The Importance of Drought Tolerant Gardens in LA … and What You Can Do about It

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Sometimes it is important to step back from the weighty city planning and environmental issues confronting Los Angeles to focus on the small, personal steps we can take to make LA a more attractive and sustainable city. This is why I want to focus on drought tolerant gardens, something the minority of Angelenos who live in single-family homes can act on. 


If you live in an apartment, your options are more limited, but this website lists 125 community gardens in the Los Angeles area: http://lagardencouncil.org/find-a-garden/. If none of them are near your apartment, the LA Garden Council will help you organize a community garden in your neighborhood. 

Even though I have already pulled out every blade of grass for my rebate-qualified drought garden, I discovered that the LADWP offers free classes on drought tolerant yards and gardening. I recently signed up for one of these classes, and by the time the class was over I learned what my existing drought tolerant garden got right, but also how it could have been designed much better. Some of these lessons are too late for me, but not for you. 

I strongly urge all CityWatch readers, even those who live in apartments or who have taken the drought tolerant plunge, to take one of these courses. The following links have basic course information, as well as many related topics, such as drought tolerant plants, gardening resources, and water conservation techniques: http://selvainternational.org/howdates and www.LADWP.com/CF or http://www.ladwp.cafriendlylandscaping.com/

If you have already revamped your yard, you can still make modest improvements. In addition to a welcome rebate of $1.75 per square foot for replacing your lawn with drought tolerant plants, there are many other reasons to improve your yard. 

First, water rates are only going up, and if you stick with non-native landscaping based on English and French climates of cold winters and plenty of rain, you will pay increasing rates for water, since about half of all water in Los Angeles is used to irrigate yards and gardens. 

Second, despite above average rains in Northern California, Southern California is still experiencing a drought, and based on shifts in California’s climate due to global warming, there will be many more parched years to come. If you stick with an old-fashioned yard, you will need more and more water to just stay in place. You also risk losing many inappropriate plants despite your best efforts to keep them alive in a permanently hotter and drier climate. 

Third, drought tolerant gardens are more attractive than large swaths of grass. Whether you plant a California Friendly Garden of native plants that can survive on existing rain or a Mediterranean garden that requires about 10 inches of extra watering per year, you have extraordinary options in plant varieties, including many drought tolerant trees. Plus, you can make your yard even more attractive with a hardscape component, such as colored gravel or pavers. To get some idea of the esthetic potential of drought tolerant gardens, the LADWP has an impressive photo gallery that will give you many models to choose from. 

Fourth, whether you “go green” based on the old definition of planting more vegetation or the current understanding of establishing a low carbon footprint, a drought tolerant garden allows you to take a small personal step toward a much more sustainable Los Angeles. You will not only save water, but also energy. Less water means less pumping to get that precious resource out of the ground or sluiced through aqueducts from the Colorado River or both sides of the Sierras. 

So, what were my most important take-aways from the LADWP class? 

My number one and biggest mistake was using gravel as a ground cover instead of mulch. As explained by the LADWP website, mulch keeps far more moisture in the ground than gravel, and it gradually decomposes to enrich the soil. 

Secondly, a well-designed drought tolerant garden salvages rainwater from your house’s down spouts. The easiest way to do this is by connecting your down spouts to rain barrels, which also qualify for a LADWP rebate. A more complex way is to incorporate swales (embedded, indented, gravel filled areas to absorb rain water) into your drought tolerant garden. Check out this site for more info and detailed watering information. 

Next, drought tolerant trees are an essential component of a drought tolerant garden that many people ignore. Within a few years they can survive with little extra watering. Once established, they reduce evaporation through their shade, and they also increase the percolation of rainwater by buffeting hard rains. Of course, trees are also attractive, and they sequester the CO2 largely responsible for climate change. The LADWP offers trees, tree descriptions, and photos for you to incorporate into your garden at this site.  

Finally, there are many other resources available to help you design and plant a drought tolerant garden. These include detailed information from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on water schedules, garden, plants, and garden designs at www.bewaterwise.com. They also offer information from landscape experts at www.WatershedWiseLandscape.com

The LADWP has a second site for all questions related to water conservation: www.ladwp.com/waterinsight

While you mull over this information, don’t forget to knock on your neighbor’s door. Like thousands of other Angelenos, they may have already planted a drought tolerant yard and are just waiting to share their story with you.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He welcomes comments and corrections at [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.