Fighting Drought, Down and Even Dirty

They probably won’t listen to me, but if the Municipal Water District is interested, I’ve solved the water crisis. The answer involves cold showers.

Think a minute; when was the last time you voluntarily took a cold shower? You probably remember, even though the entire episode likely lasted about 2.6 seconds--one second to turn on the water, half a second for the neural receptors to fully register the shock and a tenth of a second to hurl yourself like a javelin into the next room.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 16, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 16, 1991 Orange County Edition Home Design Part N Page 2 Column 6 View Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Nuts and Bolts--The manufacturer of electronic faucets described Jan. 26 in the Nuts and Bolts column was misidentified. The faucets are made by the Kohler Plumbing Products Co.

Invigorating? No. A smartly hit No. 3 wood is invigorating. A cold shower is the hygienic equivalent of a tax audit. It’s like a self-inflicted root canal. “Taking a cold shower” is on my list of preferred leisure activities right between “taking a poke at George Foreman” and “milking rattlesnakes.”

The MWD in Orange County says the average shower in these parts uses about 5 gallons of water a minute. Turn the knob all the way into the dark blue range and I guarantee you’ll use not one drop more than it takes to get yourself marginally wet and wash off the soap. If you’re of slight build, that should be about a quart.


But now they tell me that even that won’t make the nut if the county goes to mandatory water rationing, which appears inevitable. Under the current proposal, each of us would have to cut our water use by about a third, and while frigid spit showers would certainly help, Keith Coolidge, a spokesman for the water district, says that fully half of the approximately 450 gallons of water each single family home in the county uses every day is used outside the house, mostly for watering lawns and plants.

“Golly!” you’re thinking. “I’d better dash out immediately and rip up my lawn and install a helicopter pad or a domed stadium or something.”

Unless the Navy or the Rams have been sweet-talking you, don’t do it. You would do much better to slap in a little Bermuda grass, and maybe a stand of rosemary, and perhaps a eucalyptus or two.

This neighborhood we live in may technically be a desert but, says Tom Ash, it doesn’t necessarily have to look like one.


Ash is the garden director of Landscapes Southern California Style, a kind of prototype garden in Riverside that is planted exclusively with drought-resistant plants. A joint project of the Western MWD and the University of California Cooperative Extension, the garden is not, Ash is quick to point out, full of plants whose most charming features are spines and stickers.

“A lot of people come here from other parts of the country and they try to bring their landscaping with them,” he says. “Southern California is considered to be paradise, when it is, in fact, a desert with imported water. Because of that, we have to change our thinking and use plants from similar climates, and our expectations have to change. But that doesn’t mean we have to have cactus and rock.”

It really should be no surprise that we do not live in the Virginia horsing country, or in an Oregon pine forest, or in the central highlands of Kauai. Nevertheless, a lot of us try mightily to turn our back yards into rain forests and peat bogs and magnolia-scented plantations. But it helps to remember that our troops didn’t go to New Hampshire to train for desert warfare. They came here.

But try this for a botanical palette: French lavender, Russian sage, the spectacularly golden-flowered flannel bush (which must have a complete summer drought to flourish), the blazing bougainvillea, acacia, walnut, aloe, wisteria, narcissus, verbena, pyracantha and Indian hawthorn. Indigenous plants from Peru and Chile, from Australia and Morocco and Italy, from Greece and South Africa and Kenya.


Those are some of the places, says Ash, that can provide you with plants, many of them exotic and ablaze with color, that will thrive in your yard on little water. All have climates that are in many ways similar to the American Southwest.

The eucalyptus, for instance, so common in these parts, is from Australia, and one look at a Paul Hogan movie will tell you that there is more beer in Australia than there is water. Still, the eucalyptus does well, and it has become well-loved here.

So, in some quarters, has Bermuda grass. A particularly hardy variety, it is wide-bladed and stiff, and can go for weeks without water and still rebound into lush greenery in the spring. Ash says the folks at Landscapes Southern California Style quit watering and mowing a plot of Bermuda grass on Dec. 7 and started watering again on Feb. 7. The lawn, he says, turned a color he calls “California golden” in the interim, but it will, he says, turn deep green again soon.

Lawns are fine, Ash said, if they’re functional (read: if you use them for something besides staring at). But if a water-gulping lawn is planted in a tiny front yard, or in another unused area, it becomes what he sees as an unnecessary drain on water resources.


So he and his garden staff are trying to persuade us desert dwellers to pick up a few plants that sip rather than slurp. To that end, they’re having a “Water Efficient Plant Sale” on March 16 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the garden (450 Alessandro Blvd., Riverside). For more information, call (714) 780-4177.

How much can you cut your water consumption with a judiciously planted, drought-tolerant home landscape? About a fourth, says Ash. Which means you can cut down on your cold showers.

Which makes even Astroturf sound a lot more attractive.