As California’s drought continues, its effects have become easy to see in browning lawns and drooping flowers. We talk with landscape and gardening experts about how you should best use precious water. What should you try to save, and what should you leave alone? And, as the fall planting season approaches, we’ll talk about the best drought-friendly landscapes.

Gardening in a Drought 12 August,2014forum

Kathleen Brenzel, garden editor for Sunset Magazine
Andrea Hurd, owner of Mariposa Gardening & Design
Flora Grubb, co-owner of Flora Grubb gardens in San Francisco

  • Peter Rosen

    Can you ask the panel to explain the distinction between “Drought Tolerant” and “Low Water Use”? Just because a plant tolerates dry conditions, does not mean it does well in these conditions.

  • NicholeB

    We landscaped our backyard just before the governor declared drought. Due to restricted watering, my young trees are starting to show signs of drought-stress with early browning of leaves. What can I do to keep the trees healthy?

    • Peter Rosen

      Mulch. Healthy soil will have much more water holding capacity.
      Water efficiently through drip irrigation and an modern sprinkler controller.

    • L A

      It is always harder to keep new plants watered when they are planted in spring instead of fall but you have to do it or you will lose them. Make sure the soil is moist before you put mulch on. Water deeply and wide so roots will grow into the new soil. Put the mulch around the plant but not right next to the stems and trunks. Water early in the morning and check later how far down the water goes. You want to make sure it gets to the roots and below. Roots only grow where there is moisture. They don’t “seek” water. Good luck and good job planting a drought tolerant or at least water-wise garden.

    • MadMonkey

      Besides what others have said here about mulch, which is good advise, I would add that there are ways you can water them without using tap water.
      Take a shower with a 5 gallon bucket in the shower with you, save the water from dishes, laundry, etc. Use that water to water your trees.
      That way you are still watering them, but not wasting any water.

  • Silvia Bielser

    we also recycle water from catching shower water and when rinsing veggies, glassware, etc. This helps reduces using watering water. Our plan is to set up a rain barrel before the season begins (if it begins). Lastly, we’ve begun composting too to improve the soil quality.

  • Whamadoodle

    I did some landscaping on my front and back yards several years ago when selling my home, and used almost no plants at all. I left the trees in place, but since the lawn had gone dry, I dug over the topsoil and cleaned it. Afterwards, I laid down red cedar chips to make a “river,” and other sections of light cedar chips to make “earth,” and put all the smooth stones I’d dug up in the middle of the “river” to make an island. Then I made a small flowerbed at the edge of it all.

    The “river” and “earth” took a lot of cedar chips; however, they use no water, leave the trees in place, and the new owners of the house found it so beautiful that they kept it in place long after I moved.

  • Tom

    Great water conservation tip we got from our in-laws in Cloverdale: put a five gallon bucket in your tub/shower in the morning and fill it as the water heats up. Instead of letting that water go down the drain, we use that five gallons on our front yard native garden. We tore out our front lawn last year and are DELIGHTED to look out at pink fuschia and yellow poppies and blue fescue instead of a brown lawn…!

    • I do something similar. I collect the water in upcycled plastic bottles, and drink them throughout the day. I prefer to water with grey water from the kitchen.

      • Winifred Galler

        How do you collect the water in bottles? Do you have to hold it under the faucet? And then carry each one outside? I’d like to try it but It all seems so time & labor intensive. ;-(

  • One interesting tid-bit: I noticed when reading The Homeowner’s Guide to Wildfire Prevention that most of the native plants recommended for saving water (like succulents) are also recommended for fire-resistant gardening to protect your home from wildfires.

    On another note: I water with grey water. No elaborate system as my apartment garden is small: as I wash my cups I dump the semi-clean water into the dirty pots and pans, and dump those on my plants. If you clean your pots last, you can save a lot of water this way.

  • lcrooke

    2 years ago when we remodeled our house we tore out the front and back lawn and I’m so thankful we did! We planted all sorts of natives and low water plants (penstemon, salvia, monkey flower, elephant paw, euphorbia, etc. and not only is it fairly low maintenance but it looks great too!

  • Alan Dale Brown

    We had good luck with our timing; we put in a drought tolerant native garden in the front and much of the back yard 3 years ago. For most plants, just one 30 minute watering per month in the evening is enough; next year, we’ll probably skip watering altogether on the more established plants. Some plants – like the Fremontia – are thriving more now than ever.

    The thing is, native California plant species work perfectly in a native California environment. Some of them *need* dry summers, and all of them had, sometime in their history, survived extreme drought. By bringing in plants that need a lot of watering, we’re fighting the natural order of things.

    California Lilac, various Buckwheats, California Fuscia, coffeeberry, toyon, various currants, Monkey flower, coyote mint – all are doing fine. Oh, and Salvia (sage), especially Cleveland Sage.

    • MadMonkey

      Though I do agree for the most part I would like to add that planting native plants is not a guarantee of not needing much or no water. California is a large state with extreme variety of landscapes.
      For example I have a creek monkey flower (a form of mimulus), it is a native, but requires a lot of water, which this year I think I will lose. It grows in the creek beds in my area naturally. I have another form of mimulus which is also a native, but very drought tolerant.
      Be sure to look at the plants requirements in the nursery before selecting.

      • Winifred Galler

        Good point. I think people tend to lump all california natives together and overlook the numerous microclimates within the state. Over 800 miles long and elevations up to 14000 ft is going to encompass a lot of diversity

  • Robert Thomas

    As our gardens become more appropriately designed to encourage continued production of short grain rice and alfalfa cultivated across our state for shipment to Asia, larger picture windows will provide better views of delicate, water-conserving landscape for our short-tethered children while they themselves thriftily conserve calories in layers of adipose.

  • Kim Ladin

    I’d like to start reducing the size of my lawn and converting it to drought-tolerant plants. But I don’t know how to convert the irrigation from pop-up sprinklers to drip irrigation for only part of the lawn. Is there an easy DIY way to do this?

  • Stephen Cocconi

    Great book on this issue; “The New American Front Yard: Kiis Your Gass Goodbye” by Sarah Carolyn Sutton ASLA – see

  • Shaila Sadrozinski

    can you name specific drought-tolerant grasses that one can grow from seed? five years ago I got a mix for an “eco-lawn” which included clover, supposedly to provide nitrogen to the soil. Well, the clover took over, with long spaghetti-type vines. I’ve just laboriously eliminated the entire lawn, and want to start over.

    • Peter Rosen

      Delta Blue Grass has an excellent mix, but you cannot allow the seeds to dry out. I recommend waiting to seed them until later when the weather is more moist.

  • Alan Dale Brown

    Make sure to mention laundry-to-landscape greywater systems. They’re simple and low effort. People should use a bio-compatible detergent that breaks down into fertilizer. We’ve done this for our grapefruit tree, and it’s happier than ever.

    • Peter Rosen

      If you have a front load washing machine, the grey water released is much less significant.

      • Alan Dale Brown

        But we do, and it’s enough for the tree and a few other plants. It still amounts to ~40 gallons per week.

    • MadMonkey

      I would love to instal a gray water reclamation system. Use that water for irrigation and toilet flushing. The cost is a bit much though.

      I have to settle for the bucket in my shower and in the sink coming out of the washing machine.

      • Alan Dale Brown

        Laundry to landscape systems are usually considered the most practical, and are cheap – material costs are supposed to be $30-$100, and do no require filters or pumps (or rather, they depend on the pump in the washing machine). They’re mostly consist of a valve (that lets you send laundry water down the drain when you want to use bleach or other chemicals you don’t want to dump on your trees), some PVC pipe, a couple more plumbing fixtures, and mulch basins. They also do not require a permit in California any more. The simplicity of the design means maintenance is minimal – see for free full plans.

        • Winifred Galler

          From the diagram it looks like the washing machine is on an outside wall? One that you could punch a hole through and put drain. What if your laundry room is inside the house? Do you have to dig up the drainpipes somewhere outside the house to tap into them?

          • Alan Dale Brown

            I’m not an expert … you might want to check with the people at, another resource. If you have a crawl space, it might not be too bad – send the hole down and get the pipe to exit the house. If I recall, the pump on a typical washing machine can send water about 100 feet from the washing machine, if it’s relatively level.

  • dorothy

    What about all the public areas, such as civic plazas, community centers, local city halls? I see a lot of lawn and watering. I’m not saying dried out lawns will look good and they may not have funds/staff for replanting but they should lead by example.

    • Robert Thomas

      Does anyone suppose that the grounds of Sunset magazine headquarters in Menlo Park or those of the United States Geological Survey nearby will soon succumb to cheat grass?

      • L A

        Sorry your experiences with life and neighbors are so awful. There may be some things you could do or not do to improve your attitude. It can’t be much fun being such a curmudgeon. And you sure don’t contribute much good to the rest of us with these comments (obviously that’s my opinion, and I doubt you agree.)

        • Robert Thomas

          Oh, my dear, but it is fun!

          I’m sorry if I’ve disturbed your sense of rectitude to the degree it drew your reproach.

          Suggesting that beloved leafy, local institutions of The Peninsula may enjoy a degree of immunity from the rebuke that tempts critics of old-fashioned “English style” lawn tending elsewhere – who are disturbed by patches of Bermuda grass maintained for the benefit of flatlander kids who still enjoy a noisy afternoon of “tackle the guy with the football” -may have strayed into insensitivity.

          On the other hand, I hear from diverse quarters how my acidulous commentary plays pretty well, for instance, with those more circumspect and self-aware amid the typically sanctimonious and self congratulatory denizens of the ethnically homogenous grape-squeezing ghettoes of the North Bay.

        • Robert Thomas

          Oh and the dead cat thing – I just made that up. The cat’s fine.

  • Peter Rosen

    Please mention the new “Lawn to Garden” program that Stopwaste! and local agencies are offering rebates for. They are hosting parties where lawns are sheetmulched and converted to appropriate plantings. Great program.

  • MO

    Any suggestions for DIY planning and installing a drought-tolerant landscape in a small back “yard” that is covered in concrete (without removing the concrete)?

    • L A

      Get some help with planning. It sounds like you are going to plant on top of concrete. Rather difficult in a dry climate. Find a good landscape designer. Containers might be the way to go. I think Flora Grubb does a lot of interesting stuff and you might want to visit that nursery. Also Annie’s Annuals.

    • MadMonkey

      Do a lot of reading on container plants. You can do DIY without the help of experts, but you are going to need to do some research and be sure to look at what others have done successfully. It is not an answer that can easily be addressed in this forum, there are many options from building raised beds yourself to purchasing various containers.

  • Lisa Rager

    re: composting, we have no yard, just a deck. I purchased a worm-composting system and have loved it. so easy, low maintenence, no smell, and wonderfully rich castings to use in my potted plants. its a great option!

  • Robert Thomas

    After having reverted one’s front garden to a genial lea, carefully planned to only give the appearance of dishevelment, how does one console family members understandably upset by the retaliatory act of an obstreperous neighbor who, having been put out of sorts seeing his home recently “Zillowed” downward $200,000 due to the proximity of our yards in Google Street View, recently nailed the dead carcass of the family cat to the front door?

  • Guest

    Biochar can help hold water in the soil. The
    SF Chronicle had a good article in June 2012 that explains how biochar holds
    CO2 in the soil AND retains water, along with the porous structure holding
    nutrients and beneficial microbes and reduces fertilizer runoff.

  • Elijah Peters

    I recently started my very own aquaponic garden in my apartment in an effort to provide food for my fiancé and me. It has been great so far, and my water usage has dropped immensely.

    Do any garden associations in San Francisco help educate people on aquaponics?

  • marte48

    My new Chinese neighbors immediately tore out the lovely succulents covering the entire yard that that previous owner had wisely planted and tended for years. My new Indian neighbors across the street chopped down a giant Sequoia that had been there for a hundred years. Why do even educated immigrants want to imitate old stereotypes? Down the block, a new construction tore down a very beautiful and ancient Juniper, explaining that it was the wrong “Feng Shui.”

    • Robert Thomas

      An interesting body of study exists that has begun to recognize the disparate attitudes toward urban and suburban arbors, that was previously ignored, A number of municipalities have encountered new ethnic communities that distrust trees near their homes and have worked to acculturate immigrant neighborhoods to regional traditions.

      David Ley describes a strikingly similar tree story. This story occurs in Kerrisdale, an established inner suburb of Vancouver, Canada. In Ley’s story, however, a clear identity is attached to the “newcomers.” The two opposing groups in the fight over the two Sequoia trees are the new Hong Kong and Chinese immigrants, on the one hand, and the old Anglo-Saxon residents of the city, on the other hand. Ley begins his article, accordingly, by stating that “[i]n 1990, Harry Liang, a new home owner… decided to remove two 30m sequoia trees from hisfront lawn.” Although a pseudonym, Ley’s choice of an Asian name for the “tree remover” is clearly not incidental. Instead, Ley presents several cultural identities that are significant for this specific tree struggle story. As Ley explains, “[w]ealthy residents of Hong Kong or Taiwan sustain interest in traditional cultural forms like feng shui… but they also eagerly embrace the modern world and the capitalist urge for creative destruction. In identity formation, traditional culture is often subordinate to modernity’s fascination for the new…
      Gary Onysco, Vancouver’s tree inspector, suggests that “the new immigrants are maybe a little less trustful.” “They’re not used to trees,” he continues, “they don’t want an outdoor space, they want a condo, they don’t even seem to want a balcony, they’re not outdoor oriented… [T]hey believe that there is a lot of disease and problems coming out of trees.” Both [Bill Stephens, Vancouver’s Deputy Arborist Technician] and Onysco refer to sanitation and hygiene as necessities of urban life in China and as providing a scientific explanation for this population’s relationship to nature in general, and to trees in particular.”

      Section F. New People, Old Trees: Trees as a Matter of Status;
      “Everybody Loves Trees”: Policing American Cities Through Street Trees
      By Irus Braverman
      Duke University School of Law

    • MadMonkey

      My family was asked by all our neighbors to chop down the redwood tree that was in our back yard. It was planted by my great grandfather and was roughly 80-90 years old. We said no again and again.
      Finally they sued us and we were forced to have it removed. People do not understand the importance of the plants and view them like cloths that they can change at a whim.

      • Alan Dale Brown

        What was the basis of the lawsuit, if you don’t mind me asking? I don’t see how they could do that.

        • MadMonkey

          It was the tree litter that fell on their property as well as the danger of falling limbs on their property. In addition the tree blocked light in their yard. Redwoods shed their limbs in storms and coupled with the tree litter we had no chance. It did not even get to court, our lawyer advised that we would just lose the suit and to remove the tree before they made up some “damages” like to the paint on their garage in which a small branch fell and scraped it a little. By just removing it we saved court/ lawyer costs and more.
          I still have large sections from the heart of the tree that i have made a table, headboard, and soon my fireplace mantle.

      • marte48

        There was a news story a few years ago about people who were forced to remove their redwood trees because they blocked the sunlight from their neighbor’s solar roof panels.

        • MadMonkey

          Does not surprise me.

  • LaurenAyers

    Pre-Columbian Indians created rich dark earth, terra preta de indio, in the thin soil of deforested rain forests by adding charcoal.

    Biochar can help hold water in the soil. The SF Chronicle had a good article in June 2012 that explains how biochar holds CO2 in the soil AND retains water, along with the porous structure holding nutrients and beneficial microbes and reduces fertilizer runoff.

  • Jan NMI M

    Hi how useful is the compost put out by the City of Berkeley, free to residents, vs something commercial? Can it be used to renew vegetable plot? How do you use it vs manure? thank you. loves this discussion.

  • Daniele Imerese

    I tore up my front and back lawns and replaced with mostly native/mediterranean plants over the past couple years. While I’m super happy with the results now, I can attest it’s a big job for a homeowner to take on and it’s an ongoing process.

    A major stumbling block is that it’s relatively difficult to design a drought tolerant garden that doesn’t look like an unorganized mess, at least compared to traditional landscaping. In my opinion, many of these conversions look terrible after a short time, which discourages others from trying it. It takes careful planning, research and a willingness to kill a few plants if you make a mistake in your design.

    There are plenty of books on drought tolerant gardening out there, but surprisingly few that deal with the actual placement of these plants in a traditional rectangular plot like most of us have. My advice: do your research, mimic successful landscapes and hire a landscape architect if you can afford it.

    • L A

      Or a landscape designer. There are lots of knowledgeable ones out there and often they know plants and gardening better than landscape architects who typically focus on hardscape in school though this is changing in some schools.

  • MadMonkey

    Check with your water district before starting a project to remove your lawn. Many offer a rebate program, but you need to initiate prior to starting your project. My water district offers a $500 rebate for example.

  • Bobbi

    A gentleman by the name of Gil at minute 43:35 indicated he plants flowers in public lands. He should check with the manager of the land to make sure they are compatible with the goals of the responsible steward – prior to planting. I’m sure well meaning, but it is startling to hear when a huge amount of resources are applied to restrict growth of horticulturally introduced invasive plants. As invasive, they are easy-to-grow, but not easy to keep them from taking over, and displacing local habitat.

  • RichManJoe

    I heard on the show that everyone should be using water barrels to collect water from their downspouts. This may be OK where rain is frequent, but in a mediterranean climate, this is fiscally ludicrous. Unless you can get it surplus, a 55 gallon water barrel can cost on the order of $100. A 1000 sq. ft. roof will fill eleven 55 gallon barrels in a 1 inch rain, costing over $1000 dollars. In the SF area, this rain will then sit there, possibly breeding mosquitoes, until it is used in the summer, when we need rain on our gardens. It would cost just a couple of dollars to buy this same amount of water from your local water utility and therefore to payback your investment would take 500 years – good luck on collecting on that. So, whoever tells you to buy water barrels either wants to sell you a barrel or hasn’t done the math. Even if a barrel costs $20, it will take a hundred years for payback.

    • MadMonkey

      It is not always about the personal cost, but not using drinking water for irrigation. I have 4 rain barrels, I can store 220 gallons. You don’t need to store every drop of water from your roof, you need to store enough to get your yard through to the next rainy season. They were $60-80 each including all the hardware and a lid with screen to keep from mosquitos from accessing the water. I will add 2 more this fall and that is all I will need yearly for my garden.
      I have yet to need to use water from my spigot this year for my yard. I will be out after this coming weekend, but I do have mostly low water plants.
      Yes, it will take me a decade at current rates to pay off the rain barrels, but it has value beyond the monetary costs.

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