While This Agave Gently Weeps

Poor lonely Agave, with barely any plants for company, languidly waits for El Niño to come and wash away the bare soil surrounding its forlorned leaves.
Poor lonely Agave, with barely any plants for company, languidly waits for El Niño to come and wash away the bare soil surrounding its forlorned leaves.

The agave is weeping because not only are we in a multi-year drought in California, now we are headed for a catastrophe of biblical proportions.

EL NIÑO!!!!! (shrieks are heard in the distance)

The warm waters in the Pacific will herald in unprecedented winter storms, and all sorts of hell will break loose.

Why? Because there has been so little rain, the soil has forgotten how to soak up water. People have let their plants wither and die, so there is very little ground cover on residential properties. There will be mudslides everywhere!

I know I sound like a doomsayer, and I’ll take that. I don’t WANT to be the one who sees tragedy coming, but I can’t help it! Everything Los Angelenos have been told about how to deal with the drought has been completely wrong, in my opinion. Instead of allowing people to let lawns go fallow, there should have been mandated re-plantings, not just rebates for eventual replanting. A healthy garden planted with a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, succulents,and grasses is a superior water holding device than any rain barrel (which they are giving rebates for btw). The underground network of roots, penetrating to varying depths, would have stabilized soil and held hillsides in place. The gardens would have added to this large city’s greenspace and helped to offset the heat island effect – but Los Angeles has less planted space than it had before, when it should have more.

To gardeners like we Ranters, what I propose makes sense – but it is completely counterintuitive to the norms, who think plants use water, we are low on water, so we must get rid of plants, right? THAT is basically what has happened in this city. It seems that nobody in charge of planning how to respond to a drought spoke to any horticulturalist about the matter.

So here we wait for yet another Apocalypse. Living in Los Angeles is like being in the 90’s tv series “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” – there is always an apocalypse around the corner. This one is THE DELUGE. We are being told to fix our roofs and clean our gutters and sandbag our hillsides. But no matter what we do, we have the feeling it is not enough, because the forecasters are telling us HOW BAD THE RAINS WILL BE. We will all die, of course. Die ironically watery deaths, after years of dry dry dry.

Sigh. I’m weeping along with this depressed agave. Think about me as the Deluge approaches, and pray your Sad Little Ranter doesn’t get swept away in a slide of mud from the unplanted hillside above her house! I TOLD THEM!!!

(sounds of me and my agave friend, sobbing gently…)


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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. Great point about attacking (mostly symbolics) lawns without recommending, requiring, or incentivizing a renovation of the pre-existing landscape (rather than merely its destruction). We need to start subsidizing the planting of climate-appropriate shade trees, the kind that will reduce hydrophobic soils, provide comfort to people and shelter for animals, reduce heating / cooling costs (as much of an environmental problem as lush, residential lawns), and counteract erosion. This is not an impossible task, provided local and state governments aren’t controlled by self-styled anti-government “outsiders” who think slashing public works budgets is a responsible, rather than self-defeating and nihilistic, act.

  2. The planners obviously didn’t talk to any ecologists, hydrologists or soil scientists either, all of whom could have warned of the consequences of these policies.

      • The bulk of populated southern California (coast to western San Berdoo and Riverside counties) was never a desert, though. Chaparral shrublands and mediterranean biomes are distinct from deserts.

        • I think the loss of the aquifers (and the sinking of the land which then eliminates what was an aquifer forever) might well turn SoCal into a desert.

          Drought also destroys the beneficial microorganisms in the soil making a poor environment for plants. That’s why I like to encourage people to water even if plnats are dead or near dead.

          It’s going to be a tough go. I’m thinking we may have our own refugee crisis.

      • Marcia, California is a large state which encompasses a huge variety of climates – desert is only one. Los Angeles is not a desert, we have high and low deserts close by. No matter what the climate, from temperate maritime to our coastal belts to our chaparrals to our desserts, all are feeling the effects of this prolonged drought. The media loves to sensationalize, so take what you read from most sources with a grain of salt. The reality is concerning enough without the sweeping generalizations. I’m happy you can gather your flowers and tomatoes – so can I. But years earlier my harvests were much more abundant. Never forget that all of us are a natural disaster away from a very different way of life, so wherever you live, appreciate your garden and the way you can garden, but know that things can change, rapidly. And you might not be able to brag about your harvest to those who struggle.

        • I didn’t intend my comment to be boastful.

          It’s just the facts.

          The West is arid. The east is not. All I was saying is that the bountiful times may be over for the West. There are too many people wanting too much water from a dry terrain. Heck. Denver’s metro population hit 2.7 million in 2013, more than three times what it was in 1960. California alone uses almost one-third of the entire Colorado River flow, having a larger share than any other Colorado River basin state.

          Lynn Wilson, academic chair at Kaplan University and who serves on the climate change delegation in the United Nations:

          “Civilizations in the past have had to migrate out of areas of drought,” Wilson said. “We may have to migrate people out of California.”

          This is a very good article on the history of taming the Colorado:

          Ultimately, planting more plants may well do little:

          • Marcia, since California is the 9th largest economy in the world, I think they will be finding ways to send us more water before they migrate people out of the state.
            And I’m sorry, but the entire west is not arid. The southwest is arid, but northern California, Oregon, and Washington, all western states, are far from desert like.
            And it is southern California that uses water from the Colorado river, I don’t believe the northern part does, but I may be wrong.
            You can’t paint “California” or “The West” with such a broad brush, no matter how sensational the result is. Different parts of the state are feeling the impacts of the drought differently. And if we, as a state, weren’t growing much of the entire nations’s food supply, the water tables would be higher because there would be less pumping of wells and aquifers. We could deal with periods of drought better if we were only supplying our local communities with food – but again – that is not what we have here. We have an interconnected system of food production. It doesn’t bother people when food leaves the state, but it really bothers them when water comes in.
            Of course I understand your point, but I feel by saying how everyone just needs to leave California lets the powers that be off the hook. They need to figure things out. They need to listen to people who know plants, water, soil, and the biome – the climate crisis is real and the thought and decision making processes need to change significantly. I don’t think people will be shipping anyone out of California soon, but they COULD start making decisions that impact us in positive ways, instead of keeping their heads in the sand! Thanks Marcia!

  3. Has anyone brought the planners (or policy-makers) a presentation with suggestions/advice? I would not be at all surprised if they just don’t know enough to ask the right questions….

  4. The real problem is, no matter whether you call it chaparral or desert or whatever — it’s still a place that was never intended to house millions of people. Yes, some things would help, but they’re never going to be enough.

    • Hi Meg, as SKR points out, no place is able to sustain the kind of population our large cities do without dancing on the edge of a razor. Chicago, NYC, Austin, Miami … these cities and others long ago outgrew any reasonable level of balance and harmony. I don’t really find pointing out obvious facts like that useful, because what are we going to do? Start a process of emptying cities to a more sustainable level? Redistribute the population across the country to smaller cities? Obviously not. Thinkers and policy makers need to come up with actual solutions for the problems of these overbuilt cities, and all too often all we get are patches and quick fixes to placate the loud voices, and things go on as usual. LA is currently expanding at an accelerated pace, which I find astounding. If people were making policy that made sense, there would be no more building in areas affected by drought, especially areas where water needs to be piped in from hundreds of miles away. But our economy depends on endless growth, so of course this will not happen. We will continue to have policies that favor development and impact residents the hardest. When disasters happen, they address the worst of it and everything else sorts itself out. Not the best way to run a society, in my opinion. Since this is the structure we live in, what can we do to make it function in a more optimal way? I am not one for calling for turning back time. We are where we are, in the situation we find ourselves. We need to MacGyver ways to make more sustainable lives work in our cities

      • What do you mean there is no water? You’re sitting next to the single largest body of water on the planet, the Pacific Ocean. Salt water can be desalinated and used for drinking water. Sure, there is the sticker price to be considered, it is substantial, it would cost tens of billions to build and operate. Dubai does it, and they almost rely on it 100% because their climate is far more severe than California’s SW sector. It’s time for Cali to join the big leagues an pony up for decades of squandering several states water. The cost it would have been to build that kind of facility, is much cheaper than the damage Cali has cost the whole region. Dubai had visionaries for their water, they’ve already socked away enough reserve water to last past 2020, what has Cali done lately? Squandered everyone’s water and your money, all for nothing.

        • Yes, lots of people are talking desalination. How it works here, rather than in Dubai (where they also build sinking islands and do other things we may not want to copy) still needs to be figured out. I imagine if it was easy and economically feasible, it would have been done long ago.
          It may be a good idea, who knows…

  5. Ivette,

    I’ve been doing a bit more reading on this subject, because something in my own experience made me think there was something wrong with the idea that more plants will decrease the heat island effect. I live just northeast of D.C. When a front moves west to east, I can watch the radar and see the rain clouds split as they hit D.C. We will often get no rain as the clouds go right around us, yet west of D.C. will get a deluge. I wondered if it could be the heat island effect in the city, but Washington is loaded with trees.

    FYI – for the visitors:

    (I heard the Pope marvel at how green it was here and even we were in that nasty drought for two months.)

    So, what the heck is happening? It turns out, it may be the vegetation itself that is causing the heat island effect.

    “The ‘rougher’ surfaces of the vegetation triggers turbulence, and turbulence removes heat from the surface to the atmosphere,” Zhao said. “But where there is a smoother surface, there is less convection and the heat will be trapped in the surface.”

    “Convection plays a key role in drier cities, too — albeit with far different consequences. In those settings — including in urban areas of the southwestern U.S. where surrounding vegetation is typically shorter and scrubbier — the rural areas are less effective at dissipating heat. As a result, the urban landscapes are actually 20 percent more efficient in removing heat than their rural surroundings, triggering a 1.5-degree C cooling within the cities.”

    ““In those urban areas we sometimes see urban heat sinks instead of the typical heat island,” Lee said. “It’s a paradoxical phenomenon.”

    So, more vegetation, more heat trapped.

    Whoa. I guess I should blame D.C.’s trees.


    • Marcia, very interesting study – but still just a study. I am glad they underlined the differences in climate, because what we deal with in Southern California is very different that what you deal with in DC.
      Studies of the Amazon and the effect the clear cutting of forests on convection patterns and the increasing of heat within the cities of the Amazon basin, as well as the impact on weather patterns because of the lack of weather created by large stands of vegetation have a relationship to what you bring up, I think. Greenspace works in different ways in different climates – what is known here in Southern California that our dense urban areas can be almost 20 degrees hotter than our rural areas or well planted communities within Los Angeles.
      The article you posted points to daytime convection being increased because of plants – well, of course! We know how plants work, and plants do increase convection because, en masse, they “breathe” and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Large stands of old growth trees are valuable to the planet exactly because they are part of what creates weather, as the Amazon studies point out. I think extrapolating these theories to a conclusion that suggests we stop planting in wetter areas of the world because plants may increase heat in the daytime is not seeing the whole picture – a ham fisted reading of the data, if you will.
      This data needs studying so that city planners can put effective measures in place to increase our ability to live reasonably during climate emergencies. Climate is different everywhere, so what concerns me and my neighbors in Los Angeles is different that what you are focused on in DC – and it should be that way. My heat island is very different than yours – and, at the moment, more extreme because of our years-long drought. My assertion that planting more would help our situation is one that has been left out of the dialog not because the powers that be have read studies and decided that more trees would actually increase a daytime heating effect (although I still am not prepared to say that the experience of heat on the ground would actually be hotter, since trees also block sun and reduce glare and mitigate reflected heat), they have not been reading anything on the subject and making knee jerk suggestions based on suggestions by local water districts, who are, in the end, interested in making money off of selling us water at a premium. No one is getting good information from a vetted source, with the cities backing and confidence. Instead, people have stopped watering and imagine the surprise when we realize that plants did something other than look pretty around our homes, as those homes slide down the hillsides that make Southern California so picturesque! Thanks for linking to that article, really great reading!

  6. “The southwest is arid, but northern California, Oregon, and Washington, all western states, are far from desert like.” Ivette, since the subject came up: you might be surprised at how arid much of the Pacific Northwest is. Three-fifths of Oregon is high desert–a little-known fact to those from elsewhere, as most of the people, towns and roads are west of the Cascades, which are quite moist (the rain shadow effect dries things out pretty fast to the east). However, we had extreme drought conditions this past year. Our local irrigation district put us on rotations (3 1/2 days on, 3 1/2 off), and some were cut off for part of the season. El Nino for us means warmer, drier winters. If we do not have a snowpack this winter in the mountains, next year will be severe. We are closely watching our neighbors to the south!

    • Not surprised at all Anne, since I have travelled extensively all over the Pacific NW, and know how varied the region is, with very dry climate regions east of the interior mountains. Still, the assertion from a previous commenter was that the entire west is dry, desert – and that isn’t true. The entire region is suffering a drought, but arid regions are showing devastating impact in a vey different way that the areas with climates that usually get regular moisture. My admonition is not to paint with a broad brush, not to say that moist parts of the west aren’t experiencing drought, because of course they are.

  7. Tree ring data shows the last few hundred years have been much damper in the Southwest than the norm, with the 20th century the wettest century in nearly 2,000 years.

    The period 1976 to 2001, despite the drought beginning in the mid-1990s, was the wettest quarter-century in 2,000 years.

    Yet, mega droughts in the southwest are not uncommon. The problem is the plumbing, the faux rivers, have given rise to enormous population growth and complacency. Now, the sources of those “rivers” are drying up.

    Marine physicist Tom Barnett and climate scientist David Pierce:

    “Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system. The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis is a major societal and economic disruption in the desert Southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region.”

    We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us. Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.”

    This is a much bigger problem than altering the landscape.

    • Yes Marcia – this is not abstract to me at all. I live in the southwest and my profession has been hugely impacted by the drought. I am here, I see it every day. I don’t need to read about it because it is literally my job, as I try to figure out sustainable landscapes within the Los Angeles area. So yea – this is a big deal. But with an economy that is rebounding at the rate the one in LA is, which is seeing an enormous explosion in population, the financial incentives to figure out the water issue will take precedent over making the cities sustainable. There is too much money here. Has there ever been a case of a mayor or a governor closing off a city or state to a new influx of population? There is no water, yet people are still coming. The average 2 bedroom apartment in LA is over $2500 a month, and people are moving here in droves. So I don’t know, I don’t see a refugee crisis happening in the reverse any time soon

  8. I don’t think letting lawns go brown is the huge problem you’re making it out to be Ivette, as mostly the organic thatch and roots are still there, and nature and weeds have an amazing ability to green up apparently bare earth, even without rain, given a chance to do so, even in southern California. Playing devil’s advocate here, the majority of LA’s tree canopy is poorly matched to existing climate and rainfall, and the worst water guzzlers may just have to be replaced with more appropriate plantings in the future, think of this as an opportunity, not a disaster.

    As to water agencies and city planners not having a clue, this shows how little interactions you have with these sorts, and large scale pro-active measures like water-banking treated waste water to recharge water tables, public mandates for parallel gray water irrigation systems for new subdivisions and commercial industrial parks, etc. And at the local level, water district policies which rebate for more efficient toilets and remove lawns ARE reducing total water usage. Admittedly not all drought resistant new replacement landscapes concern themselves with retaining tree canopy cover nor properly address and publicise sustainable planting choices, that’s where WE as professionals can play a part, no?
    I personally think we should be making more effort to reuse gray water rather than emphasize rainbarrel solutions, as one is a continuous resource, the other intermittent and incapable of meeting yearly demand for the average s. California garden. (Unless we start building cisterns that capture whole roof runoff! And these sizes of cisterns ain’t cheap to retrofit). Personally I prefer to convert downspouts running off to the street into perforated pipe subsoil rain distribution systems where feasible. And I’m designing no new turf lawns and using a lot more desert adapted species that can also handle a northern California wet winter.

    I’m willing to bet if you returned to photograph that Agave in January, there will either be a nice crop of green weeds or Oxalis pes-caprae covering all that bare earth. And as to mudslides after fires in LA, there’s a hell of a lot of construction in steep fire prone hills that maybe shouldn’t have been built upon in the first place, or should have their homeowner’s and fire insurance costs reflect the true cost of living there. Kind of like how Flood and Hurricane insurance costs have increased tremendously for people living in south Florida or the Gulf Coast. Global climate change, the drying out of the Southwest/West, rising sea levels will all test our meddle in how to live, and we all know there will have to be changes and deal with less since populations are only increasing.

    • Hi David, thanks for your comment – we agree much more than we disagree. For instance, I am totally with you on how to irrigate best – greywater is at the top of the list for meaningful solutions for Southern California, considering we have a huge population of water users! Most of that water goes for treatment as waste rather than being funneled back into a landscape, but I believe that will be changing. Unfortunately, the DWP is concerned with its finances – all the brown lawns and water saving measures have cause less profits, so we in LA are facing raising water rates for using less.
      You are right, I have little interaction with water districts (other than small local ones where I often hold workshops) – my business is making gardens that can function well within their policies, and they make it very, very hard for me. I’m not going to be taking my time to try and struggle with a cumbersome governmental entity – I’d rather just make gardens that work, without getting into the rebates and the tantalizing little morsels they throw at the community to make them feel that they are part of a solution. When actually, nobody in the LADWP is doing any big thinking to come up with REAL solutions, or they would be innovating rather than chasing their tails. Oy.
      As for the image of the agave, I haven’t checked the timestamp, but the picture was taken in mid May. You may have a different opinion, and you have every right to it, but mine is that large patches of dirt are not ok in a neighborhood setting. Allowing a lawn to go fallow for a season or two is one thing, but the aesthetics of a community have been impacted to a deleterious affect. I’m not saying bring back your lawns full force, but I do see lawns as a scapegoat. No, they shouldn’t be a part of a drought landscape, but I can create a low water garden around a lawn and have it look great and still be under a tier 1 water usage structure. The brown lawn has become a broken window, not a badge of honor.
      Just my opinion. But as someone who has been dealing with lawn reform for most of her career, this experience has been a HUGE eye-opener.
      As for the mis-matched tree canopy, you do have a point. However, to replace mature trees that have ben thriving for decades and decades with trees adapted to chaparral conditions – conditions that do not exist in the artificial landscape of an urban sprawl – would be risking something much too precious. The shade we get from even the most destructive ficus – I for one, am not willing to replace them. I am a pragmatist. I need to balance idealism with reality. I am not willing to get rid of shade for 20 plus years of waiting for a small tree to provide what the existing giant already does.
      See, I think your argument about “Maybe they shouldn’t have been built” doesn’t really do anything. These houses HAVE been built, this city is extremely populace and getting moreso, and these people aren’t going anywhere. The trees are here, they are large and shady and they work. When they die, sure, change them out to whatever is the fashionable thing – natives now, maybe something else later. But to advocate removing trees and displacing populations? I really can’t speak to that because I find it so wrong-headed.
      But as for the other topics you touched on, yea!

  9. More so my point about impractical tree selections, is that if they can’t be babied through an extended drought lasting into more future years, they should be replaced with trees that can take the conditions going forward. There’s no shortage of tree selections that can adapt to southern California if one looks at other similar or drier climates around the world, and just maybe using more adapted California native species that grow in the LA Basin makes sense too.

    My point about the bare earth around that Agave is not that I prefer that look, (Trust me it couldn’t be any further from my planting style here in the Bay Area; think lush looking succulents with drought resistant subtropicals and bromeliads), but my point was that the first rains would tend to sprout its own healing green cover crop of weeds to keep that bare soil from eroding away.

    And I know that hillside homes already built in extremely fire and slide prone areas aren’t going to disappear, but such developments shouldn’t keep happening without developers and home buyers paying the full costs of keeping those fires and landslides at bay. I.E. higher fees for fire protection and fire insurance, mandated fire resistant building materials, roof top fire sprinklers, etc. I think higher density development should occur as infill in existing urbanized areas that could promote public transit and rail lines and improve failing neighborhoods. But as often happens here in the Bay Area, there can be real push back by NotInMyNeighborhood types. But population growth does have to be accommodated somehow/somewhere, even if change can be difficult.

    I totally agree that garden design can stretch out to be both gracefully elegant and more conserving of precious water without sacrificing beauty, but I’m not personally big on lawn grasses or big lawn areas. Better lower water using alternatives I’ve liked include Berkeley Sedge as lawn or Dymondia, both of which adapt to once or twice a month irrigation here where I design gardens. The interesting thing is, after 4 dry years of low rainfall locally, I find myself looking to plants from southern California, Arizona, Baja California, and deserts in South America, South Africa and Western Australia as source inspiration for new planting designs. It would be a Karmic Joke if I start losing these plants due to a very wet El Niño winter! I’ve tried to cover my bases both ways, and really work at improving drainage or only planting on existing well drained slopes or creating berms for better drainage. Usually a win-win if regrading can create more interesting spaces and/or create privacy.

    • I so totally agree with you David – what a JOKE it would be if El Niño destroys all the drought tolerance and cacti people have been putting in willy-nilly! YIKES! And I also believe that the bulk of our work is done with good plant choices and good drainage work. Absolutely. You and I differ when it comes to taking our trees, but I get where you are coming from completely. It is an ideal – but I am not sure that the ideal would even work with the changing climate. And I would LOVE to put an end to future development! But that is not happening. On the contrary, developers are going crazy – more building with less infrastructure to support the people to live in them and a changing climate that is forecast to be one of drought. What are people THINKING?
      That is why the agave weeps.

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