Most of Southern California is a desert, watered to an oasis-like state with precious drops traveling great distances to feed our landscape fantasies. Each time I’ve moved into a new home, the new yard was carpeted with green turf and nursery annuals better suited to areas with more rainfall than we could ever dream about.
With each house I have learned a bit more and have done a bit better with rectifying the water usage of our landscape with the water available to us. And as time goes on, there is more public awareness of the problem and more acceptance of possible solutions.
About fifteen years ago, I completely redid the front yard of our then-current home with plants that were more suitable to our arid climate. I mounded berms and dug swales, planted plants that do not need extra water once established and brought in truckloads of mulch. Some passers-by would pause to appreciate the project, while others just shook their heads as they walked past. Our garden was unique on a street full of verdant lawns with azalea foundation plantings. Fortunately, however, when it came time to sell, the garden (plus the accompanying plot plan with every plant marked and identified) was a major selling point and the buyer, a garden club member, was ecstatic.
Our next house boasted about 10,000 square feet of lawn and a sprinkler system that sprayed like fire hoses gone wild. That first fall, I removed most of the thirsty lawn. I collected aged manure from our barn and dug it into the clay soil. I laid out a four-part garden for over 50 roses in graduated colors and shaped each concrete paver of a faux-stone path separating the quadrants. Next came a soaker hose (made of recycled rubber) and landscape fabric attempting to squelch the raging Bermuda grass. A vintage fountain served as a birdbath in the center. Come spring, I was ecstatic—nearly drunk with the scent of all those beautiful roses.
With the landscape fabric, several inches of mulch, and shade from the four ornamental plum trees I had planted for that purpose, the roses did not require much water to survive. Yet for them to actually look good year-round, it would have taken much more water than I was willing to give them. By August, it became my “potpourri garden”—spiky sticks with dried flowers, and not terribly attractive at all. For the next six months, I looked forward to the rebirth of the roses, ignoring the thorny spectacle in the meantime.
Every spring was glorious, but the heat of the summer took its toll. Over the years, I found myself giving away a few rose bushes every year and replacing them with lavender or rosemary. Then the ornamental plums succumbed to an insect infestation and had to go, leaving the roses in full direct sunlight and suffering even more during the summer months. I needed to rework it—make the garden more compatible with our climate.
So my brain began to whir once again, this time leaning more toward Mediterranean than English. I envisioned olive trees, cobbled walkways and stuccoed walls around a new entry courtyard garden of penstemons, yarrow, Pride of Madiera and euphorbia along with the lavender and rosemary. In my mind, the central birdbath was upgraded to a bubbling tiled fountain surrounded by flagstone paths, and the vintage wrought iron gates languishing behind the barn finally had a permanent home befitting their gorgeousness.
But reality often has different plans from those in my fertile imagination, and there are so many other projects competing for time and resources that this seemed like something for the very distant future.
Then I heard about the LA Rain Gardens program, sponsored by the LADWP, Generation Water and The Tree People, offering free rain gardens to homeowners in a specific area of Los Angeles. I applied, while visions of my dream garden danced in my head. We met the criteria, and were scheduled for a site assessment.
At the appointed time, the friendly assessment team from Generation Water arrived with tape measures in hand. First they looked at the area I had in mind, and measured the roof to make sure the area feeding the downspout was greater than 500 square feet. (I pointed out that they were measuring the square footage of the footprint of the roof, not the actual square footage of the roof, which would be larger due to the roof slope. In reality, the footprint measurement is probably accurate enough as the rain does usually fall straight down.) There would have been enough roof surface to collect the water necessary for a small garden in front, but the 10’x10′ garden would have been lost in our front yard.
With visions of my dream entry garden shoved to the back of my brain once again, we went through the side gate to look at alternative sites. One was at the exit point of an elaborate rain drainage system designed by our contractor, with water from a second-floor deck and a concrete patio routed through walls and under floors, finally exiting in a side yard. I was impressed that the team seemed to understand the collection system without too much explanation on my part, but it was clear that this was not the best location for their rain garden. I will tackle that one myself at a later time.
Next was a smaller area on the opposite side of the house. Although there was plenty of roof area to catch the rainwater and a gutter/downspout system to route it, the garden would have been snuggled in between a small patio and a garden wall. This did not allow for the required three feet between the patio or a sidewalk and the rain garden, so that became another project for me to address in the future.
My final location idea was the former lawn between the barn and the pool. Roughly triangular, this space had been begging to become a garden for some time. It was part of a horseshoe pit area but had become a place for storage during our recent remodeling project (which is not quite finished yet). The area really needs some attention. Here I envisioned edibles among native plants with a ribbon path of decomposed granite and a few of my salvaged concrete pieces thrown in for personality. The team seemed to agree, so they dug out some soil for a water test and measured the roof of the barn. Unfortunately they said we’d have to remove the horseshoe pit hardware, which I will do if they agree to install the rain garden here. I suggested that instead of a rectangle plopped in front of the barn, perhaps we could reshape it a bit so it would be the equivalent of a 10’x10′ space—a curvy triangle covering 100 square feet.
They were agreeable, and assured me that the crew would be happy to personalize things a bit, perhaps adding some of the plants I had suggested. With two large dogs and other furry friends in the yard, I needed to make sure there were no poisonous plants or anything too delicate. They had thought of that already, and said they do not include poisonous plants in their installations.
We signed an agreement. I consented to allow them access to the garden, agreed to maintain the garden for five years and to leave a sign up for two years (among other things). From four different choices, I picked a plant palette. Of course I had some thoughts about changing a few things, and they assured me it was a possibility, but I’d have to talk to the supervisor.
With that, the assessment crew gave the dogs a final scratch, said the installation would most likely happen within the next week, and were on their way to the next site.
I could hardly wait for installation day.
Until next time~