Category Archives: drought

Water Conservation in Indah Bulan Gardens…

Californians, when presented with problems, tend to look for answers; which is what has occurred with our ongoing drought.   One of the first projects I worked on when I moved to California 26 years ago was a Water Wise Demonstration garden for the San Bernadino Water District.  At the time it seemed odd to me as I was used to making sure water shed properly off of a site rather than trying to capture it.  As I researched for this project it became apparent to me that drought is a natural part of the weather cycle of the West.   A cycle tends to last seven years,  wet for seven years, then dry for the next, then repeat.  With our poplulation continually growing these dry periods are growing more difficult.   There is actually plenty of water, but we landscape architects have been trained to moved water away from houses quickly to the storm drains. Currently our fundamental change in our design of gardens as we now want to allow that rain water a chance to absorb into the ground, repleneshing our ground water.

With each of our garden designs, we consider how to create a garden that absorbs more water without causing a flood.  It is a delicate balance.   The solution must also be appropriate for the way the garden is intended to be used by the residents and guests.

Perhaps our greatest inspiration is a natural feature in California called “Vernal Pools”.   They are simply temporary ponds.  Most of the year they are dry, but during rains they fill up with water, as the water is absorbed into the ground specific wild flowers germinate and fill the pools with plants that expedite the grounds ability to absorb that pooled water.    We have adapted this natural feature in the gardens we design.  It is important that these depressions look beautiful year round.

So first on our list in garden design is where to create a swale, (a drainage depression)–a place where we can safely move water coming from the gutters and water running off the property to a place designed to capture a large portion of that water, allowing overflow to drain away. Then we select plant material and other materials that will aid the ground in absorbing that water.

Another way we capture water in the garden is using less concrete, substituting gravel,  pavers, decomposed granite, and porous concrete.  These materials allow the water to be absorbed into the ground by slowing down the runoff, allowing the ground to absorb it.   It’s also a good idea to look at existing paving and deciding how that surface can be reduced, too. Even breaking up sections of concrete and planting a tree can help immensely.

There has also been a great movement to use only native plants.  I generally agree with this.  But, there are some amazing plants on our planet.  Most of which can handle drought if established properly. The key to establishing plants is making sure they are in their proper conditions.   All plants have a preference in soil types (acid or alkaline), some like well drained soils, others prefer heavy clay soils…. Etc….    My only issue with California natives, is they tend to be rather big, so they need to be planted with room to grow.  There are small plants, but typically the ones that catch our eye are the big ones, which is why they are more readily available.    We use plants as architecture and as tools to help the soil thrive. There are some amazing American Native plants that work well in California gardens.

Rain Barrels are another water to capture water…. But typically they are just too small to make a real impact.  They can fill up in minutes.   They are still a good way to capture some water!   A better solution is a large sisters that can water your whole garden.  Although they are somewhat of a temporary status symbol, they require a location where they become a cohesive part of the working garden.   Rain water is far superior to irrigation.  Our water contains flouride and chlorine, which plants do not need.   Irrigation sustains, rain nurtures.

I think one of the simplest ways to help capture water is to make sure your garden soil isn’t compacted.  Most of our soils are… It can be quite diffuclt to aerate soils with existing plantings.  It is best to do this as a garden is begun.  To keep a well aerated soil, it is important to add compost, and organic nutrients to the soil.  Gardeners typically blow out leaf litter, but those leaves are free nutrients and mulch.

It is also important to maintain ones’ irrigation system.  If your system leaks then any water conservation is pointless.  Also, make sure faucets and hoses do not leak.   Overspray is another wasteful byproduct of irrigation.  Changing the heads on your existing irrigation system is an easy fix.  The new heads are much more specific as to how they water.  Also, water less often, but for longer periods.  This allows more water to seep into the ground.  Watering the top inch of soil does not promote healthy growth.  This is why there is root damage, and toppeled trees.

So, one can see there is something we can do to survive a drought not just in a drought, but when we have rains!   Let’s work together to create beautiful gardens that say we are problem solvers!


Transitioning from Lawn to Forest…..

April 8, 2015

Think of this drought as an opportunity to redecorate your yard into a garden.  Where to start…. well, in this post I want to encourgae you to strategically plant trees in your “yard” transforming it into areas to be admired, enjoyed, and that provide a sustainable addition to your property.  With the drought it is not the time to plant a garden of shrubs. Yes, they may be native and/or drought tolerant, but they must be established before they can survive with little or no water.

Typically, when we design a garden with trees, we plan short lived plants under new trees since with the canopy growth, the amount of sun will be reduced.  This is just common sense, remember gardening is a process.  This Great Drought offers a perfect opportunity to plant those trees, using a fraction of the water required to maintain your lawn.  By the way, the County of Los Angeles has sanctioned watering of our trees, because they are a real asset.   There is no irrigation required for trees, although during the drought young and old specimens need to be deep watered. (just use the water hose and let water drip out for 8 hours or so, once a month)  Let’s use this drought to change the nature of Los Angeles from millions of lawns to millions of trees!  The greatest Urban Forest in the country.

Here’s why.  Trees have amazing sustainable benefits!  Each variety has specialized growth attributes, these different aspects can be used to solve issues in your garden.  Did you know a home with mature trees has more real estate value than a home without?    Neighbohoods with trees have a lower crime rate…. isn’t that interesting.  Trees also improve our air quality by absorbing dust and carbon dioxide, replacing it with oxygen.  OK, I’m sold already.  But……

….Let’s talk about harnessing the visual aspects of trees to define your property.   A list will work best….

  1. Thoughtfully placed trees will frame your home, creating punctuated architecture.
  2. Trees surounding a house will reduce the need for airconditioning by 30% in the summer; the opposite in the winter.
  3. Trees retain massive amounts of water, so they help prevent runoff during heavy rains and help replenish ground water.
  4. Evergreen trees could block cold winter winds from the NorthWest in the Winter which will help keep your home warmer and use less electricity.
  5. Trees absorb and reduce noise pollution.
  6. Fruit trees provide food for you and wildlife.
  7. Trees can add sculpture to your garden simply by the way they grow naturally.
  8. Trees provide seasonal change from flowers to Fall color.
  9. Trees create their own mulch, let the leaves fall and be natural
  10. Trees can be used to create depth.  Planting larger leafed trees closer to the street, smaller leafed trees closer to the house for the illusion of a larger propery.
  11. Trees have a calming effect.  Think about that next time you are in an area with trees…. how does it make you feel.  Let that feeling inspire you.

There is a difference in Hard Wood Trees and Soft Wood Trees.  Hardwood tend to live longer and grow more slowly.  Plant hardwoods away from the foundation of your home, give them plenty of room to grow.  Know your trees, plant them knowing how large they will become and what you can look forward to seeing seasonally.

Goodness, I could go on and on about my love of trees and the oppotunity we have to transform Southern California from a sea of lawns to an Urban Forest, but I will end it here.   Think of the name “forest” …for rest.

Stephen Swafford, landscape architect



How We Can Grow During a Drought…..

April 7, 2015

During any kind of adversity we tend to grow with leaps and bounds.  It may be slowly, but it is surely.  Being in a severe drought offers this same opportunity to grow.  How do we grow when we have less?  Well, we can look at what we have that needs excessive water and make separate those things that have no real value in our lives.  I have said in other posts that if the only person who walks on your grass is your gardener, then it’s time to let the grass / lawn go.  This frees us, as Californians, to create a landscape that is sustainable and uniquely ours.

We must reduce our water usage by 25%.  Why not make it 50%?  There is nothing wrong with using water, we do not need guilt as we create something beautiful.  By using water wisely we rid ourselves of that guilt…. and become part of a community of thinkers.

So,  how do we create a replacement for grass?  Can we rethink a false status symbol? YES!!! There are countless “soulutions”, but typically the front garden is part of the street-scape, an unused asset by the homeowner.  Let’s talk about what grass does for a landscape.  It is a mass of green, typically a fine texture that conjures a feeling of park like relaxation.  This is an opportunity to redefine how our homes look and feel.  Why not play up that park feel and create spaces for neighbors to want to congregate… build community through gardens.  This can be done with thoughtful design.

During the drought we must protect our trees by deep watering them.  This is a solution to a problem we all know we have—-tree roots that stay close to the surface.  The trees tend to fall over during Santa Ana Winds…. or heavy rains.  Trees planted in grass become use to irrigation, they spread their roots at the surface because that is where the water is.   By eliminating grass and having to water it, we have found a solution to those shallow roots.  Look around, look for trees planted in grass, and look for trees planted in a field.   You find that there is no bulk of surface roots in nature.

Another way we can grow during a drought is by changing our home climate.  Plant groves of trees.  Create shade!  And, by not having surface water your trees will develop proper roots.  If selected properly, trees can provide shade in the summer, warmth in the winter, seasonal color, flowers, attract wildlife and evoke that park like feeling we all love.

Finally, we can create community  gardens if we plant stone fruits, citrus and other trees with edible fruits.   If your neighbor has a lemon, then perhaps you plant a lime tree, an avocado tree, grapefruit, fig, pomegranate…..   this is an opportunity to build relationships who also want to conserve water and have a sustainable, beautiful garden.

Stephen Swafford

Landscape Architect, Indah Bulan