The Road To Hell Is Paved With Chunky Gravel And Indifferently Chosen Plants



**Trigger Warning*** This is a rant, and the images that follow may be unpleasant to some. They certainly are to ME.

A bit of background to set the stage: Los Angeles is in a severe drought. Considering the fact that Los Angeles is a city built in a desert and reliant almost 100% on water imported from outside its boundaries, you’d think water conservation would have always been a top priority, but no. We cycle in and out of water concern with every severe drought. During a water shortage, there is a panic. The Dept of Water and Power becomes draconian, establishing tiers for water usage and making it expensive to go over a (very generous, in my opinion) allotment. You have to ask for water at restaurants (people HATE this). Everyone flutters around, righteously proclaiming their drought awareness and talking about how little they shower and giving advice on how to wash a large load of dishes with one cup of tepid tap water. Once the Sierra snowpack (where we get most of our water) is replenished, the same people go right back into boom times, and start watering their big, beautiful lawns more than the every-other-day those meanies at DWP had previously enforced.

Then came the rebates. For the past few years, the Dept of Water and Power in Los Angeles has been giving people money for taking out their lawns – it is currently up to $4 a square foot. People are now ripping out lawns will-nilly, eager for the money and to lower their water bill.

So here enters a villain, maybe – or to some, a hero, maybe. A certain company who promises FREE LANDSCAPES. What they do is take the rebate and use that money to install a brand new “landscape”. Awesome, you say! A free garden! How could that be bad, you snarky and mean old Ivette Soler! Hold your horses, dear reader – gardens these are definitely NOT. Those rebates are usually within the $2000 – $4000 range, sometimes more … and the “landscapes” they get in exchange are a weary assortment of tiny drought tolerant standards lined up in rectangles, poking out of a thick layer of chunky gravel. Underneath that sad sea of gravel is probably landscape cloth just waiting to poke itself up out of the ground cover layer like the many-headed hydra we know it to be. And underneath THAT are most certainly drip lines, set up in a rectangle, also waiting to breech the thick rocks and offend all who look upon them.

This is NOT what I thought the new, state-of-the-art style of drought tolerant landscape was going to look like!
This is NOT what I thought the new, state-of-the-art style of drought tolerant landscape was going to look like!
A detail of the planted beauty
A detail of the planted beauty

From what I see, the resulting “landscapes” cost about $500 – $750 to install, including materials and labor. I secretly watched an installation – it was done in less than a day, including the removal of the existing lawn.

Here is another offending gravelscape – or load of “free” rocks with a few plants stuck in there

People should be able to use these refunds to install reasonable drought tolerant gardens, maybe not fancy ones, but certainly not these impoverished affairs! I am visually, financially, ethically and horticulturally offended! I think this company is a scheme! A rip-off! BUT – it seems like it is a legitimate and legal business. In my opinion it is a travesty. OR it is a very smart and canny business model. I am torn! I think both things. They have made putting in a quote unquote drought tolerant landscape easy. You don’t have to think about anything – just give them your rebate and they’ll give you … something like this.

For about $3k – $4k, (again, within the range of most rebates), people could get a drought tolerant garden like THESE, done by another LA company. I don’t know who the designer is, but I admire their work and am eager to see more of their front yards in the future. Goodness knows we need planted beauty to help battle the blight of the free rebated landscapes that are currently infesting our rain-starved city!

Here is a nice, clean, simple, spare, drought tolerant landscape. THIS.
Here is a nice, clean, simple, spare, drought tolerant landscape. THIS.
Another simple, clean, straightforward, WELL-DESIGNED drought tolerant garden. The difference is important!
Another simple, clean, straightforward, WELL-DESIGNED drought tolerant garden. The difference is important!

What say the Ranters? Am I being harsh? Judgey? Or do I have a point?

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Ivette Soler


Fasten your seatbelts, Ranters, I hope you like riding rollercoasters! I’m Ivette Soler, a garden designer and writer who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. I have been designing since 1997, working primarily with the subtropical and succulent palette that thrives in my corner of the world. I started my blog, The Germinatrix, in 2004, and I have been enjoying a vibrant dialog with the online garden community ever sine. In 2011, Timber Press published my book “The Edible Front Yard“, in which I make the case for ridding ourselves of thirsty, dull front lawns in favor of beautiful, bountiful gardens that mix food with ornamentals. I am thrilled to be a part of this illustrious and opinionated group, and am looking forward to RANTING with all of you!

Let’s do a little speed-dating so you can get to know me better:

I am a Believer – I know that gardens and gardening can and will make this world a better place.

I am a Maximalist – I believe that more is more and more is better than less!

I am against Horticultural Xenophobia – If you believe that we must eliminate well-chosen exotics from our landscapes in favor of a natives-only palette, we might have words.

I am a Talker – I love to get into it! If you have anything you want to challenge me about, or if you want to dialog about anything I post, please comment away! My love of blogging is rooted in dialoging with a large number of passionate gardeners with diverse opinions. I will rant, and I expect you to RANT BACK

I cast a wide net – This is a big world, and I believe our gardens are more interesting when we open ourselves up to ideas other than those that come to us from the established gardening world. I am inspired by fine art, literature, product design, theatre, fashion … you get the picture. I will often bring in ideas from other areas of culture to our conversations about gardens and the way we garden.

I like exclamation points and sometimes … yes … ALL CAPS – I really talk like this!!!! I can’t help it!!!

I am eager to move the conversation about gardening and the place it has in our lives forward, so hop on, make sure you are strapped in tightly, and LET’S GO!


    • I know Pam! It’s so distressing, because these are all within a 2 block radius of my home. My garden is currently no jewel, but at least there is design and effort put in! Unfortunately, this kind of garden is becoming the standard and it is much less visually appealing than what it replaced. It hurts to say that, as an long time anti-lawn advocate! I want to give all of my neighbors a copy of your book and say THIS!!! not THAT!!!

    • The first house we owned, on the East side of Santa Cruz, had chopped pieces of white quartz-bearing rock within a line of brick. Ick, Ick, Ick. 1998–adequate rainfall, but coming out of a drought or three.

      One one side of the walkway to the door there was a male Canary Island Date Palm in the middle, uncentered. That it was as young as the house and NOT centered or more felicitously placed Offended Me Greatly. No one gave it regular trims, either.

      Under the rock on the other side was drive path–the garage had been converted to a finished room we used for a library and study, and behind it, unfinished, a utility room. Given the dearth of parking, out, out, out came the rock, and in the corners were put half-barrel planters with roses and a “mulch” of alpine strawberries, on drip. In the bare strip between the brick walkway from the main driveway and the front of the house I put half barrels with citrus, on drip, also with alpine strawberry “mulch”.

      On the side with the palm, there was damnfine dirt underneath. First I laid out where the roses would go, then the drip lines were placed and set up. THEN the weedcloth and the “gorilla hair”. Winding from the dropspout at the NE corner, around the palm, and out to the curb, was a weed cloth & plastic lined “dry creek”, which kept the foundation safe in heavy rain. There had been a pickle jar before I started. Big help. Along the front and the curb went lavenders and rosemaries, watered only until established. VERY little water was used, and none wasted, on those roses. No weeding, yay! No rust or mildew, yay!

      On the north side strip had been some overgrown invasive vine that the neighbors were always yanking out of their side of the property line. I had it taken out, and asked them what they’d like to see, since they would see the strip more often than we would–only seemed fair, after all the work they’d done. No-name Japanese Maples and Zepherine Drouin roses went in after the side was prepped like the front. Non invasive, low water use, liked shade.

      The rockscapes in the last two photos were pretty–there was attention to color and visual texture, unlike the ripoffs in the top three. The pebbles remind me strongly of the last place we lived in Albuquerque in the 60s. I swear I learned to levitate in hot summers crossing the gravel to the garbage cans!

      I wore zori–the gravel was sharp–but it only helped so much because the rocks always got between your soles and the rubber zori. The gravel didn’t know that I’d been learning to step lightly due to the inevitable pins on the floor when your mom’s a seamstress.

      In the more than a decade since we lived there, there have been 2-3 owners–but MY plantings are still there, and still prettier than the chopped red lava rock elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

  1. How do they manage to present the finished product to the homeowner with a straight face? Gravel alone with no plants at all would look better. They’re either con men taking outrageous to its limits, have the worst design sense on the planet, or both. I’m not sure they even have a shot at becoming con “artists” some day. I suspect that if you Googled “Dumb as a box of rocks” their company name would pop up.

    • I wonder the same thing, Joe! In a way, I get it – many people aren’t into gardens or aesthetics. They just want something that is acceptable, and they don’t want it to cost a lot. So these people ARE giving a needed service, but the results are truly hideous! I am so torn. I’m glad the lawns are out and that water is being saved, but much of my professional life has been devoted to figuring out how to make beautiful gardens in SoCal without being irresponsible vis a vis the water thing. Beautiful is the key word. When the homeowners see the work these people do, how can they say – Yes, I want that in front of my home. Not every home is suited to gravel and bits of tiny plants (I’d say NO home is suited, really), architecturally speaking. But the people who do this are obviously seizing an opportunity to make a fast buck – which, in our capitalist democracy – is perfectly fine. But its not pretty!!!!

  2. Wow. That was just a poor excuse of a gravel garden… I think gravel gardenalmost always just look scattered, 20 different plants spaced evenly does nothing for me. The last pic was nice, a little story and dynamic to it. Road -gravel -house combo is a really boring and sterile design.

    • Hi Louise! I happen to LOVE gravel and I’m always trying to talk my clients into some gravel component in a garden, whether it be paths or as a patio or as a chic mulch for the right kind of planting – but it has to be the perfect type of rock! Not that chunky stuff! You can’t walk on it, it looks bad … the only use I see for them is lining infiltration pits. The first 2 yards really give gravel a bad name, and I hate that! Now I am going to have a very hard time talking clients into gravel, because they will think I am going to do that to them! The last 2 gardens are really lovely and very appropriate to the houses. They are spare, but I think the lushness will come in time, as they are both fairly new. I’m so glad you see the difference between them! Thanks for commenting!

      • I hate gravel. Not that it always looks bad; I’ve seen some wonderful beautiful gardens with large swaths of it, often drought tolerant landscapes. But…

        Don’t those rocks cook in the Southern Cal summer? And they can’t be nearly as good as wood/bark chips for retaining moisture. And when I moved into our house, I had to dig up a patch and run the soil through a sieve to get it up. Yuck. It just seems not very friendly to changing one’s mind in the garden.

        The house at the end of the street had, 15 years ago, a wonderful Zen xeriscape garden – a well-trained Japanese maple, a few well-placed desert grasses, and two large squares of gravel, carefully raked, and bamboo chimes. But, the gardener aged, as we tend to do, and moved on to the next stage, and the next people in the house: added a plywood, painted cutout of a cartoon squirrel, many bright yellow day lilies, numerous whirlygigs, and an ankle-high …fence, I guess. Then she moved on, and the current folks have allowed the garden to go feral, which around here means collecting candy wrappers, tackweed, and tumbleweed branches. And they park their pickup truck on those patches of gravel. Sigh. I probably shouldn’t blame the gravel for that; it’s probably a better use than their parking on lawn.

        But are the agave and opuntia or whatever you grow happy with gravel? I suppose it could be much like what they are adapted to.

        • I’m glad you asked this Kermit! I love an opportunity to explain why I love gravel. First, gravel is a very budget friendly ground cover, and requires very little maintenance to keep it looking good – BUT, just like anything, that gravel has to be well-chosen and part of a cohesive design, otherwise it will look cheap and arbitrary, like the bad gardens posted above. Secondly, the kind of plants I work with the most love it. Lean, rocky soils are butter to xeric plants, they are so happy when ensconced within a nice bed of gravelly goodness. Something also happens that came as a surprise to me – I found that most of my edible volunteers loved gravel much more than they did the chocolate-cake beds of compost I had all laid out for them. Invariably, the seeds would sprout best in the gravel pathways in between the beds. My investigations into this phenomenon found that many seeds find gravel a perfect medium for germination – dark, a little moist from the mulching effect, and sharply drained. It is an excellent mulch – reflecting light and heat away from the soil layer and keeping it nice cooler in the scorching summers and holding moisture in, and it doesn’t get moldy like bark can (and I think it looks better when used in the right way). BUT it is not appropriate in every case! And it does look bleak and prison-like if it isn’t integrated well into a design! There are all kinds of drought tolerant gardens, and gravel isn’t the only option for ground cover! So my rant against these gardens isn’t really against gravel – it is against that awful chunky stuff used in a thoughtless way.

      • Unlike you, many folk don’t notice how many different kinds of gravel are available. If I had a shady atrium, I’d love a quasi-Zen garden of Japanese Maple, some interesting larger rocks, and a raked gravel ground.

        Rockscapes do NOT have to be ugly (we say it you-glee).

    • Thank you my Captain! I was really not wanting to be too harsh but damn, I agree – this deserved it! I would be so sad to see this kind of planting become the new default in southern California. It would be worse than lawn. I can’t believe I am saying that, but I’m heartsick seeing these go up everywhere.

  3. Hilarious.

    Someone honestly believes in that sales pitch?

    Give us your refund, we’ll give you a new landscape.


    Worse, property values are affected, and Nature. Hence weather. Creating a worse water situation. More dire, the soil. Killing microbes/bacterias vital to our own gut/skin biomes.

    Back to the suckers. Double dumb is too mild.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

    • You are right, Tara. It will affect property values. The neighborhoods will start to look bleak and uniformly gray, and worse – the trees may be affected because of the lack of supplemental water. What was thought of as a good way to get people to think about overusing our precious resource is going to have many unintended consequences. Sigh. It is s typically short-sighted policy whose repercussions we are going to have to live with, and it’s not going to look good.

      • Are there no yards simply replaced with ice plants down there? They are easy to maintain, and during the summer they would provide a blinding festival of bright colors. As I recall, many of the highways down there have median strips and borders planted with them.

        • Kermit, don’t get me started! I will use an ice plant every now and then, but again – when appropriate. Too many people will throw down ice plant instead of thinking about what they are planting. But you do have a point – in the world of drought tolerant ground covers, I would MUCH rather look at a yard full of whatever variety of ice plant vs ugly chunky gravel. But we can do so much better than both!

  4. I also am a garden designer in Los Angeles who sees the above gravelscapes as hideous. But I think in some cases, the previous existing garden was also unlovely & unloved by the homeowners. Some folks are just indifferent to their outside spaces. The stone suppliers must be making a bloody fortune!

    • It’s why I had such a lovely blank canvas to work with in Santa Cruz! The prior two owners of the lot in the middle (after a larger lot was divided) did nothing with it besides sort of trimming the overgrowth. I think the garden areas knew they were valued while I was there.

  5. Hi Nina! Ugh, aren’t they the worst? And since you are in the industry, you can price out that kind of yard and see that the actual cost was so little! Of course every company has overhead and operating expenses (they had a big, shiny new truck with their logo proudly emblazoned on it) – but they are making big profit on low budget gardens, which is almost impossible. So in one way I have to hand it to them – it is a very smart business model. But it isn’t RIGHT. And at this point I’m not sure that a weedy lawn is worse. Imagine the heat island effect if more and more people use highly reflective gravel as the default ground cover! We need more greenspace, not less! Especially in a drought. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the idea of drought tolerance is a big one and to live under drought conditions doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice our gardens, even at the lower end of the price points. I wonder what the owner of this business thinks about the spaces she/he is creating. And yes – the quarries are going to be the winners in the end, to the detriment of our hills and mountains, which also need protecting and preservation! AAARGG! I’m getting all hot and rangy about this! Nice to chat with you!

    • I’ll rant right along with you on this. Campbell CA city planners don’t want too much “hardscape” for the reasons you mention.

  6. I hate myself for laughing. But I did. It was probably a horror reflex. Anyone who has a ‘garden’ like this should have to pay an extra tax for adding to the heat island effect.

    • Right, Debra? It should be part of some city ordinance! No more than X number of squ ft of ugly chunky gravel per garden! These people will be really sorry in the summer, when the glare and the heat coming off the rocks makes these gardens more than just visually unpleasant – they will be seriously uncomfortable.

  7. This makes me appreciate my city’s version of paying homeowners to reduce lawn. It requires homeowners to attend several classes to learn about xeriscape principles, to remove a certain amount of turf, to meet with city-paid designers who help them design their new landscape, to install plants of a certain size (gallon containers, I believe), and to maintain a certain percentage of live/green materials in their lawns. And nothing is paid until a final inspection of the property occurs. This is how it should be done.
    Details here:

    • Elizabeth that is FANTASTIC! If only the powers that be here in Los Angeles were so enlightened. I might have to pass this on to my local city councilman to see if there is anything that might be done along those lines in my community. Thank you so much for the link, a really really appreciate it!

  8. Well, at least we know two things. First, that company is absolutely flush with cash. And second, that if we did, I fact, Google “dumb as a box of rocks”, the names of every one of their clients would appear.

  9. I just had a protracted discussion with a local Facebook group re: the rebate program and the yards it produces. Many people railed against the mulch and rock results they thought the city is encouraging … until I pointed out that the city guidelines are clear that the resulting landscape, at maturity, has to be at least 50% green cover and covers such as pebbles and mulch cannot spill onto the sidewalks. If people are replacing lawns with non-living things only, they are not part of the program. It’s not what the city is trying to encourage. I wonder if the LA approves those cookie cutter ‘landscapes. Seems like they run counter to half the point of lawn conversion – that water conservation can be beautiful.

    BTW, Ivette, $4/square foot sounds like a dream! Ours was actually cut in half (from $1) for this fiscal year due to budgetary limits and high demand. I put my application in for my front yard, but I’m at the end of a loooonng list. Got irritated waiting for backyard approval and did it sans rebate.

    • Hi Laura! I don’t blame you getting tired of waiting. And I think that is why these gardens are so popular- the clients get tired of the rigamarole and welcome a contractor taking care of it for them. This program in LA allows the contractors to get the rebates. The contractor negotiates with the client – I will apply for your rebate, I give you a garden, and I keep your rebate. These gardens are approved because the “after” picture has be be approved before the rebate is given. It goes directly to the contractor, who then pockets the profit. They come in, take your lawn out, give you this … this THING, and then they take the after pictures and submit for a rebate. Technically, it is within the guidelines – but these are UGLY and they are doing nothing for our quality of life! They are making pour neighborhoods uglier! I’m all in an uproar. I get that this company (or companies) has / have every right to make money – after all, they are putting out the labor and the materials on the front end, the client pays nothing. But after all is said and done, that initial investment is minuscule! These gardens could be so much better!!!!!!! ARG!!!!

      • If we amend William Morris’ Golden Rule, Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, to refer to outside our homes, it would be a good thing, in my mind.

        • Here here A. Marina! I agree. Funny, that phrase has been brought up in many conversations of late – I think it is excellent to raise the bar and use it as a guide for what we want surrounding us. Thanks for this!

        • That must be why both my house and my garden are full of plants, rocks, and old wood. I’ve been following this rule all along!

      • So I inadvertently got myself pulled to the top of the Cash For Grass line in my city by advocating heavily for the program in a neighborhood forum. They want to use me as an example! Gah! No pressure. No pressure at all.

        • Laura, yes – it looks like the pressure is ON! But you will be doing such an important thing. Right now people really need to see that it CAN be done – that a low budget, plant-focused, aesthetically pleasing landscape is a possibility. With good planning, these gardens don’t need to be high maintenance affairs. It is a wonderful example you’d be setting! I don’t mean to give you more pressure, but if you’d like to share pics with me for a possible update post on the development of this rant and these gardens, I’m ivette at the germinatrix dot com. We are watching hehehehe (rubbing palms together in delighted expectation)

  10. What really worries me about these UGLY “landscapes” is the increase in the urban heat island effect. Basically they are replacing all the grass with broken up concrete. It is going to make LA much hotter. I’m in the SF valley and these are being installed everywhere here. A good percentage don’t even have any plants, just gravel.

    • My worry as well, Karin. Considering that Los Angeles is supposed to be trying to “green our city” and the positive initiative of removing the concrete from the LA River, it seems like a total “doh!” that this is an unintended consequence of encouraging drought tolerant gardens. A very cynical company found a way to make money within the rebate system and it is on volume – so they must have plants contract grown and store a huge volume of this type of gravel. I have not seen a variation on a theme – all the gardens look like this. These bright, reflective gardens will be awful come summer. Ugh.

  11. A friend of mine took me around her neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley to see what some people there had done to collect the rebate – it was simply awful. I can’t understand why the DWP didn’t establish some basic standards for the post-renovation garden spaces. And I wonder what happens to these homeowners if and when they want to sell their properties – I’d run in the opposite direction if I saw a house for sale with a garden like that, or even a house in a neighborhood containing such monstrosities.

    • Kris, I so agree with you – I think these gardens (so called) are changing the character of our neighborhoods. Not good at all. But surprisingly, some of the people who have them are happy with them. I get that not everybody is into gardening and they just want something inexpensive that can be easily maintained – but I am shocked that they can’t seem to see that these could have been so much better for the price. If the rebate was anything more than $600, these folks were ripped off!

  12. Ivette, are you not in that business? Why are you not doing the rebate/free garden thing and giving them something nice? Win/win?

    • Hi Lisa – yes I do design gardens, and all of my gardens are drought tolerant (with the exception of 2, actually – don’t get me started! Sometimes clients insist on things…), but my business model isn’t set up to file for rebates. If I work with a client, I’m sure they would get a rebate, but I don’t do what these companies do, which is rip out lawn, put in a cookie-cutter rocks and a few plants kind of thing, and then they do the paperwork and get the rebate. The client pays nothing, does nothing – the contractor does it all and gets quite a profit. I design carefully and specifically and it takes time and costs more. But the result is infinitely better, if I might pat myself on the back. The people that do this kind of free garden for your rebate aren’t my clients. My gardens are large, intensely planted productions with areas for entertaining and edible components – they are a whole different thing. But there are lots of great designers in the LA area that work within the rebate price point and would do much better work than these companies, but they don’t have the big advertising budgets these other companies have. Still, they wouldn’t be hard to find for those who want better results.

  13. Great article- I think there are many unscrupulous people in the landscape, as well as many other industries. That is unfortunate for everyone! You are right that they could probably have done the project very well themselves. Maybe by hiring someone to property design the space and then hire the labor (or do it themselves) for the install. One way to ‘flush out’ the charlatans is to ask for references and call them. If they did this to one person, they have done it to someone else. I would also do the obvious and check Angie’s List and the BBB. My business is always on referrals, I guarantee I wouldn’t be in business long if I had practices like what you have described! Thanks so much for posting!

    • Thanks for visiting Lori! Yes, I believe the contractors who do these gardens are not doing right by their clients, but I’ve found out that many people are happy with the work! They are not looking at their yards as “garden spaces” as I do, and they aren’t concerned with the potential heat island or changing the visual character of the neighborhoods – they just want something that is free and taken care of. Not everyone wants a garden, they just want lower water bills and the opportunity to get something for nothing. The jury is out on whether or not they will be happy as the years go on!

  14. Photographing a neighbors’ ‘offensive’ home, putting it on your blog, and then directing the rest of your neighbors to said blog has got to be a new low in insufferability. If you possessed any self-awareness you’d take these photos down immediately.

    A handsome and well-landscaped home is a LUXURY, that not everyone has the finances or time to afford, as unfortunate as that may be. I agree with you that Turf Terminators work isn’t the prettiest it could be, but they’ve been successful in spite of that because they provide a service people WANT: They make it easy and fast to get rid of your lawn. Quit judging your neighbors.

    • JM – happy for your judgement of my rant and your entreaty to be less judgmental myself – I owned up to being judgey and I have no problem with it. YOU may not realize that your words to me are a little bit of the pot calling the kettle, but whatever – you be you.
      As I said in my post and in the comments, I get why people are doing this, and I see that this is a good, albeit cynical, business model. All of your critiques have been well covered. AND as far as me taking pictures of my neighbors gardens and linking it to my neighborhoods page – I wanted the dialog to be local. I wanted to hear from my neighbors about what they thought, and a very spritely dialog ensued, where I met one of the neighbors who’s yard was photographed and she explained very clearly why the garden works for her, and I respect her reasoning. That doesn’t change the fact that I believe the companies that do this could be doing more to give their clients better gardens. They turn profits by giving people very little actual value for their rebates. I am not alone in this thinking – cities all over CA have rules about what constitutes a “finished” yard, and LA seems to be one of the few cities that let contractors get by with this shoddy work. It is not the neighbors that I judge, I get why they do it – it is the contractors I have the problem with. Thanks for your comment

    • I think you are using the word “judge” a little liberally here… this blog seems to offer a chance to “discern” and “critique” the merits of current design happening in gardens and offers professional and passionate designers a forum to voice those critiques. This isn’t evil – it’s edifying, validating, informative, provocative and intelligent to discuss artistic pursuits candidly and openly and the discourse pushes us all to a higher quality of work. Critique is an essential part of design – always.
      A simple description of the project without pictures wouldn’t have been at all effective and I am glad to see what is happening in average home-owner’s gardens on the west coast. I hope this dialog has some influence on moving the needle forward toward better design and I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in a conversation that is important to me and one that isn’t happening in my near circles.

  15. To be fair, these appear to be recently planted and the plants, while not all are identifiable, those that are, appear to be “babies”. Is it perhaps that the company is following one of the principal laws of landscaping – “plant baby plants in a space large enough for the adult”? In a growing season or two, might these same landscapes look remarkably different? The first photos are of new landscapes while the ones that you point out as being “good” landscapes, are fully mature plantings. One should expect a mature xeriscape design to look very different than a newly planted design. That said, I am not a fan of large amounts of gravel. In hot zones, gravel is like putting concrete boots on those poor plants and then sticking their feet in a pot of boiling water every day when the sun comes out. The plants that are identifiable from the pictures, though, certainly appear to be drought tolerant plants, which make sense for a xeriscape landscape.

    • Hello Tom, welcome and thank you for your comment. Yes, the plants are babies, but I am very familiar with this plant material, and they are placed the way they are with no design in mind – they are following a drip line. That in and of itself isn’t bad, but landscape designers understand that irrigation is in service of the plants, not the other way around. Speaking about the first picture, I know these plants very well – large plants (a tall variety of cistus) are placed right against the front walkway, where they will have to be cut back in a way that will compromise their natural shape in a dramatic way, they will probably end up looking like a hedge on one side. And at the front of the property, bordering the sidewalk, is a line of erigeron karvinsianus – not a bad plant at all, one I use myself all the time. It is a lovely ground cover that looks fantastic in a mixed planting. Here, it is floating without context in the front of the garden where a hedge may be useful. If it was just a matter of the plants being little, then me taking on this topic would be petty. It isn’t about the little plants – I know what they will look like in 3 years, and it will still not be worth the price of the rebate. My issue is with these contractors who use the rebate as a money making opportunity without giving the client or the community something better. Would you want 7 of these front yards in your neighborhood? They add up to something, and it isn’t pretty. As they grow they will be somewhat greener, but not much – if the contractor would have put in a few more plants and taken a little more care with design, the result would have been different and the profit margin would still be high. I watched one of these gardens being installed a while back, and not once did any of the workers refer to a plan – these are cookie cutter plantings, using the minimum standard to qualify for the rebate. Like I’ve said before, I understand that many homeowners just want a lower water bill, see the chance for a no money no fuss landscape, and jump at it. The result, however, and the affects it may have, come at a much higher price, I fear.

  16. And, not to sound overly critical, but I do agree with JM that publishing readily identifiable homes as examples of “bad” landscaping without the permission of the homeowners seems more than a little over the top, even for a blog that is supposed to be a “rant”.

  17. Hi again Tom – that is a fair opinion. I was on a public sidewalk taking a picture of the front of a house. The street was not identified, and I also took the time to block out the house numbers (although I didn’t have to). It may not be polite or decorous, and maybe over the top – but do you think people would readily hand over their homes as examples of bad? We have to be able to risk being less than polite if we are going to discuss sensitive and important issues. To me, this isn’t over the top – I see the potential of these gardens proliferating as a very urgent problem, and an unintended consequence of a long fight for more drought tolerant gardens. So I hope you’ll forgive me for disagreeing with you on this point. But thank you for stating your opinion with clarity and respect, it is very appreciated.

  18. I remember the first time I saw a drought resistant landscape installed by The Living Desert Botanical Garden in Palm Desert, CA about 20 years ago. Some people in that area were facing up to the fact that they did all live in a desert. It was also pointed out that it wasn’t until air conditioning was invented that that part of California was liveable for anyone.

  19. I love the phrase “indifferently chosen plants”. I feel like that applies to many “landscaped” yards across the country – not just in California!

  20. Thanks for using my front yard as a good example, I love my yard and am happy others appreciate it as well. My yard is the photo you captioned “Another simple, clean, straightforward, WELL-DESIGNED drought tolerant garden. The difference is important!”

    I’d like to give credit where it is due to Liz Duer of Red Berm Design. She was amazing to work with. She understood my concept, helped keep costs down and really showed me what each part of the project would cost (and how/where I could save) and she worked with me (she is super patient) to find just the right plants.

    Its been almost a year since front was done and I did indeed use the dwp rebate, because why not? The entire front should be able to be able use the irrigation about once a month once it matures.

  21. Hi, Ivette – Can you tell us how to differentiate between good gravel and bad gravel? I probably cannot afford good gravel anyway, but I never gave it much thought. I get rocks where I can find them. Most of my site has plants anyway (or is totally undeveloped mountainside), but I want to know. I can see that the gravel in the “good” pictures looks better than the gravel in the “bad” pictures, but I can’t tell why.

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