"I used to come in beet red from beating back the grass," said Tommy Steele of Pacific Palisades. "Now gardening is so much more pleasurable."
Less time behind the lawn mower is just one of the benefits that Steele and his wife, Fiona, realized when they converted part of their large-lawn garden to a xeriscape--or dry garden--featuring drought-resistant plantings and much less grass.
Drought-resistant plants are still the hot topic in landscaping, even though we made it through yet another year without any serious water shortages in most of the Southland. One reason is that less water is definitely in the future; if not this year, then sometime.
But, as the Steeles have found out, there are other good reasons to convert a garden, at least partially, if not completely, to plants that need less water. Xeriscapes can be less work and, perhaps more important, they can be flower-filled and fascinating places for gardeners.
The most obvious candidate for conversion is the lawn. Steele came in beet red because his corner lot had a lot of lawn and much of it was on a steep little bank--and he was mowing it with a push mower. He'd mow it, water it and then do it all over again a week later.
After the Steeles remodeled their house, it was clear something had to be done with that lawn. "We tried to keep some of the 1940s California feel of the original house, and wanted the garden to have that same look," Fiona Steele said.
Tommy Steele calls their pink-and-white house "The Beverly Steele Hotel" and their original landscaping idea was for plantings somewhat tropical in appearance, like those that surround the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Landscape designer Robert Cornell, of Cornell & Wiskar Landscaping of Los Angeles, suggested drought-resistant plants.
"We knew the look we wanted, but Robert Cornell came up with the design and the plants, sending us on field trips to nurseries so we could see what they looked like," Steele said. "It was a real education."
The plan proposed by Cornell put tropical plants near the house, in a area designers are beginning to call "the irrigated zone," although in this case, even these doorstep plants are not that thirsty.
The Steeles wanted bird of paradise and palms, neither of which need much water, but nearby are plumeria and hibiscus, which do need regular watering, as often as twice a week. Tommy Steele vetoed an automatic sprinkler system so he could water only when the plants need it.
The ornery kikuyu grass lawn was kept because it needs less water than most and a power mower was purchased. "We wanted beauty on a budget and leaving half of the lawn alone accomplished that," Steele said.
The new drought-resistant plantings were placed where the unmanageable slope began. The basic ground covering is ice plant, two shades of pink, one light and the other a brilliant red, to compete with the color of the house.
A Variety of Accents
For accents there are tufts of blue-flowered statice, dwarf New Zealand flax, kangaroo paws, agapanthus and blue hibiscus. Other areas are covered with Mexican evening primrose, Mexican sage and Mexican abelia.
"Instead of dreading mowing the lawn on Saturday, I now look forward to a little pleasant weeding and cultivating," Steele said. "I can watch the plants grow and the flowers come and go and there are even enough to cut and bring in the house." (The statice is an excellent dried flower and the kangaroo paws last for weeks.)
What Steele learned--that xeriscapes can be pretty--is the hottest news in drought-resistant landscaping. And perhaps it is a sign of the times that the Steeles garden won the Pacific Palisades Beautification Award.
Perhaps it is another sign of the times that the prestigious Pacific Horticulture (P.O. Box 485, Berkeley, Calif., 94701), a magazine devoted to the best and most glorious plants for gardens, is publishing articles such as "Designing the Dry Garden," in the summer issue.
In the article, author Ron Lutsko, a San Francisco landscape architect, illustrates that a dry garden can also be a beautiful garden. He defines a dry garden as one that requires water only once a month during the dry times of the year, and he singles out certain perennials as one way to make dry gardens pretty.
An Untapped Resource
The plants mentioned--jewels like the "electrifying blue" Lithodora diffusa 'Grace Ward' or delightful silvery-leaved bush morning glory--make a compelling case for switching to a more drought-resistant scheme.
The article also shows that dedicated gardeners have nothing to fear when water does become more precious. And they might even discover that those plants that can do without are more fascinating than many of the plants that cannot.
Author Lutsko concludes: "I hope that imaginative gardeners will explore this untapped resource, take up the making of dry gardens and contribute to the evolution of a distinctive western landscape."
Gardeners could see this as their challenge--to make drought-resistant gardens more interesting and even prettier that their well-watered kin.
Serious gardeners, and those who can only spend only an hour or two a week on the garden, should find helpful the "Water Conservation Symposium: Xeriscape for the Homeowner" at the Los Angeles County Arboretum (301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia) from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday. You can register by telephone: (818) 446-8251. The cost is $15 a person.
Included will be talks on the need for water-conserving gardens (by Randall Ismay of Landscape and Water Management Consultants); on designing a xeriscape (by Lisa Iwata of Land Interactive); suitable plant materials (by John Dourley, former superintendent of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden); the design of efficient irrigation systems (by William Caplinger), and the maintenance of a xeriscape (by Bob Baier).
The highlight of the seminar will be a lunchtime tour of the now-mature Water Conservation Garden at the arboretum, which was stunning this past spring--as pretty and flower-filled as anyone could hope for. It still looks good as we get deeper into our dry season.
This is the good news: Even though Californians will have to deal with drought in the future and with a dwindling supply of water during the next decade, gardens will be no less pretty and maybe a whole lot more interesting as a result.