The Loma Prietan - July/August 2010

Gardening Green

A Radical Idea: Use Less Water!

story and photo by Arvind Kumar

The Matilija poppy, the largest in the world, can help you save water.
The Matilija poppy, the largest in the world, can help you save water.

California may be a part of the United States, but in terms of geology, climate, and ecology, it is so different it could well be another country. For eight months of the year there is no rain. Cycles of drought may extend for several years. This makes water the most precious of natural resources in California.

Nevertheless, we Californians think nothing of using huge amounts of water in our gardens, without which our azaleas, camellias, and hydrangeas—not to mention our lawns— would surely die.

This water use comes at a cost, not only to our pocketbooks but to the environment. Water used by homeowners, businesses, and farmers is not available to natural landscapes, fish, and wildlife. Our salmon stocks have plummeted because we've dammed so many rivers and creeks.

How can we head off a looming water crisis? Build more dams and canals? Route and reroute more water? Catch and store more of it as it comes down from the sky?

Here is a radical idea: use less! A 2003 report by the Pacific Institute concluded that "in California, it is much cheaper to conserve water and encourage efficiency than to build new water supplies or even, in some cases, expand existing ones."

After you have plugged every leaking faucet, switched to low-flow toilets and shower heads, and replaced the washing machine and dishwasher with efficient models—after you have saved all the water you can inside the house, take a good look outside the window and contemplate your yard.

This is where, according to some estimates, 50% to 70% of your household's water goes— toward watering the lawn and the thirsty plants that are native to climates much moister than ours. You can drastically reduce and eventually eliminate your garden water use by growing California native plants appropriate for your location.

The Santa Monica Findings

From 2004 to 2008, the City of Santa Monica conducted a landmark study comparing two side-by-side home gardens, one with "traditional" landscaping and the other with California native plants. The gardens were installed at the same time and monitored for water use, green-waste generation, and maintenance effort.

The results after four years were astounding! The native garden used 77% less water, produced 66% less green waste, and required 68% less maintenance labor. After the first year, the native garden needed maintenance only twice a year. The traditional garden required weekly watering, mowing, and edging, as well as periodic fertilizing, pest management, and replacement of annuals. Get the full story from

Hose-happy gardeners often doubt that plants can survive on natural precipitation alone, but perhaps they have not considered how native plants evolve. Others think that native plants will look weedy and unattractive; perhaps they are not aware that the dead weeds by the side of the freeway are actually invasive annuals from Europe.

Five Plants to Start with

You, dear reader, know better. You know that California is a hotspot of biodiversity, beginning with its plants. For you, here is a short list of California native plants, large and small, that thrive in the summer with little or no irrigation.

The world's largest poppy, the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), is a majestic perennial with fragrant white flowers. The 8-foot canes with blue-green foliage grow in clumps, and expand if happy. Locate in a sunny spot against a wall or fence. Cut to the ground in winter to rejuvenate.

The dark green leaves and mahogany stems of California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) look attractive the year round. Look for green berries in summer, turning to red and then chocolate by winter. Loved by birds.

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is a subshrub that grows to three feet, blooms in summer, and is a magnet for insects and butterflies.

For late-summer color, plant California fuchsia (Epilobium canum). Its tubular red flowers are a rich source of nectar to Anna's hummingbird. Cut to the ground in winter.

The cheerful yellow spikes of California goldenrod (Solidago californica) brighten up the garden in early summer. Loved by insects and butterflies.

Don't forget, young native plants require water until established. A simple rule of thumb: water once a week the first summer, once every 2 weeks the second summer, once every 3 weeks the third summer, and monthly or not at all thereafter.

Invite a little bit of California into your garden, save water, provide habitat, and know that you are doing right by the environment.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. Reach him at