiful garden and still save water.

We were also motivated by the Riverside Public Utilities Whole House Rebates program, which offers rebates for turf removal and replacement with a water-wise garden and irrigation system (starting at forty cents per square foot). Bundling turf removal with several other rebates (such as a $25 rebate per tree for installing up to six deciduous trees from an approved list, installing new attic installation, weather-stripping doors, and installing a solar attic fan) resulted in some income that helped to offset part of our landscape installation costs and all of our household energy savings improvement.

Recycled concrete slabs lead to the front door, across the dry streambed

Goals and a Wish List

Armed with new-found knowledge and a growing confidence gained from talking with Master Gardeners and attending seminars at local demonstration gardens, we developed a set of design goals and an initial wish list of plants:

  • Create a new walkway from the sidewalk to the front door, re-using slabs of concrete from a rarely used walkway alongside the driveway
  • Create a dry streambed to curve across the front yard diagonally for visual interest and to act as a retention basin
  • Create a shaded area for seating
  • Incorporate in the plan areas that were not currently landscaped, including a strip along the driveway and a narrow area along the fence on the side of our corner lot
  • Enrich the existing soil (decomposed granite with a small amount of topsoil)
  • Retain some of the existing plants, including various daylilies, camellias, a venerable Southern magnolia, and three crape myrtles
  • Plant deciduous trees to shade west-facing windows during hot summer days
  • Utilize a variety of plants that will tolerate conditions ranging from full sun to full shade, and provide color year-round
  • Emphasize drought-tolerant California native and mediterranean-climate plants
  • Mulch with bark or wood chips rather than rock, for water conservation and an attractive appearance

Altogether, this was a tall order, to be sure! We then began the difficult task of finding a local land-scape professional who could help us with our vision. We spent several weekends talking to staff at local nurseries and asking homeowners who had won local water-wise contests in recent years for their recommendations. We chose Paradise Garden Center in Riverside, owned by Christian Fessler, with whom we worked closely to make our dream a reality. He took us on a golf-cart tour of his extensive nursery and explained the water needs, color potential, textures, and assets of numerous plants. We discussed our goals and considerations for plant selection, including the use of thorny plants for security reasons along the side street.

Ultimately, over 400 plants and trees were selected and installed, most native to California, the Mediterranean Basin, and Australia. Most have a yearly cycle of a robust spring display and a generous re-blooming in the fall, with good foliage year- round or an interesting deciduous character.

A drift of REGAL MIST pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Lenca’) catches every breeze at the end of the dry streambed

The Work Begins

Christian’s crew removed the turf and replaced several inches of the existing soil with a soil more conducive to healthy plant growth. They brought in over twenty-five tons of river rock and boulders to form the new dry streambed; the existing concrete slabs were repositioned to form an attractive walk- way to the front door that crosses the new streambed. Creeping thyme now fills the gaps between the slabs to soften their edges. Under a new kitchen greenhouse window, they planted an herb garden, which provides us with wonderful fresh herbs year-round. They completed the project with an extensive drip irrigation system, several inches of mulch around each plant, and a new lighting system that illuminates key features in the garden.

The author’s garden from the street, with pink Gaura lindheimeri and red kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos ‘Big Red’) dominating the summer scene; existing crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) and feathery green Chilean mesquite (Prosopis chilensis) help screen the house from street

The Outcome

Retaining three established crape myrtle trees, a large Southern magnolia, and a few other established shrubs, combined  with the dry streambed and the new plantings, gave the appearance of a mature  garden  less than six months  later. Delighted  with  the  result,  we  wanted  to  help spread the “gospel” of water-wise gardening to as many people as we could. We entered the WMWD 2011  Western  Water-wise   Landscape   Contest. This contest solicits front-yard landscape entries from homeowners in ten water agencies serving parts of the Los Angeles Basin and the Inland Empire. Entries were judged on five main criteria:

  • Curb appeal (aesthetic use of color, form, and texture; environmentally sensitive use of hard- scape)
  • Appropriate plant selections (California-friendly plant palette; functional turf)
  • Design  (artistic  and  practical  layout  of  plant materials and hardscape elements with consideration of horticultural requirements) Appropriate maintenance (use of mulch; weeds kept to a minimum; plants neat, tidy and attractive)
  • Efficient methods of irrigation (appropriate irrigation design, and equipment designed to reduce runoff)

To our surprise and delight, we were the first-place winner, netting us a cash prize and automatic inclu- sion on the 2011 Riverside Alumnae Panhellenic Home Tour. This annual tour gave us an excellent opportunity to further promote the beauty and benefits of a water-wise landscape. The WMWD made copies of our garden plan and plant list for distribution to the more than 600 eager tour participants, many of whom were surprised and delighted that a beautiful garden could be water-wise, too.

Besides beauty and shade, we now enjoy appreciable monthly water savings (twenty-five percent or more), although we have a larger area under irrigation than before (the driveway and the narrow area along the side street had been unlandscaped), and we were watering more while plants were new. As the plants become more established, we anticipate even greater water savings.

Several plants provide particular delight. In the spring and early summer, our favorites include garden penstemons, Gaura lindheimeri, and FLOWER CARPET rose. The real show-stopper has been the red flowered kangaroo paws, whose exuberant display never fails to elicit open-mouthed reactions and questions from passersby. Invariably, the question “What is that?!” is immediately followed by frantic scribbling of the name on a scrap of paper to take with them to their local nursery.

The showy and unusual flowers of Grevillea ‘Superb’, loaded with nectar, are a hummingbird and bee favorite. A new favorite is strawberry tree, a beautiful small tree or large shrub with rich red, peeling bark, glossy, dark green leaves, white bell- shaped flowers, and small strawberry-like fruits.

Fall brings a generous reblooming of kangaroo paws, along with various sages, Lantana ‘New Gold’, and REGAL MIST pink muhly grass, whose feathery purple inflorescences are both beautiful and relaxing to watch as they catch the slightest breeze. Fall foliage on ginkgoes and crape myrtles completes  the picture; we  thoroughly enjoy spending the last weeks before winter sitting on our newly installed park bench, in the shade of the crape myrtles, looking out at a garden that brings us much more pleasure and beauty than we ever thought possible—and saves us money!

Beauty, variety, color, shade, and water savings—all at the same time. It doesn’t get any better than this. One neighbor has already followed our lead and installed a smaller water-wise garden and several others promise to follow. We hope that our experience continues to encourage others to get on the water-wise bandwagon, as our western water supplies become more and more precious.

Key Plants in the Riemer Garden

* denotes existing plants that were retained

Trees

Peppermint willow (Agonis flexuosa ‘After Dark’)
Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)
Japanese blueberry tree (Eleaocarpus decipiens)
Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)
*Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
*Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Chilean mesquite (Prosopis chilensis)

Shrubs

Trailing manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’)
Common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita)
Artmesia ‘Powis Castle’
Dwarf bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis ‘Little John’)
Variegated mirror plant (Coprosma repens ‘Marble Queen’)
Grevillea ‘Superb’
Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens)
Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea)
FLOWER CARPET rose (Rosa ‘Noatraum’)
Yellow trumpet flower (Tecoma stans)
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)

Perennials and Grasses

Kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos ‘Big Red’)
Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii)
Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum)
Gaura lindheimeri
*Daylilies (Hemerocallis)
California gray rush (Juncus patens)
Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa)
REGAL MIST pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Lenca’)
Garden penstemon (Penstemon hybrids)

Groundcovers

Lantana ‘New Gold’
Prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’)
Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)
Autumn sage (Salvia greggii)
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)