Garden Darwinism: Surviving a Dry Year

Following a dry winter, it's adapt or die for this columnist's garden

People seem more ecologically responsible these days. For example, this year I didn’t notice any automatic sprinklers going off in the rain. Then again, I didn’t notice any rain.

We have a long dry year ahead of us, and that can make for all sorts of unpleasantness. Worst will be the fire danger, probably stretching from early summer into autumn. I expect we’ll be put on a strict water-diet and rates will rise.

If there is rationing, I hope it’s on the honor system, and things won’t get weird like they did in our city to the South. When Pasadena rationed water a couple of years ago, they tried to start a neighbor-snitch-on-neighbor campaign, encouraging citizens to spy on each other and report sightings of off-day watering to a local authority. That’s just all kinds of creepy.

I’m happy to save water, but there aren’t many corners left to cut around here. No leaks, no half-loads of laundry. No half-filled dishwasher. No dishwasher, for that matter.

But I will be putting a little Darwinism into practice; natural section will take place in the garden.

Even though my house is old, a nonagenarian, it had no landscaping at all when I bought it. Just a few giant trees and then some Home Depot snapdragons that were scheduled to die as soon as escrow closed.

According to a long-timer in the neighborhood, my house has a checkered past. Back in the 1980s, it was a "pharmacy" of sorts, which explains why I have two front doors. Then in the '90s, it flipped yearly, from one owner to another.  So, in either case–crack house or short-term real estate investment--a well-tended garden was not a priority.

When I first bought the place, I made the typical mistakes of the credit-card wielding overly enthusiastic novice. I kicked things off with my “tropical period,” followed by the exotic fruit, English cottage garden, and Asian fragrant plant periods. It took a while to discover which plants were compatible with our Mediterranean climate.

I won’t bore you with what natural forces converge to create a Mediterranean climate (I could, but I won’t).  Except to say: There are five Mediterranean climates in the world. The other three are located in Southern Australia, South Africa and Central Chile.  Which means, if you’re looking for some loveliness that also conserves water, we’re not restricted to California natives; there are lots of succulents from Africa, and also wonderfully alien looking flowers from Down Under that feel right at home living in parched summers and cool winters.

But getting back to Darwin, I still have some vestiges of old hopes and dreams left in the garden, vestiges that require more than their fair share of care and water. They’re in for a shock, some tough love, this summer. And if they can’t stand the heat and drought, well, I don’t want my garden to look like Ecuador or Sussex or Hawaii anymore anyway. 

So I’ll probably end up shovel-pruning a few guys that were never happy here in the first place. And yes, Cal natives will be a suitable replacement, but I’ll also be giving a green card to some low maintenance representatives from Provence, Cape Town and Australia.

I’ve posted some pictures. Not of my garden, but local examples of certain aspirations I may have. Oh, except the aloe tree. That handsome 9-footer is mine.  We have, in a manner of speaking, grown up together.

Nico March 13, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Karin, your stories have the most comments and often headline the website. Just a thought...maybe its time you actually got paid?
Dan Abendschein (Editor) March 13, 2012 at 05:20 PM
Nico, Karin actually already is a paid contributor.
Natalie March 13, 2012 at 07:14 PM
I'm already feeling sorry for your plants this summer - can I donate some of my bath water? My experiment with native plants wasn't a great success. I think I put many of them in the wrong places, and didn't water enough. If you buy them in pots, they need a lot of water in the first few years until they get established. I wonder if any readers that have created native gardens can tell us how much their water bill went down?
Karin Bugge March 13, 2012 at 07:35 PM
Dan's right, but thanks for looking out for me Nico. And Natalie -- good question.
Nico March 13, 2012 at 07:46 PM
oh good, I just read a Columbia Journal Review article about how Patch is using Huffington Post's model of employing unpaid bloggers...not cool!
Pasadena Adjacent March 13, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Garden Darwinism: I like that My Protea of the Tropics phase hardly made it past the container stage. I went straight to the dull stuff after that. All my plants have survived the rainless year. btw: even if you tried to report a sprinkler going off during the rains, being in LA County (if it's anything like the City of LA) guarantees that you will be transferred to so many audio digital departments, that you will give up before you ever get through. Thats how they like it. My situation, when I tried to get the Los Angeles City Fire Department to look at back yards. Instead they chose to check off residents from the curb as compliant when they enacted their Hillside weed abatement program.
Joan Collazo March 13, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Natalie, not know where you planted your plants, I would have to assume they were in the wrong locations or you watered too much. When we re-landscaped with natives, the advice we got for location was very specific within the yard. We watered once a week the first summer and every two weeks the second. We will probably water every 3-4 weeks depending on the heat this summer. During a winter like this we have had to water every week but last winter we only watered three or four times because the rain was nicely spaced. Our water bill did not drop significantly because we never really watered our lawn much. It was pretty ugly on a little water but these plants looks great and attract lots of beneficial insects and birds.
Petrea Burchard March 13, 2012 at 10:59 PM
PA, my experience with making phone calls to the City of Pasadena has been the opposite--people answer the phone and talk to you, which is so unexpected it's almost terrifying. Say, does the banana tree get to stay?
Susan Campisi March 17, 2012 at 04:57 AM
I recognize a few of those local examples and always stop to admire them. I'd love a yard like these, including yours, one day. For now, I'm only hoping the olive tree I planted a few months ago survives my complete lack of a green thumb. I know I'm supposed to water it regularly but I'm not sure what that means exactly. I can't tell if a withering leaf here and there means I'm over-watering or under-watering. Wish me luck.


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