Tales From the Droughtside or THE DROUGHTPOCALYPSE!!!

This is what the drought looks like. This yard has been like this since last October.
This is what the drought looks like. This yard has been like this since last October.

It is pretty bad out here, folks.

People seem to be using the drought as an excuse to GIVE UP. Clothed in the the dry, tattered, unwashed rags of self-righteousness (they only run their washing machines once a month), they zealously save water, and they let their yards go fallow. They preside over parched, dry earth. They walk around the neighborhood, chastising those who hand water their trees and tomato plants. They can hear a sprinkler turn one one minute past the morning irrigation cut-off time, and they stalk over and leave notes threatening to call the police. They are a grim lot, the Water Zombies- and they look upon anyone who decides to fight for some planted beauty during this drought as a traitor. We are too lush, too ripe, we ornamental gardeners. We are stealing water from future generations of humanity. We, ornamental gardeners, should hang our heads in shame. The Water Zombies want us to be dry and thirsty.

The reality is that we, the ornamental gardeners who have lived through drought before, have been planting xeric landscapes for decades. Our water use is already titrated. We plant a wide variety of drought adapted plants, we plant herbs and food, we keep our gardens tough and lean. We toss off the heat island effect, because our gardens are green and abundant, even in our dry climate. and we, the ornamental gardeners surviving this Droughtpocalypse know that we are stewards of some of the most important components of our city’s infrastructure. LA is already seeing its old, established trees dying from the overreaction and self righteousness of the grim Water Zombies, who have turned off all irrigation and are letting landscapes wither. We need our trees. Our trees need supplemental irrigation. Thanks to misinformation and misinterpretation of what native landscapes are, people are allowing their homes to become tinder-dry – huge fire hazards in what will no doubt be a frightening Santa Ana season, where our hot winds dry things out even further, and fires can easily rage out of control. Our native chaparral is a landscape that burns to refresh itself, but that is not a part of the romance of the native landscape that our city yards can indulge in. We need to irrigate. Sparingly, yes – but irrigate we MUST.

This yard has not been irrigated for about three years. The street tree, a Liquidambar planted in the 1950’s, dies from a lack of supplemental water.

I’m not really afraid of the Water Zombies, mostly because they are too dehydrated to move very fast in this heat, but also because I’ve seen this behavior before. As soon as we start having regular rainfall (mind you, our regular rainfall is still precious little! Thirteen inches is our average!), they will re-sod their lawn and get back to the serious business of mowing the grass. No room for succulents or drought tolerant perennials, that’s too much nonsense – just precise lawn that can be easily shorn. I know the type. They aren’t that scary.

Or ARE THEY??????

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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!


  1. Love this line:
    “I’m not really afraid of the Water Zombies, mostly because they are too dehydrated to move very fast in this heat…”

    • It’s SCARY Susan! I really thought the drought would bring us smarter, water-wise gardens, but instead it has really put a harsh spotlight on the fact that most people are just looking for the cheapest, easiest thing, and that is hard for a lover of plants, gardens, design, and our environment to grasp. I said in my book that lawn is the “default”, and that we needed to change that. Now I see that most people just want another default. They don’t want the alternative that I imagined – beautiful idiosyncratic, drought tolerant gardens filled with herbs and food, that reflect our region of the country. Nope. And that makes me sad and a little cynical. I hope something changes soon I might yell!

  2. I think some people still want to believe the drought is temporary, that El Nino will ride in to the rescue this winter. They’re not acknowledging that one wet year isn’t going to reverse a trend that began long ago when we put unsustainable demands on a limited water system heavily dependent on outside water sources. If water demands continue to exceed supply as they undoubtedly will, hopefully the message will get through and, instead of presiding over dirt piles or rolling out more sod, homeowners will seek other solutions – if only to ensure the value of their real estate. For my part, I’m equally worried about the people who continue to operate as if the drought is some kind of media-fueled hoax that will go away if they ignore it.

    • I’m not thrilled with those who feel that they have enough money to withstand the high fees and fines in order to have a lush green lawn.

      I think I need to have a water audit in order to find out how much of a rebate the owner could get for replacing at least a part of the lawn.

      All of the drought-conscious ideas for the front lawn which I have presented are cheaper than just the cost of the sod he had put in, in July or August 2012–when there was already a stage 2 drought here. The PM informed me that the owner has no money for re-landscaping at this time, and bemoans the death of his lawn. Yikes. It could be reworked for considerably less than $500, labor included. I know, Marina, but tell us what you really think!

      I did get authorization to sow some of the Pearl’s Premium deep-root grass seed–no more than $200, but it will take less than that to over-sow the lawn, and if we get enough rain in the month after I sow it this winter, then the cost will be recouped in TWO MONTHS ONLY, counting any water I have to spend.

      I thank the blogger who visited Mr. Pearl’s booth at a garden show.

      • “I’m not thrilled with those who feel that they have enough money to withstand the high fees and fines in order to have a lush green lawn.”

        A bit over twenty years ago Seattle put in a tiered rates system for water use (and irony alert: has the most expensive water rates in the country!). One of those folks was shocked at the size of her water bill. The response from the utility department was “we told you this would happen.” If you want a lush green lawn, you have pay for it.

        The nice thing about having the tiered rates is that they are permanent. They make sure that those who want to have green lawns thing seriously if they are really necessary. Even if it is a rainy summer… which has not happened in years.

  3. Around my neighbourhood, I see dead brown yards with weeds. I can tell they’re weeds and random grasses because they are not tended–let it die, and don’t mow.

    Uuuuuuugly! I think some of them are owners, not just renters, too.

    I’ve been aware of xeric gardening before Sunset Magazine started talking about it. I have household-wide water conservation habits from youth (I pay for that water!), from the late 70’s/early 80’s, when Southern California had a more mild drought, and then when we moved north to the Bay Area in the late 80’s. I happen to like low-maintenance gardens, being the lazy sort I am, and xeric landscapes are just my style.

  4. Seriously interesting article. This New Jerseyan just visited Northern California. It was notable that the vineyards were all nice and green. Shows what matters doesn’t it? I drank the wine and shook my head. Not a succulent in sight. Just dead grass.

    • Grape vines have very deep roots. At one winery I visited they had one on display, and it went down over two meters. They really don’t need lots of watering, but they are not immune to droughts.

      The wine grapes are from the Mediterranean starting in Greece. They used to let them run up trees, but figured out they did better if you actually trained them on trellises. This is a fun read:

      The west coast of the USA has a Mediterranean climate, so grapes are well suited for it. They do well if there is enough winter rain, as do herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, bay laurel, oregano (which is a weed in our area) and lavender (I grow all of these in my garden). But they do need winter water, and one neighbor of ours had her grapes produce pathetic berries because they did not get runoff due to proximity to too much paved driveway and lack of actual watering.

      • Thanks for the input Chris. In the Central Coast, water restriction to agriculture and an almost total lack of supplemental irrigation is putting deep stress on even the deep-rooted plants, such as trees and large vines. The climate is less a Mediterranean one at this point, and more a low desert in many areas of Southern California. California is a large state, and its climates are diverse – the drought is affecting all of them. My So Cal garden, planted in a fairly classic Mediterranean style of herbs, succulents, drought adapted shade trees, and vines, could never live on only winter water only – even deep-rooted grape vines would die here.

        • On the subject of root depth, I’ve read a number of articles, and seen supporting photos, on the dramatic difference in the root depth of a plant sown and grown in place compared to one being transplanted at a more advanced stage in its life. For a plant like a tomato, for instance, we’re talking about 6′ of root reach instead of 2′. This affects not only drought tolerance but enhances cold tolerance as well, allowing some plants to be grown much farther North than their usual hardiness zone. Anyone aware of work being done on this aspect of the water use issue?

          It would be quite the challenge to get gardeners to start trees from seed but I know, from personal experience, that the results are tremendously satisfying and come with serious bragging rights, a not insignificant motivating factor in the gardening game.

          • Hi Joe! I’m glad you asked this. The wonderful author of “Roots, Demystified”, Robert Kourik, has another book coming up – “Understanding Roots”, and I was lucky enough to read an advance copy. He lays it all out. I really really suggest reading it once it comes out! I won’t pretend to have anything close to the expertise on root culture and structure and how they behave in drought – but I will say that drought affects even the deepest, oldest trees with large, free root structures. I can’t say what trees have been grown from seed – but in my opinion getting a homeowner to grow a tree from seed would be extremely difficult, because we need shade now – not 20 years from now. At this moment, bragging rights aren’t enough – we need people planting greenspace in numbers significant enough to offset all of the greenspace we are losing to these turf rebates. While the root structure of a seed-grown tree would no doubt be superior over time, it is such an emergency NOW that I believe we need to think about getting drought adapted trees in the ground and growing to size, as soon as possible. Thanks so much for your comment, and get Robert’s book! You’ll be amazed! ROOTS ARE EVERYTHING!

  5. Great take on a big issue, Ivette. Something not mentioned is the death of the soil biology and loss of carbon resulting from all that dry, hot dirt. The only positive thing is that they are not topping it with plastic turf. It’s very sad to see those bare yards just begging for some inline drip, microspray, or hand-watering, some living soil, mulch and a few beautiful CA natives; ceanothus, salvia and toyon.

    • Jodi – our Mayor is wanting people to use artificial turf!!! And you are not kidding – the fact that we are losing opportunities for carbon sequestration is heartbreaking. The powers that be totally have their heads up their asses here. They are incentivizing the wrong kinds of practices and being very very shortsighted! I am pretty astonished. Thankfully, a few articles have been published recently and shared a lot – hopefully the citizens of Los Angeles will start agitating for more greenspace, and for smarter planting of that greenspace using sound practices, not just falling for this ridiculous binary of use lots of water vs use no water AT ALL. UGH! Thank you for your comment!

      • “Jodi – our Mayor is wanting people to use artificial turf!!!”

        Some are fairly nice. That is what is in my sister’s courtyard in Tucson. There are also some native trees, lots of succulents and the only water is the fountain. It works for them, especially since they prefer traveling to gardening.

        I live a bit north of California, and we are also having a bit of a drought. There is now no snow pack, but the city let the reservoirs fill up more than average this past winter. There was a lesson they learned a bit over twenty years ago during a previous drought. That was when they introduced triple level water rates. The more water you use, the more you pay per cubic foot.

        The city also encouraged water saving by giving rebates for purchasing certain kinds of washing machines and actually sending us water saving shower heads. So even though the population has increased, the total water use has not. I am sure the newcomers work harder to conserve after they get their first utility bill, we have the highest priced water in the country:

        By the way, I have a very small lawn that does not get water. What is the point? If you water it, then you have to mow it. I much prefer to spend my very expensive city water on my veggies in raised beds, and some ornamentals. The fruit trees get water when the plantings nearby are watered, and now only because I am trying to get flower seeds to grow. Later on they will not be watered much, because it is bad for the tulip bulbs (which like dry summers).

        • Hi Chris. The problem with artificial turf, as I see it, is that it is not any kind of replacement for greenspace. It is a plastic product, full of petrochemicals that break down over time and that breakdown is accelerated by constant exposure to sun. Artificial turf does nothing positive for our environment – it doesn’t sequester carbon, it doesn’t encourage the health of our soil microbes, it is essentially a big piece of plastic sitting on top of the ground. Practically anything is better than that, in my opinion. Encouraging people to turn greenspace into dead plastic space is not the answer to drought – the answer is to change planting and water habits, to plant MORE appropriate plants, and to increase the horticultural diversity of the region to include drought resilient plants from similar climates. It doesn’t matter how “nice” the synthetic lawns are, they are an affront to anyone who cares about environmental stewardship, as all they are is a fake carpet of plastic manufactured to trick people into thinking they are looking / standing on / sitting on grass. Not my style – but the business seems to be booming.

          • “the answer is to change planting and water habits, ”

            And to charge more for the water. If we had to send our water down there as per Bill Shatner’s idea, you would bet it would cost lots more than what we pay. It is insane that Fresno has some of the cheapest water rates in the country (see article I linked to). Not only would it encourage people to plant more appropriate gardens, it would provide funds to upgrade the infrastructure.

            In a recent trip to California we had a nice conversation with the driver who picked us up in San Francisco. We were shocked that he had not heard of tier rates for water. We also have at least incremental rates for electricity use to encourage conservation. And so does Los Angeles (I just checked). There is no reason why the same cannot be done for water.

            I heard about the artificial turf bit on Science Friday:

            As far as I have seen it used in Arizona, it is limited to usually a patio size not entire fields. There are very very few natural green lawns (though I have not been to Phoenix which also has very very low water rates, my dad complains it has too many mosquitoes due to the abundance of stagnant artificial lakes).

            Though I remember one other California drought years ago where people were painting their brown lawns green. You’d think that some action would have taken place then, just like our public utility did over twenty years ago. There are very few green lawns in the Emerald City, though the parks have some (and you should see how much complaining there is going about the greens at the US Open, they are not very green).

          • I once saw a front yard consisting of green concrete… (shudder).

            I’d like to bust up my concrete driveway and replace it with plastic grid and living plants in the cells.

            The rest of our garden will be xeriscaped as our Washington State drought catches up to you folks down south.

  6. One of the 10 commandments of gardening: Complaineth not, it could always be worse. I was bemoaning the surplus of precipitation (over double our average rainfall for June already) here in the upper Midwest. All complaints are now withdrawn. And clearly your region is no place for lawns.

    • Yes, Phytophactor – lawns should be few and far between here. Parks only, imo – or small backyards for people with young children. Even when this drought is over, the way we use water in the west needs to change dramatically! I am holding out hope, a tiny bit – even though the Water Zombies are wearing me down!

      • “Even when this drought is over, the way we use water in the west needs to change dramatically!”

        Using a tiered system for water rates would help. Instead of thinking that this drought (which is now several years long) is temporary, it will change affect its use in the long term.

        As an old fogey who remembers learning about “drought showers” when my dad was stationed in Ft. Ord, CA, and then having to deal with a drought in 1976 my freshman year at the University of Washington… I am amazed that this issue has been ignored in California.

        I am from an Eastern Washington fruit orchard family. This is why I try to honor my heritage by having an edible garden but still live near the ocean works (seriously, my elementary school in Ft. Ord, Stillwell Elementary, it had a view of the bay, it is now a foreign language school for the military… our crossing guards were very disgruntled Army privates who were dreading a transfer to Vietnam).

        • Chris, in Los Angeles we DO have a tiered water system – the problem is that we are also a city of some tremendous affluence, and many people see no problem in paying ridiculous sums of money to keep up the facade of a park-like, English Country Manor. Or to have a putting green in their back yard. The tiered system is not enough to dis – incentivize over using water, just like the turf rebate system was not the answer to creating drought tolerant plantings. The state needs landscape and irrigation specialists, environmentalists, and experts in biodiversity and urban planning also helping to make decisions about how to change our water usage, and not just leave it up to local departments of water and power. In my opinion.

          • Great post, Ivette! And I think you’re bringing up a crucial need, the need to cultivate and hire experts on local, ecologically sound landscaping strategies and solutions. Citizens are getting educated, but cities need to show the way.

  7. I totally agree, drought became a problem and this situation is worsening day by day especially in some areas like California. I found an interesting article on the web about an innovative irrigation system that saves up water though efficiency. It is automatic and solar powered and it works with sensors that understand climatic and soil conditions and weather forecast to improve water saving and efficiency.

    This is their website: http://www.onedropone.net

  8. People with gardens just aren’t the problem. This is a smokescreen to distract us from the main event. Everyone simply ought to be treat water as a valuable non-renewable resource but city dwellers only use about 10% of the water. Total. So, even if they completely stopped using water (somehow) the impact would be minimal. A person has to look at the actual use of water. Irrigated agricultural fields in CA are the problem — using about 80% of the state’s water — which mostly gets shipped out of state never to return. How idiotic is that? Seriously, if a farmer can’t grow a crop without massive irrigation then the crop needs to be planted elsewhere. Respect what the land can realistically do. In Texas, we have some of that same issue with agriculture wasting water but the real enemy here is fracking. Fracking uses 50% of the water here. We might not be exporting our water stores but we are polluting it forever.

    • WORD, Debra – WORD. Preach it sister! I say a big AMEN! We, the residential gardeners, are bing made to bear the burden when other interests have their sticky fingers involved. The answer to that particular side of the issue is LOCAL FOOD, everywhere!

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