With the recent rains, it’d be easy to forget last year’s water worries – if it weren’t for the memory of our ever rising water bills! Winter isn’t over yet and more rain is in the forecast, but our overall water shortage and Southern California’s water dependence are a serious problem that is not likely to go away any time soon.
This challenge shouldn’t fill your hearts with dread however: In the following I’m going to show you how water conservation can be turned into a pleasurable task that makes you fall in love with your garden again.
Martin J. Wygod, a racehorse breeder, and his wife, Pam, in their Rancho Santa Fe garden. With more than 100 acres, they have replaced much of their landscaping with succulents, cutting their water consumption in half from what it was in 2004.
Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
The New York Times recently focused on Rancho Santa Fe in a report on efforts to reduce water use during the drought. The initiative taken by Martin and Pam Wygod is highlighted. I’ve worked with the Wygods since 2012 and accepted their challenge to redesign their landscaping to achieve a significant reduction in water use.
When I started the collaboration with Mrs. Wygod, she had selected the entrance courtyard because it seemed particularly well suited to her goals. With great determination she had already removed all previous plants so that the empty space would allow her to better visualize the alternative: A garden that would express her love for a more naturalistic and intimate space and her dream of repose and calm; one with a rich variety of textures and colors, of more wildlife and quiet stimulus for the senses, every time you walk through it.
Moreover, creating a symphony from the great variety of beautiful water-conserving plants that our climate allows us to grow would be so much more exciting than the traditional lawn-cum-roses that had been there before; and importantly, this garden would also satisfy her desire for greater water conservation.
Above a ”teaser” concept sheet used to help the client visualize the general feel and theme of her garden
In the following weeks, I collaborated with my client on several drafts and concepts to help her capture her vision. Initially, inspired by the beautiful rock veneer on the house façade and perimeter wall, I drafted a naturalistic landscape with several low mounds, boulders and a rock fountain, and with stone-edged gravel paths winding through the garden, inviting discovery and contemplation.
Above, one of the draft concepts showing gravel paths and gently mounding planter beds
This undulating landscape would be alive with exceptional drought tolerant plants from Mediterranean-type climate zones. The existing mature Live Oak would need to be preserved as well as the big Paper Bark Tree. For the latter finding companion plants would be a bit of a challenge because the root competition under its canopy is fierce. On the other side of the garden, under the Live Oak Quercus agrifolia, the plant selection would have to be extra careful: Already stressed from the lawn removal and the shut-off of the regular lawn water we needed to avoid disturbing the Oak’s roots even more and provide the irrigation solely timed to the needs of this California native.
Initially very fond of this first concept and after a few weeks of consideration, my client realized however that she preferred a quieter, more dreamy and calming landscape. I suggested to play the stone element down a bit by removing gravel and rock edging, thereby calming the scene. Also, we agreed that the mounds made the landscape design “too busy”, and that they took away from a generous sense of space.
We did retain the large boulders and winding path ways, while putting the paving selection for the pathways on hold; my client couldn’t “feel” yet what material she’d want to walk on in her garden.
A walkway, still undefined, winds through this xeriscape design.
While I was working on the re-design, Mrs. Wygod found a beautiful bench; placed invitingly in the shade under the Oak, traveling the garden paths would be even more irresistible.
Above, the same garden scene, photographed a year later: The pathways havs become more defined by adding a narrow black edging and a soft, small-pellet fir bark.
Once we had communicated and understood the layout of the garden beds and determined most of the hardscape elements, creating the planting plan was exciting: Putting together a plant list that attempts to incorporate the client’s very personal preferences for textures and colors, and that is suitable for the various micro-climates in this garden (shade under overhang and under trees; root competition, seasonal sun exposure in other places etc.) is a like a challenging piece of music, and you’re thrilled when you have done well.
Of course it helps when your client is as fond of plants, too, and open to a certain measure of experimentation where you hope that a certain plant will like the situation you place it in and then wait to see how it performs.
I couldn’t have been luckier than with this client: Experienced and fond of her gardens she is aware that gardens need time to grow in and that each plant choice is an investment in the future that requires patience.
The garden in its third year; it’s coming together
Now in its third year, the garden is still evolving: Plants are growing in and need to be pruned and gently directed; some haven’t liked the micro-climate and needed to be replaced (it’s too hot in this garden for Blue Oat Grass Helictotrichon sempervirens); Blue Sedge Carex flacca proved to be too much of a spreader and started to engulf the neighboring plants. The perennial Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’ is a delicate plant that is not easy to find the right amount of irrigation for, so it often displays dried leaves around the base and is in my mind too ‘unkempt’ looking. Perhaps ‘Little One’ Verbena will be more satisfying?
And the long-considered fountain will be added next; it will be a stunning addition to this garden.
Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’, a temperamental perennial
As the NYT article points out, the water savings achieved in this garden are considerable. Moreover, the homeowners’ pleasure that they derive from this garden is real:
“We are thrilled with the front garden. You were able to take my thoughts and transfer them to a stunning garden. A friend of mine from NJ who is head of the Garden Club was so impressed with the garden she took photos to share with her members.
The fountain will be a project for when I am here to look at the stone with you. Step by step we are building the garden."
The bench is still an important focal point of the garden, but not much longer: We are about to add the long-awaited boulder fountain. Soon!