The Dry Garden: The art of catching rain, Part 2

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When my house was built without gutters in 1950, water that rolled off the roof was caught by graded pavement encircling the foundation. This directed rain away from the garden to paved paths and to the driveway for dispersal to the street and storm drain system. As a style, let’s call it Golden Age of Flood Control.

After watching 33 inches of rain run off the property last year, but then being forced to draw municipal potable water to irrigate the garden, it became a priority to gutter the house so as to capture and not waste future rain. Ultimately some sort of storage will be involved, but as a first measure, the challenge was to get rain from gutter drainage points to garden areas. Done right, the ground would then be well charged when our irrepressible California growing season takes off in February and March.


PART 1: Custom gutters, done just right

The first step was creating a diagram of the roof to see which sections would produce the most runoff, then poring over it with Ruben Ruiz. He is the sheet metal artist who, after installing the gutters, would be fabricating sculptures to push water away from where I didn’t want it, which was near the foundations of the house or street, to where I did want it, which was discharging into thirsty garden soil.

Using the map, it became clear that one of the biggest sections of roof produced so much water that it defied fanciful treatment. Only a conventional downspout and pipe would drain the north roof slope and convey the water behind a fence to where it would be discharged to irrigate fruit trees.

Beyond that, moving water would be done by sculpture. Every gutter would need a new brand of practical art to act as catchers and spreaders. After I asked if the catchers might be flower-shaped, Ruiz disappeared for several weeks into his studio.

He returned with an array of partially fabricated devices. There was a stepped metal aqueduct that could be pieced together to carry water across a driveway and drop it into a flower bed. There was a whirlygig that caught and spun water, which was potentially useful for marching a single gutter stream across a landscape and spitting it, provided that it didn’t rust and stop whirling.

There was a metal version of a gutter extender in which three successive flower sculptures caught, then spilled water.

Finally, there were massive flower sculptures with heads maybe 3 feet across. Much like real flowers, these would catch and cup water. Unlike real flowers, their metal leaves would then drop the water into a succession of smaller sculptures until the water could be safely carried away from brickwork and into a thirsty planting bed.

Because we were improvising, we decided to work on one corner of the house at a time. Three days before Christmas, Ruiz (at right) arrived with the big metal flowers for the most prominent corner of the house. These will eventually be grounded by concrete, much like a post box, but this day was for positioning. As holes were dug and Ruben’s nephew, Alfredo Ruiz, scrambled to the roof to send hose water through the gutters, down a chain and into the flower as a test, gusting Santa Ana winds picked up, so the water not only cascaded, it blew. This was providential for estimating how the water-catchers would perform in a storm. The water still went pretty much where it should have gone. The three of us did a happy dance.

The timbre of the falling water was unutterably beautiful, which brings me to an important point about metal and water. The first thing that artist Leigh Adams did when presented with a sample of the metal for my gutters was put it under the kitchen faucet. “It’s perfect!” she declared as she heard water hit the metal. It hadn’t occurred to me that the density of metal selected for a gutter system might have relevance beyond durability. I chose a decent grade for structural reasons. But an equally important consideration was, of course, aural. The fluted melody produced by water in a gutter -- or tumbling from one of Ruiz’s flowers -- could becalm or be racket. In this case, on this day, as we flushed Ruiz’s flowers, it becalmed.

The cementing will be done after this account is published. As we move to the next corner of the house, Ruiz’s team and I face a new set of challenges. Should the sculpture be mounted in the ground, or from the side of the house, like an elegant retort to a satellite dish? How will each be anchored so it doesn’t blow off in high winds? Will they be stolen?

As we eventually turn each corner in the gutter map, we will be experimenting with new ideas involving shape, dispersal, safety, cost and permanence. Many prototypes will be done and tested before we have something that could one day become a conventional tool of water conservation.

It’s an excellent problem. This gutter challenge reminds me that home is where everyone is allowed their greatest personal expression, where we can be our own William Mulhollands or Frank Lloyd Wrights. As I sign off with my last garden column for the Los Angeles Times, if I’ve learned anything writing for the Home section it is that learning, experimenting and playing are the very essence of gardening.

-- Emily Green

Editor’s note: After conceiving ‘The Dry Garden,’ sustaining it for 2 1/2 bright years and redefining garden writing at The Times for six additional years before that, Emily has our deepest gratitude. We encourage readers to follow her future experiments and her writing through her website, We will be.

The gutter map that was the starting point for Green and Ruiz.

Ruiz’s nephew, Alfredo, experiments with a butterfly detail for the rain-catchers.

The house before Green embarked on her experiment ...

... and after, with clean-lined gutters in place, rain catchers positioned and more experimentation to come. Stay tuned.


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