Greening of the Brownsward

This abstract modern composition of Mediterranean plants demonstrates the great range of color and form possible with arid-climate plants

This abstract modern composition of Mediterranean plants demonstrates the great range of color and form possible with arid-climate plants. Photographs by the author

The author examines changes in our attitudes toward landscape design, in landscaping practices, and in the nursery industry over the decade since the drought in California in 1977. He wrote Browning of the Greensward for Pacific Horticulture, July ‘77, an issue now out of print.

A decade ago California, especially the north, was gripped by a drought un­precedented in modern times. Water rationing was either imposed or volunteered to prevent communities not hooked to the Sierran tap from running out of water from their parched mud hole reservoirs. Cities tied to the Sierra aqueducts fared only a little better. The present water shortage, already a disaster nationally, may next year be more serious for California than the drought of 1977.

Not everyone in the state shared in the shortage, much less the concern. Johnny Carson typified the prevailing southern Californian’s attitude when he joked that their idea of water rationing was one ice cube in their martinis instead of two. Interestingly, the pendulum has swung sharply, no doubt spurred by the reapportionment of the Colorado River water. Southern California is now championing the cause of xeriscape with great zeal.

Amid the flurry of excitement of a decade ago, people became acutely aware of what Wallace Stegner and other western writers have always said, that water is the most important natural resource in the West and therefore the most limiting factor. In his remarkable book, Cadillac Desert (1986), Mare Reisner writes:

In the West, lack of water is the central fact of existence, and a whole culture and set of values have grown up around it. In the East, to ‘waste’ water is to consume it needlessly or excessively. In the West, to waste water is not to consume it, to let it flow unimpeded and undiverted down rivers. Use of water is, by definition, ‘beneficial’ use — the term is right in the law — even if it goes to Fountain Hills, Arizona, and is shot five hundred feet into 115-degree skies; even if it is sold, at vastly subsidized rates, to farmers irrigating crops in the desert which their counterparts in Mississippi or Arkansas are… being paid not to grow. To easterners, ‘conservation’ of water usually means protecting rivers from development; in the West, it means building dams.

During the drought of the late 1970s we were undaunted, in typical western fashion, rising to the occasion as new irrigation technologies, new (or renewed) interest in drought-tolerant native and Mediterranean plants, water conservation research, and a plethora of public education events and materials emerged almost overnight. Those were exciting times.

Now, ten years later, we are facing the specter of another prolonged drought. Two successive dry years have left reservoirs low, and water rationing has been imposed in many northern California cities. The cycle of drought has repeated itself in unusually rapid succession. It’s as though we needed a reminder to shake us from complacency acquired during the wet years of the early 1980s.

Short or long, the cycles of drought and wet years are not unusual in the history of the West. In East of Eden John Steinbeck describes how people of the Salinas Valley responded to the fickleness of California’s rainfall:

I had spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they would put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years would come… The land dried and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley… Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley… Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.

In the 1860s the cyclical nature of our weather pattern changed for all time the rural landscape of California, signaling the end of the era of the great ranchos. With it came the development of the most extensive and ingenious system in the world for draining and irrigating the land for agriculture. In his journal William Brewer describes the catastrophic years of floods and drought. The winter of 1861-62 brought the heaviest rainfall in California’s brief recorded history. Over forty-nine inches fell in San Francisco, and Sonora was inundated with 102 inches — eight and one-half feet. In Los Angeles it rained incessantly for twenty-eight days. The Central Valley became one enormous lake 300 miles long by up to sixty miles wide. Then, in 1864, a devastating drought completed the one-two punch. So little rain fell that Yosemite Falls “was entirely dispersed by the wind long before it reached the bottom of its great leap of half a mile.” Cattle that did not drown two years earlier perished in the heat as the streams and watering holes disappeared.

Although by no means as catastrophic, the 1977 drought and subsequent drenchings from El Niño served to remind us of the environmental rollercoaster we ride in the West. But are our memories long enough to cause us to make permanent changes in the way we live? Or are we destined to prove correct Steinbeck’s observation that people always forget the bad years when the good years come?

A visitor who traveled to California prior to 1976 and returned in 1986, or even 1988, might see little if any change in the landscape. Certainly the natural landscape endures with only the most subtle responses of vegetation to the environmental extremes. But it is doubtful that even the keen-eyed observer would see much change in our developed landscapes, gardens, and parks. Sprawling buildings of corporate office parks still luxuriate in a sea of emerald turfgrass. Single-family homes are still surrounded by lawn and deciduous shade trees popular in eastern and midwestern landscapes. By and large, we have neither acknowledged that we live in an arid land nor changed our habits to adapt to it.

The tidy corporate landscape is not only dull and uninspiring but also inappropriate in the arid West

The tidy corporate landscape is not only dull and uninspiring but also inappropriate in the arid West

There are at least three major cultural influences on horticulture, landscape design, and planning in California, and each helps to explain our refusal to respond realistically to the facts of life in an arid land. First, California is seen as a Garden of Eden, and landscapes are created in an attempt to fulfill that dream. Second, our landscape design vocabulary is conditioned by values born in the moist climates of the eastern United States and northern Europe, where the greensward predominates. And third, we are a technologically oriented society with a “can-do” attitude that leads us to believe that virtually any problem can be solved through modern technology. When water is scarce we respond not by conservation but by building dams and vast water delivery systems, developing new irrigation equipment and methods, and relying on sod farming and chemical horticulture. Two seemingly contradictory human traits also contribute: the slowness with which we respond to change and the absurd speed with which we accept abnormal conditions as normal. Recognizing that we do have a tendency to forget and revert to our old ways, it is timely to assess whether any lasting changes have been made in our attitudes and approaches to landscape design in response to the drought of the last decade.

Responses to Drought

A brief survey of landscape architects, educators, nurserymen, landscape contractors, and landscape maintenance workers revealed a pessimistic view of long-term change. A large majority (seventy percent) of the professionals contacted in 1987 thought that the effects of the drought had long been forgotten.

Among the few positive effects cited was a significant improvement in the availability and selection of drought-tolerant plants. Some professionals also believe that the public is more accepting of the idea of water conservation, making it easier to educate clients. On the other hand, many people still want and expect a lush, green landscape. This is especially true in the corporate landscape of office parks, where image and status are tied to the tidiness of the greensward. The professionals surveyed felt that there was little or no change in large-scale landscapes such as parks or in land-use planning and government policies and regulations. One respondent commented that we have enough regulations without being told what to plant.

The feeling of the group surveyed essentially supported Steinbeck’s observation that we forget the bad years during the good. On the surface this seems to be true. Turfgrass is still the predominant ground cover in new residential gardens and commercial landscapes. Redwoods and other water-demanding trees are still being planted on hot, dry slopes in housing developments and office parks. And the English border is still being promoted by retailers, especially the new generation of chic mail-order garden suppliers.

On the other hand, even a cursory look at recent trends in the landscape field reveals an impressive array of advances in water conservation over the past decade. The following review, more intuitive than systematic, considers seven topics: the nursery industry, plants, irrigation technology, education, publications, significant projects, and public agencies.

The Nursery Industry

Prior to 1976 few wholesale nurseries carried many native or other drought-tolerant plants, let alone promoted their use. Difficulties in propagating and growing, combined with a lack of demand from the public and from retail centers, help to explain this scarcity among wholesalers. There was a general lack of understanding of how to grow and maintain drought-tolerant plants in landscapes with overhead sprinklers and heavy clay soils. A fringe of native plant enthusiasts created a small but steady demand. Few retail nurseries carried native plants except for such favorites as coast redwood, Carmel creeper, and Monterey pine.

Today a number of wholesalers not only grow many drought-tolerant plants and natives but do so in quantity. Some suppliers specialize in, and promote, plants appropriate for California. Leonard Coates and Wintergreen in Watsonville, Skylark in Santa Rosa, and Tree of Life in San Juan Capistrano are good examples of such large wholesalers.

Less change can be observed in retail nurseries, especially in discount outlets. The emphasis there seems to be on instant effects, regardless of water use. Some retailers even sell sod. One nursery in the San Francisco Bay Area sends mixed messages by offering classes on drought-tolerant gardening while displaying a large curbside garden of mounded turf and annuals liberally watered each morning along with the street and sidewalk.

The disparity between wholesalers and retailers probably is due to the different markets they address. Wholesalers supply landscape professionals in addition to retail nurseries. There has been a significant increase in demand for drought-tolerant plants by landscape professionals and less apparent demand by the public from retailers who seem generally uncommitted to the concept of horticulture appropriate for an arid region.

Diplacus hybrids yet to be released to nurseries shout with color for nearly half the year, far surpassing such thirsty favorites as azaleas

Diplacus hybrids yet to be released to nurseries shout with color for nearly half the year, far surpassing such thirsty favorites as azaleas


There may have been more California native plants grown in England during the nineteenth century than in California gardens before 1976. The drought did serve as a catalyst for increased interest in and demand for drought-tolerant plants from California and areas of the world with similar climates. The demand for “good lookers,” the lush green and flowering types, has frequently exceeded the supply. Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’, a neat, low-growing manzanita, is in perpetually short supply.

A comparison of the most recent edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book with the 1977 volume finds in the new edition seven cultivars and two species of Arctostaphylos and two species of Ceanothus not listed a decade ago. Genera such as Gamolepis, Lithodora, Scaevola, and Erysimum were not found in nursery catalogs in 1977. Previously unavailable drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants are appearing in nurseries today well ahead of their inclusion in standard references. Still, we need more choices of dependable plants, especially for dry interior climates, where the evapotranspiration rate is twice that of coastal zones.

A similar change has occurred with turfgrasses. The popularity of tall fescue as a more drought-tolerant grass has given rise to the development of over twenty new varieties. A few of these are being included in sod to appeal to advocates of instant landscapes.

Pleasant Hill Road, Lafayette, California. Author’s photograph. Irrigation of the central divider ceased and the turfgrass was removed as the drought worsened. Shallow irrigation has encouraged surface rooting and sweetgums, flowering cherries, and white alders show immediate distress and drop their leaves. Eucalyptus and stone pines show little or no distress. This brown sward will be greened with ground cover more suitable than grass next year, and the ailing trees replaced with others more tolerant of drought

Pleasant Hill Road, Lafayette, California. Author’s photograph. Irrigation of the central divider ceased and the turfgrass was removed as the drought worsened. Shallow irrigation has encouraged surface rooting and sweetgums, flowering cherries, and white alders show immediate distress and drop their leaves. Eucalyptus and stone pines show little or no distress. This brown sward will be greened with ground cover more suitable than grass next year, and the ailing trees replaced with others more tolerant of drought

Irrigation Technology

Eclipsing advances in the nursery industry, irrigation technology has made a great leap forward during the past decade. Ten years ago one might have thought drip irrigation to be a leaky faucet and a tensiometer a psychiatrist’s instrument to measure stress. Today we have sophisticated drip, trickle, and micro irrigation systems with emitters, spitters, bubblers, and mini-sprays of every conceivable type that put the water at the roots instead of in the gutter. At least some kinds are sold in nearly every nursery, hardware, discount, and even some drug stores.

Tensiometers are available that can override the programmed irrigation sequence of controllers. In theory these instruments allow soil moisture, not some predetermined educated guess, to determine irrigation needs. While these instruments have not yet achieved widespread acceptance, the concept is sound and, once refined, should take the guesswork out of programming in the future.

Computerized controllers can be programmed to parcel out water with more precision than most people know how to use. In fact, the advances in irrigation technology have come so rapidly that many professional maintenance workers have difficulty learning to use them effectively. Some public works departments, parks, and campus maintenance departments will not use drip systems because their workers don’t understand them or how to maintain them. Acceptance comes slowly.


Public agencies, institutions, and individuals have conducted important research to find ways to use water more efficiently, discover water needs of common plants, introduce and test new plants, and evaluate public tastes and acceptance of drought-tolerant landscapes. The University of California at Berkeley, Davis, and Riverside, U.C. Cooperative Extension, the state Department of Water Resources, Caltrans, and several water supply agencies such as the North Marin Water District have conducted a wide range of research projects on these and other topics.

Several projects have demonstrated that savings of between thirty and fifty percent in water use are possible by reducing or eliminating turf, consolidating plants into water-zoned groupings, using drought-tolerant plants, and more efficient irrigation. Not surprisingly, limiting the size of turf areas is the key factor in reducing water use.

Such research, still in the embryonic stage, promises to provide valuable information and promote further technological breakthroughs in the future. More attention must be paid to the social and cultural factors related to water conservation and human adaptation to the arid climate of the West.

A background of deep, dark green sets off a lovely composition of drought-tolerant gray shrubs, a truly Mediterranean landscape in southern California

A background of deep, dark green sets off a lovely composition of drought-tolerant gray shrubs, a truly Mediterranean landscape in southern California


One of the most significant continuing efforts to have emerged since the 1977 drought has been education of both landscape professionals and the public. Landscape and horticultural programs at most colleges and universities have emphasized water and energy conserva­tion in landscape design, horticultural techniques, and plant selection. Numerous adult education and university extension courses have also addressed water conservation.

Perhaps the most notable educational efforts are the annual xeriscape conferences in southern California. These two-day conferences draw over 500 professionals and lay persons. Experts from around the state give lectures and workshops on a variety of topics from practical technical subjects to design theory. The published proceedings form a valuable reference on the subject. Similar conferences are now being held annually in the San Francisco Bay Area and in southern California cities such as San Diego and Santa Barbara.


The number and quality of publications related to landscape water conservation have increased greatly in recent years. At least ten significant reference books on the use of native and other drought-tolerant plants have been published since 1976. Prior to that the only practical book on growing California native plants was Lee Lenz’ Native Plants for California Gardens, first published in 1956. Since then, books by Bob Perry, Emile Labadie, Marjorie Schmidt, Duffield and Jones, and Lenz and Dourley have become the nucleus of a growing library on drought-tolerant plants, horticulture, and landscape design in the West.

In addition, numerous older books on California flora have been reprinted to satisfy renewed interest in native plants and conservation. A wide array of important articles has been published in Pacific Horticulture, Fremontia, Sunset, and the landscape industry trade journals. Lesser known, but equally important, have been the many pamphlets and booklets produced by such agencies as Santa Clara County, the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation, the Sacramento County Heritage Oaks Committee, and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District.

These publications represent the most enduring effect of the 1977 drought — tangible recognition of the need for water conservation and landscape stewardship sensitive to the realities of the arid West.


Perhaps more visible are the projects that demonstrate that water-conserving landscapes are truly beautiful. An example of the works of the late Lester Hawkins can be seen at Oakmont near Santa Rosa. Village Homes in Davis has achieved international acclaim as a community design responsive to ecological principles and social values. The work of Nancy Hardesty at Portola Valley Ranch demonstrates that attractive, livable landscapes can be created with native plants. And in southern California, Mission Viejo, a large residential development, incorporates the principles of xeriscape in its design and as a way of life for its residents, a program oriented to people, not just plants and technology.

Small demonstration gardens in cities throughout the state expose the public to ideas for converting their own residential gardens to water-conserving landscapes.

This EBMUD demonstration garden replaced a common front lawn with a rich composition of native and other drought-tolerant plants. In the first year a reduction of over fifty percent in landscape water use was achieved

This EBMUD demonstration garden replaced a common front lawn with a rich composition of native and other drought-tolerant plants. In the first year a reduction of over fifty percent in landscape water use was achieved

Public Agencies

Contrary to the opinions expressed in my survey, public agencies have made significant advances in advocating water conservation. Curiously, many water districts are advocating the use of less water.

A few city and county agencies have developed policies, guidelines, and ordinances to encourage or require water conservation in new developments. Contra Costa County restricts the amount of turfgrass planted in industrial, commercial, and certain residential developments. Also required are drought-tolerant turfgrasses, the use of tensiometers, and nighttime watering. Suitable drought-tolerant woody plants are strongly recommended. In the south, Ventura County has adopted the principles embodied in what might be called appropriate horticulture.

The Los Angeles Planning Department has instituted an ordinance requiring a rather complex system for “xeriscape approvals.” Plan checkers evaluate certain development plans on a point system; the larger the lot the more points required. Points are awarded for such techniques as drip-trickle irrigation systems, automatic controllers, lawns comprising less than twenty-five percent of the planted area, and plants that will survive and look good on natural rainfall after two years of irrigation.

How Do We Rate?

All things considered, this brief overview demonstrates impressive advances in landscape water conservation over the past decade. Those responsible for these efforts deserve commendation. But as a society, we’ve got a long way to go. From vast acreages of greensward in tidy corporate office parks and highly water-consumptive plantings around new homes and businesses, evidence abounds that not everyone has gotten the message, or that some at least have chosen to ignore it.

Change comes hard for most people. Those who are committed to a more sensible approach to landscape planning and design must be relentless in their efforts to push for change. We must help those who grew up in eastern landscapes with lawns and deciduous shade trees to realize that theirs was the landscape of another climate, another culture. We need to dispel the romantic notions of recreating it here and help people to discover the richness and great beauty of the western landscape. As Wallace Stegner writes:

Aridity, and aridity alone, makes the various Wests one. The distinctive western plants and animals, the hard clarity (before power plants and metropolitan traffic altered it) of the western air, the look and location of western towns, the empty spaces that separate them… are all consequences… of aridity.

And also about the West:

The most splendid part of the American habitat, it is also the most fragile. It has been misinterpreted and mistreated because, coming to it from earlier frontiers where conditions were not unlike those of northern Europe, we found it different, daunting, exhilarating, dangerous, and unpredictable, and we entered it carrying habits that were often inappropriate, and expectations that were surely excessive.

Our gardens and landscapes express our attitudes about the places in which we live and work. And, although we marvel at the great beauty of the western landscape, we must at some level somehow dislike our habitats in the West because we are forever trying to make them look like somewhere else. Stegner recognizes this tendency:

And what do you do about aridity, if you are a nation inured to plenty and impatient of restrictions and led westward by pillars of fire and cloud? You deny it for a while. Then you must either adapt or try to engineer it out of existence.

We have tried engineering its extinction. Adaptation at all levels is what is needed now. Our gardens and landscapes seem small compared to the vast engineered landscape of dams, water projects, and agriculture. But how we garden and how we design our landscapes reflect our attitudes about the larger region — from hose end, as it were, to Hoover dam.

We can have our perennial borders to satisfy our need for brilliant displays of seasonal color, but let us not import the border of the soggy English climate. Let us be creative in developing a truly western border. Instead of building our houses and corporate offices to look like English manors, arrogantly denying the climate, set amid the foreign greensward, let us build around a central courtyard where we can delight in private oases sheltered against the pervasive sun.

Instead of trying to cloak vast, hot hillsides with plants that cannot be weaned from sprinkler heads, let us develop our ecological skills in landscape restoration. Native trees and shrubs can easily grow from seeds sown among selected grasses and wildflowers, creating or recreating a lovely natural landscape sustained without tapping the reservoir. Let us turn our collective creativity toward developing the best truly western landscapes, rather than imitating those of wholly different places.

It is important, also, that we not become so enamored of technical solutions to water shortages or so smug in the virtue of water conservation that we ignore the principles of good design. We must be careful that our zeal not make water-conserving landscapes a fad that quickly passes when this drought ends. Water conservation is an enduring issue in the arid West, and it must become a way of life.

More on the Subject

Barbour, Michael G. and Jack Major (eds.), Terrestrial Vegetation of California, New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1977.

Duffield and Jones, Plants for Dry Climates, HP Books, Tucson, Arizona, 1981.

East Bay Municipal Utility District, Water-conserving Plants and Landscapes for the Bay Area, Oakland, California, 1986.

Labadie, Emile L., Native Plants for Use in the California Landscape, Sierra City, California, 1978.

Lenz and Dourley, California Native Trees and Shrubs, Claremont, California, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 1981.

Perry, B., Trees and Shrubs for Dry California Landscapes, San Dimas, California, Land Design Press, 1981.

Schmidt, Marjorie, Growing California Native Plants, Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 1980.