Rethinking the Garden

California is entrenched in its worst drought since we started keeping track. More than 38 million people rely on rain and snow that falls for a few months each year to drink, grow food, shower, wash clothes and dishes, and beautify their yards.

In the past couple of years Mother Nature has failed to deliver, and water districts across the state have begun rationing. On April 1, Marin County asked residents to reduce their water use by 25 percent or else face fines. So we install low-flow toilets and high-efficiency washers, we take shorter showers, and we never leave the faucet running.

But what about outdoors, where most of our water ends up? There’s a perception, even in the Bay Area, even in Marin, that low-water landscapes are less than ideal — that our options amount to cacti and rocks, or scraggly and scrawny, branchy and brown, just plain tough California natives.

Yet as many property owners throughout Marin have demonstrated, that perception is wrong. Today, when the need for low-water-use landscapes is greater than ever, there are also more resources — and plant options — available than ever before to ease the transition from thirsty and wasteful to thrifty and sustainable.

Drought-tolerant Beauty

Paul Wiseman has surely dispelled the notion that water-wise gardens must be bland or unruly — or, for that matter, anything short of stunning. Aesthetics and artistic design have been primary considerations in the ongoing, multiyear (six and counting) transformation of his century-old Belvedere garden into a low-water landscape. Drought-tolerant plants, including an impressive array of eye-catching succulents, are arranged like oils on canvas in a colorful, textural, manicured work of art, like the best English and Eastern gardens but with a fraction of the water requirements.

“I’m an aesthetic gardener,” Wiseman says. “Being green doesn’t have to be ugly. You can make those conscious decisions and still have it look good.” Wiseman is the first to admit he doesn’t like the California scrub palette. Instead, he sourced plants from around the world based on their aesthetic value, turning to Chile, Argentina, South Africa,the Canary Islands, Corsica and Australia, plus California for select natives. In his garden, prickly, pointy, soft, leafy, crawling, flowing, flowering water misers like aloe, agave, star jasmine and fan palms join broad sweeps of succulents in blues, reds, pinks, purples and yellows to supplant more demanding roses, rhododendron, geraniums and others.

“I think we really need to rethink, what does a garden look like?” he says.

Keep It Native

Dan Dufficy, a landscape designer and the owner of CNL Plant Nursery in Mill Valley, would agree, in an infectiously passionate way — indeed, with every fiber of his being. He’d agree that all new gardens need to be low-water-use, droughttolerant, and much more sustainable than current models. He’d even agree that aesthetics are incredibly important.

But there’s one place that Dufficy won’t budge: wherever and whenever possible, he says, California natives are the way to do it. “Those are the plants that want to be here,” he says. “They like our soil, they like our micro-habitats. Our insects need them, our birds need them. It’s a critical, critical element for Marin County.”

He admits there’s just one problem: the right plants for the job — that is, mature, visually appealing, landscape-quality specimens — can still be tough for homeowners and even nursery owners to track down. “The plants are just starting to be readily available,” he asserts. “Even right now, it’s difficult to find good-looking, drought-tolerant California native plants.”

Instead, he says, the market remains dominated by imported low-water-use Mediterraneans and high-water-use plants lifted from traditional gardens in wet-summer climates. But for those who want a visually distinctive garden that requires far less water and provides habitat for Marin’s resident insects and wildlife, he argues, the extra scouting is worth it.

Paired with carefully programmed drip irrigation and thoughtful pruning and sculpting, the likes of salvia, sage, coyote brush, coffeeberry, sword fern, madrone, buckeye and manzanita can not only attract hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, coyotes, snakes and quails, but also build award-winning showcase gardens, Dufficy says.

Public Spaces Inspire

Bay Area homeowners and businesses reconsidering what a garden looks like can now turn to the Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Coalition. The Richmond-based nonprofit partners with public agencies, landscapers and property owners to reduce waste and pollution, save water and create vibrant landscapes grounded in environmental principles.

“We’re starting to get away from this aesthetic of everything having to be neat and trim with squared-off edges toward more of a natural look and a more diverse plant palette,” says Stephen Andrews, a soil scientist who works as a trainer and technical expert for the coalition.

When it comes to water, he says, the most important change is the declining appeal of the lawn. By sheet-mulching a lawn and killing the sprinklers, most homeowners will see overall water use fall immediately by 50 to 90 percent, a benefit compounded by financial and health savings from ditching the fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Bay-Friendly guidelines also discourage pruning and trimming, which generates yard waste — but that doesn’t mean carefully designed gardens and landscapes must go feral. Exemplary Bay-Friendly–certified gardens are available for the public to view at Dixie Elementary in San Rafael, where a 3,800-square-foot native plant garden relies solely on rainwater for irrigation, and an office park at 700 Larkspur Landing in Larkspur, where 55,000 square feet of lawn and sheared shrubs were converted to a neat meadow of native grasses and annuals. Both appear natural, manicured and altogether beautiful.

Among the Bay-Friendly Coalition’s founding members in 2009 was the Marin Municipal Water District, consistently one of the state’s most aggressive water agencies when it comes to conservation policies and programs. “We strongly subscribe to the principles there, which are about making healthy, friendly landscapes from a water perspective and from an ecological perspective,” says Dan Carney, the district’s conservation manager. “That’s really the philosophical basis for all of our programs related to landscape.”

Water and Plant Alternatives

Even drought-tolerant gardens need water, particularly to get them established during the first two or three years, so it’s important to consider where that water is coming from. The MMWD provides recycled water — treated sewage wastewater — through designated pipes for use at some parks, businesses and municipal sites in the county, and encourages homeowners to install rainwater and gray water systems. Gray water refers to used water from dishwashers, washing machines, showers and sinks that can be piped straight to the landscape, saving clean water for where it’s needed most. The county also offers financial incentives to homeowners who install “smart” irrigation controllers that use weather and humidity sensors to adjust drip-system flows.

Since launching his business 30 years ago, San Rafael landscape architect Pete Pedersen has seen county guidelines affecting residential landscape water use tighten considerably. But many homeowners remain uncertain how to achieve the aesthetic they desire within the water limits they need to follow. Select high-water-use favorites can be used sparingly in prominent locations, but for everything else, it’s often a matter of simple substitution.

“A lot of things grow in California. For high-water-use plants, there are low-water-use plants that can satisfy a lot of the aesthetic requirements,” he says. “For instance, instead of English laurel, there are things that can be the hedge that people want, like Grecian laurel, which is essential a bay tree, and Texas privet.”

Or, instead of classic hydrangea macrophylla, try quercifolia, also known as oak leaf hydrangea, the only low-water hydrangea well-suited to placement in sunny Bay Area gardens alongside natives and drought-tolerant Mediterraneans.

When it comes to beautiful and water-wise landscape design, Pedersen says, “it’s not just about rounding up the usual suspects.” In ways both big and small, it’s about rethinking the California garden.