Hartley Magazine

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Waking up to a world with less water

Where would we be without water? I recently returned from California, where I got a sobering look at the possibilities. The drought there is a wakeup call for all of us—even in places like Chicago or the East Coast that aren’t suffering right now—to think hard about how we use this precious resource.

There are simple things every gardener can do to conserve water—whether it’s a simple rain barrel to collect and use the rainwater that runs off the greenhouse roof; a rain garden where water can collect and soak in to helps recharge our groundwater; turning off the automatic sprinkler system so we only water the lawn when it really needs it; shifting our perennial gardens toward plants that don’t need so much watering; or simply checking to make sure the soil is really dry before we water.

In southern California, where I was attending the Garden Writers Association annual conference in Pasadena, I saw a gardening culture struggling to with the new reality that the drought in the West is not an aberration; it’s now normal.

Despite the palm trees you see in photos, the gardening culture of L.A. is basically imitation East Coast—lawns, hedges, shade trees, roses—as though the place weren’t in a desert. But now water is a luxury and only the rich can afford to keep that kind of landscape alive. In newer middle-class subdivisions, there was no green, only beige and brown; every blade of grass and sapling tree was dead.

In wealthy Pasadena, some gardeners were still in denial. In one garden—that of a perennial plant connoisseur, with elegant pergola and roses—the homeowner hadn’t been able to let go of the look of green lawn between his clipped boxwood hedges. He’d replaced the grass with artificial turf.

The owners of another huge, elegant formal garden were coping better with the new reality. They were letting part of the lawn die and planning to plant drought-tolerant perennials. Thirsty, ill-adapted plants that were dying off were being replaced, in some cases, with native species.

Huntington Library oct
Huntington Library

Although we saw spectacular, lavishly watered gardens such as the Huntington Library and the Getty Center, for me the most inspiring visit was to the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. The 127 acres of gardens, based around an old estate, often serve as a backdrop for TV shows (“Fantasy Island,” Luke and Laura’s wedding on “General Hospital”) and movies (most of the “Tarzan” oeuvre).

Richard Schulhof, the garden’s executive director, told me that as a public agency, the garden sees a duty to set an example for the Los Angeles area of how to garden in a more realistic way in a place where water will continue to be scarce.

We saw a new food garden, built around a bioswale that will collect rain, growing in what had been a huge oval of lawn. There’s a Water Conservation Garden. The garden is highlighting is collections of plants from dry Australia and Africa, using more native plants, and offering education programs and education to help Angelinos see the drought as an opportunity to develop what Schulhof called “a new aesthetic” that fits the realities of the place.

I’m lucky to live near Lake Michigan in a place that historically has had ample rainfall. But as the climate changes, we’re getting more hot years and more droughts, and I expect that trend to continue.

Like many gardeners, I no longer water on a regular schedule; I stick a finger in the soil to see how dry it is and judge whether watering is really needed. I mulch my beds with shredded leaves to hold in moisture. When a plant dies in a dry spell, I replace it with a more drought-tolerant alternative. They way I garden is changing, as it must, because being conscious of how we use water is now an essential part of how we garden.