The Dry Garden: Southern California’s most interesting experiment in water-wise landscaping
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Spotting a pumpkin identified as a gourd prompted Leigh Adams to write John Lyons. She was (and is) an expert in gourd-craft as well as the artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Lyons, whose website carried the photo of the pumpkin, was (and is) a garden designer and lecturer at the arboretum. Yet until Adams wrote, they had never met.
That was two years ago. They now joke that they are ‘as much in love as a non-couple could be.’ And they have a baby, a 4-month-old garden that is brimming with art, native sages and fruit trees and is irrigated by rainwater harvested from the street.
The idea came as a steady trickle, over 15 years, as Adams watched rain run like a small river down the gutter by her house and then around the corner. The water slipped into storm drains, leaving her with debris that included a collection of neighborhood garbage cans.
A desire to somehow tap that rain mounted, but Adams is above all things an artist and educator, so over the years, she became involved with mosaic projects at the arboretum, Five Acres School in Altadena and Piece by Piece in downtown Los Angeles. But after the arboretum asked her to train a team constructing a ‘weaver’s garden’ for the Los Angeles Garden Show, she became intrigued when she heard of Lyon’s business, the Woven Garden.
There on Lyons’ website was a pumpkin labeled as a gourd. Adams dashed off an e-mail. With that chiding on one of the finer distinctions of the Cucurbita genus began a friendship that would turn them both into water bankers.
It was pure kismet that Lyons is the kind of garden designer who believes that beauty starts in the soil. After meeting him, Adams went to a lecture by Paul Stamets, author of ‘Mycelium Running,’ which stressed the ability of fungi to clean water.
Taking part in building a small permaculture garden at the arboretum only further inoculated her with enthusiasm for banking water in a garden whose soil was tightly knit by a web of fungi known as mycorrhizae. Thus inspired, Adams, right, hired Lyons for help converting her backyard turf to a water-harvesting operation.
The assignment: This new garden would divert rainwater, clean it, hold at least some of it on a steeply sloped site and sustain an orchard in the hot foothills of Los Angeles County. Given the client was Adams, and the designer Lyons, it would also be studded with glass work, sculpture, native sages and lupines.
Diverting the rain meant poking holes in the curb running along her home. County officials overseeing the permitting of curb breaks were not enthusiastic. Adams remembers their response as: We’re concerned about your neighbor down the hill.
When Adams explained that she was her own neighbor -- she was the last house on the block and sewer catchment -- there came the question of cutting into publicly owned concrete. They could not call them ‘curb cuts,’ the official reportedly said, who then added that the county did allow something called ‘parkway drains.’
Parkway drains are legal because they are usually created by homeowners to drain storm water off their property and into sewers, not to harvest rain from the street. No law prevented Adams from setting hers below grade, so as to reverse the direction of the water. Adams decided that she wanted three ‘parkway drains,’ all of which would have shut-off valves, so she could control how much water she diverted. (The second photo from the top shows the street view, and the photo above right shows a detail of one of the ‘parkway drains’: a brick helps to divert runoff into the drain and toward a catchment basin called a swale, pictured at the top of the post.)
As they came up with a plan for punching holes in the curb, Lyons suggested a protocol under which they would allow the first couple of hours of a rain to wash into the storm drains, taking the worst pollutants with it.
Late last year a local building firm overseen by Lyons and Adams came in to install the drains, build the terraces and dig the swales. ‘They hadn’t a clue what was happening,’ Lyons said. ‘It was blind faith.’
New berms were piled high with local stable compost, all the better to seed the ground with contaminant-eating, growth-promoting fungi. Then the water-catching trough, or swale, was filled with logs from a felled cedar.
Why logs? They keep swales open, Adams said. ‘It keeps people from falling in. It keeps the dogs out.’
As the swales began to fill during the first December rains, the floating logs provided beautiful cues to Adams to shut off the intake valves. (In the photo above left, water flows into the garden during a storm; in the photo above right, logs sink back down after a storm passes and water percolates into the ground. Both photos are courtesy of Leigh Adams.)
As a final safety measure, the team designed an overflow system where, if the swales flooded, the water would travel around the side of the house and out into the driveway.
But that never happened. In December, as the rain kept falling, Adams and Lyons lit up Facebook with constant postings of the logs rising and falling as their new system took in an estimated 1,500 gallons every time it filled -- five times in a heavy rain. (The photo above, courtesy of Adams, shows how the water-catchment system in the upper part of the garden fits into the larger terraced plan.)
As rain broke in January, a small orchard of newly planted stone fruit trees began to flower. An established citrus tree began a flower the likes of which Adams had never seen. At one point in February, an earthen swale head broke, and Adams swiftly plugged it and topped it with a broken sculpture of an alligator head. She has decided to reinforce the shut-off valves, too.
Once the garden is established, Lyons, right, hopes that the fruit trees will need minimal summer irrigation, even in the blazing heat of the foothills. Mycorrizae-studded soil should act as a sponge, holding banked water in reserve while also aiding root health.
Time will tell. In the meantime, this 4-month-old garden is the most interesting experiment in Southern California horticulture. The fact that it’s quirky and beautiful is simply a byproduct of a friendship that began over gourds.
-- Emily Green
Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow her and our other coverage, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.
Photo credits: Emily Green, except where specified