Category Archives: Water Conservation

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!


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

Lawn Substitutes…..

April  7, 2015

The whole great State of California has a mandate to reduce water use by 25%.  Although it is going to be diffuclt, we can easily achieve this–stop watering our lawns.   This will be a massive savings of water since about 9 out of 10 homeowners have lawn.

The design aspect of having a lawn, may seem simple, but that is because it is over used.   The real issue is complex.  First of all, lawns are a necesary evil, especially if you have children, pets or enjoy outdoor activities.  There is nothing like grass to take foot traffic.  So, not all lawns are objectable.   The issue is how we have all used grass as a ground cover, millions and millions of  Californians.   I say, if the only person who walks on your lawn is the gardener, then let that lawn go!  A lawn should be no more than 30% of your total gardening space.  As we are in a dought I would reduce that number by half.  We must sacrifice, there is no choice.  I also object to municipal medians and parkways that use grass as a ground cover.  Again, if the only person who walks on it is the gardener—-let it go!

At Indah Bulan, we tend to always remove lawns except where useful .  Here are some alternatives to having a lawn or lawn substitutes.

  1. Red Fescue (Festuca rubrum) This is a California native grass that grows well with little water.
  2. Mulch…. until you can figure out what to do, simply much the dead lawn.
  3. For areas to be used for entertaining, use pavers set in gravel.  This will allow the water to percolate back into the ground, create a pattern and most importantly define an area with style.
  4. Succulents, these can be planted year round and enjoy being dry.  Most tend to be more colorful with dry heat.
  5. Plant a Grove of Trees… fill your old lawn area with trees, turn it into a woodland.
  6. Create a path and planting areas.   This creates a garden that has visual interest and practicality if the paths are well thought out.
  7. Evergreen Ground Covers.  There are hundreds of choices.  If you want a look to replicate grass, choose a plant with small leaves.  A really good choice is Achillea milliafolium.  It is a low growning yarrow, that can take some foot traffic, being mowed, and has a flower.
  8. Create a riparian area with native rocks, trees, shrubs and design.
  9. Create a planting design that uses mass plantings of a single variety of low shrub(s).
  10. Do nothing until you have a plan.  Mow the grass down as low to the ground as possble, stop watering and take time to dream.  Use the drought to solve a problem thoughtfully.

There really are so many wonderful options.  When we design a garden for clients, we choose what is best for them, the architecture of their home and how they want to use it.  This is a great opportunity to create something that is special, practical, sustainable and gorgeous.

Stephen Swafford, Landscape Architect


Water Conservation …. Lawns

As a landscape architect, I see potential everywhere!  Many times that comes from identifying the problem first. We are experiencing a major drought in California.  The biggest problem I see are all those unused grassy areas in front of most homes.  I want my first blog to be about those lawns and grassy areas that could still be green, just in a different more sustainable way.

Having a lawn is not bad or improper in and of itself.  But, in an arid climate using a lawn as a default planting for 95% of a front landscape requires a staggering amount of water and weekly maintenance. Another waste is seeing grass in a municipal median that is only walked on as it is mowed.   There is nothing like grass for areas that are to be used by families for outdoor activities since, if healthy, can take heavy use. What I want to address is a grassy lawn that is just a visual.

Here are a few suggestions to make your lawn more sustainable.

  •  If the only people who walk on your lawn are the “gardeners”….. let it go. Place a thick layer of mulch until you figure out how the area is to be used.  Stop watering the area.
  • If you use the lawn occasionally for activities or parties, make sure you have a grass that is appropriate for your climate.  For instance, St. Augustine Turf is a tropical grass.  It requires much more water than a typical fescue.   Overseed your lawn with a mixture of drought tolerant seeds.
  • If you have a grassy area that will be kept, then trim it to the proper height.  Ask your gardener to raise his lawn mower blade to 3″, 4″ is better.   This simple task will help your lawn to retain more water.  The longer blades will provide shade for the roots. It will also look more healthy.  It takes more water to regrow from being scalped than it does to maintain a longer blade.  Of course the big problem with this is most gardeners seem to only speak Spanish.  Here is a printable statement you can simply hand to your gardener.  …..Maybe give him an extra $5 tip.

In English:

To help conserve water, please raise mower blade to 3″.  Thank you!

In Spanish: 

Para ayudar a conservar el agua, por favor, levanten la cuchilla de corte a 3 pulgadas. Gracias!  


  • Water less for longer.  Instead of watering 3 times a week, water every two weeks for 20-30 minutes…. or better yet wait until your grass looks like it needs water.  You will be amazed that having the grass trimmed at a constant 3″ requires less water.  …….Water only when necessary.
  •   If water is running over the sidewalk, there are issues with the water percolating into the ground…. If grass is what you want, this may be the perfect time to aerate or till and add organic material to the soil so it can retain the precious moisture it receives.
  • Make sure the irrigation system is fine-tuned to eliminate over spray.  Water early in the morning (remember water fewer times).
  • Plant a tree or a grove of trees to reduce all that hot sun on your house and as the trees grow seed a shady grass mix.
  • Replace the lawn with a ground cover (lawn substitute).

Next time……lawn substitutes

Stephen Swafford

Landscape Architect, Indah Bulan