Tag Archives: drought

2014: a year in pictures

It’s only recently that I’ve gotten back to posting, and there’s close to a year’s worth of stuff that might have been blog-worthy.

Here’s a short, redacted list of 2014 highlights:

All Year

Some humanoid raccoon tracks from what I'm calling "The year of the Raccoon": I've groused on these pages about gophers killing many plants in the garden. This year, the raccoons moved in. Raccoons eat many things: precious koi out of the fishpond, grubs, fruits, veggies...and, apparently, YOUNG GOPHERS. So far, I'm liking the raccoons a little better, at least in that they don't eat the roots of the young plants I'm trying to establish.
Some humanoid raccoon tracks from what I’m calling “The year of the Raccoon”: I've groused on these pages about gophers killing many plants in the garden. This year, the raccoons moved in. Raccoons eat many things: precious koi out of the fishpond, grubs, fruits, veggies…and, apparently, YOUNG GOPHERS. So far, I'm liking the raccoons a little better, at least in that they don't eat the roots of the young plants I'm trying to establish. And I haven’t seen nearly as many gophers.

Atlanta Botanical Garden. Oops. Sorry. No photos. Someone let the camera battery get drained… Imagine, though, snow on the ground, an outdoor elevated walkway winding its way gracefully through the trees beneath what in summer would be a cooling canopy, several terrific interior conservatory spaces filled with fragrant orchids. Not a huge garden, but worth the visit.

The Southwest

Monument Valley: the grand view from the parking lot
Monument Valley: the grand view from the parking lot

Composite panorama of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River
Composite panorama of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River. Honest. The river does this. No Photoshop beyond merging the photos into one.
Afternoon at Muley Point
Afternoon at Muley Point
Another view at Muley Point, one of my favorite places on earth. Sunrise the next morning was spectacular
Another view at Muley Point, one of my favorite places on earth. Notice how the bottoms of the clouds are pink, reflecting the red color of the earth below. Sunrise the next morning was spectacular, as you might guess.
Horsecollar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument
Horsecollar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument

A creature waaay more scary than a racoon or gopher…

Halloween: "The Truth about Hello Kitty"
Halloween: “The Truth about Hello Kitty”

The drought continues. Even with some supplemental watering we lost a fair number of plants. This pile of brownery is what was left of the South African protea hybrid, Pink Ice. We had it for over twenty years–pretty good for a plant that’s considered difficult to cultivate. The loss of exotic plants in the garden is an opportunity at the same time: There’s now more space to plug in some more California natives. Already in the protea’s place are a Ceanothus Ray Hartman and a bush poppy.

The dry remains of protea Pink Ice, ready for their final trip to the landfill
The dry remains of protea Pink Ice, ready for their final trip to the landfill

The rain, the rain… Almost five inches of it fell in one month, compared to a total 3.27 inches in the eleven months from January to November. Nobody’s calling the drought ended, but months like this are a great down-payment towards a season of more normal rainfall. Here’s wishing for more rain, and for a great 2015, for the garden, and all of you!

no rain, no rainbows

I looked west this morning while I was having breakfast and saw the first rainbow I’ve seen in months, maybe years. Although it was cool outside I had to go up to the deck to check it out. The rainbow was just a short piece of an arc rising from the ocean, but in this land of little rain you take what you get.

The rainbow was just about the last official act of a set of four consecutive storms that delivered over six days almost as much moisture as we received all of last year. And by “storms” I do mean real storms with rain, hail, thunder, lightning and tree-toppling winds. But for most of us in town things went as well as could be expected.

At work eucalyptus trees cracked and fell, buildings leaked, flows of water and mud threatened to invade several buildings. Walking outside entailed wading through puddles or jumping from one high spot to another.

At home power flickered on and off a few times. The back yard laked up briefly, but nothing that looked like it was going to come in the house.

Hail came down a couple times, but nothing was hurt. These pellets were about the size of peas.

Rain was heavy. These little buckets to catch roof runoff were full within the first 24 hours.

A potted Kalanchoe prolifera on the roof deck–seen here on the right–blew over. While the base must weigh 75 pounds when soaking wet, the plant is tall and proved no match for the blasts of wind that came through. This photo was shot after the plant was righted, so you can see it wasn’t bothered by spending some time sideways.

A survey this morning showed the trays of bog plants full of water, flooding the pots. These swamp dwellers are adapted to a little flooding, and in some areas people overwinter the rhizomes underwater so they don’t rot.

In fact, the parrot pitcher plant from the Florida-Georgia area, Sarracenia psittacina, can be found completely submerged over the winter. Its traps are unique in that they’re adapted to catching swimming as well as crawling creatures, so it’ll find something to eat, whether underwater or above.

The culvert in city easement behind the house filled with water. It makes me want to establish a little vernal pool in the muck at the bottom. I wonder if it would work in this location. Some of the most endangered plants in my area can be found around vernal pools and nowhere else.

The cooling weather and moister weather greens up the plants that have been dormant through the dry season. In the back Coreopsis gigantea leaves begin to sprout on what had been little brown trunks. But in the foreground you see all the weeds that accompany the season. These are mostly seedlings of a few mizuna plants, a Japanese mustard green, that I let go to seed a decade ago.

…and when life gives you young, weedy, tender mizuna sprouts, why not pick mizuna greens? These will be in tonight’s salad.

So you can see we came through pretty well. The main casualty was Scooter, the cat, who’s used to occasional times outside to sun herself. I think the “Can I go outside, please?” expression is pretty clear on her face here.

She did get to go out this morning, at last, and so did I. While I appreciate the rain, a little respite between storms doesn’t hurt, both for cats and humans alike. It also gives the waterlogged ground to dry out a bit or to let the water seep down farther.

If the weather forecasts are right, we’ll be getting another storm on Tuesday, but it won’t be anything like the almost continuous rain we just had. After 3 years of bad drought, we’ll take whatever rain falls, even if we don’t get any more rainbows with it.

how the neighbors are coping

Water restrictions went into effect here in San Diego on June 1. So far there’s a short list of thou-shalt-nots, and the water district has primarily targeted landscape irrigation, the low-hanging fruit, with directives like: no watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., watering only on specified days based on your address, sprinkler-watering limited to no more than 10 minutes, three times a week.

Walking around my neighborhood I can see a lot of people who’ve responded to the call. Some are just beginning to make changes, while others made changes years ago.


I was down a couple streets from my house when I saw this front yard makeover. Simple. Just a few big plants chosen for their countours. This is a house where the modern lines of the house echo the style of the plantings. The sago palm requires some water, but the other plants would do well going dry.

Walking around I saw a number of houses where more drought-tolerant plantings were making their way into the landscape. Each house seemed to have their own take on what a drought-tolerant front yard could look like.


Some relied on hardscape to replace a lawn…


…some went in for lots of mulch instead of a lawn, but not many plants…


…some for mulch with some plants, drought-tolerant or not…


…many of the yards that were reimagined as dry landscapes many years ago seemed to rely on gravel and some plants…


…several used gravel with just a few plants to image a desert theme…


…this one mixed gravel, junipers, and edible landscaping–a fig–right out front…


…many used what I’d consider a contemporary look, employing widely-spaced drought tolerant combining natives or exotics set in mulch or DG…


…here’s another of the style where a few plants are set in the middle of space they’ll never grow into. It’s definitely a look, as well as landscaping that embraces the fact that things don’t need to be densely planted to look good…


…many yards feature some more water-intensive plants mixed in with ones that require a lot of water, a kind of planting that a drip irrigation system can make possible. These people used some roses along with plants that’ll look good with less water.


Looking around you sense that this is a neighborhood in transition. Some people are just letting their lawns go brown. Some may be planning on redoing their plantings. Others are probably just waiting out the water restrictions to go back to their old ways.


Some houses are still attached to their old ways that feature conspicuous water consumption. Maybe at some point its was a status thing, showing everyone that you could spend resources on something that can’t be used. But these days it’s hard not to feel a little hot under the collar when these are resources that are being taken from the rest of us.

Still, before I get overly tough on the neighbors, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt for a while. These are tough economic times. Redoing your landscaping can be an expensive proposition. And there are people for whom dealing with a sprinkler timer would be like asking them to pilot the Space Shuttle. (My father could never figure out his timer.) And there’s a chance that people haven’t heard about the new restrictions.


But there’s one water-user that I’ll call out on the carpet. This is our local shopping center, which presumably is maintained by people who know what they’re doing. But watering the sidewalk and the asphalt…


…and then letting all the water run off into the storm drains, well, that does get my goat. But it’s not like I’m only grousing on a blog they’ll probably never read. They’ve heard from me already, and I hope they’ll get in step with the neighborhood they serve.

But overall I’m pleased. People are getting the message and they’re doing something about it. I think they get a sense that we’re all in this together, and we’ll find ways to deal with this water crisis. Not living in a neighborhood ruled by a homeowner’s association, you can see that we’re all finding different solutions.

Some choices will be better than others from the standpoint of water use, habitat, urban runoff or reducing the heat island effect. Still, it’s encouraging to see people people waking up from this fantasy of a lush, green, subtropical California of endless water resources.

wishing for water

Remember wishing wells? In the early 1970s, when I first started paying close attention to gardens, every few yards would have a wishing well as an accent of the landscaping: Big lawns, lots of flowers, the wishing well, maybe even a lawn jockey. You don’t see wishing wells (or lawn jockeys) around these parts very often anymore.


The other day I was up on the roof deck, enjoying the breeze. Looking in a direction I don’t usually pay much attention to, I noticed this feature in the back yard of one of my neighbors. It’s a little hard to make out, so I’ve enhanced it a little. Hmmm. Looks like a wishing well, maybe 1970s vintage…

Jump ahead 30 years, to the more drought-conscious 21st century. Many Californians are reducing or replacing their turf. One of the ways that’s used to give some focus or structure to these de-lawned yards is to construct a dry stream bed.

(I thought it was interesting that both these yard accents are all about water. The wishing well celebrates the stuff, almost as if it’s available in a magical, never-ending supply. The stream bed is more of our time, and acknowledges that water is a resource that isn’t always plentiful and can’t be taken for granted.)


Down the street, another of my neighbors has done their own take on a dry stream bed. It has lawn along some of its length, but succulents and drought-tolerant plants the rest of the way. And in the middle of the stream…seashells. And these little yellow rubber duckies…

how dry am i?

This post may be mainly for the math nerds among you, but I think it could be interesting to any gardeners living in drought-prone parts of the world.

In my last post I mentioned that I’d used instructions in Olivier Filippi’s The Dry Gardening Handbook to figure out the drought stress index, or hydric deficit, for where I live in San Diego.

USDA zones are useful for dealing with minimum temperatures. For gardeners in the western U.S., Sunset zones provide more finesse, combining temperature with other climate conditions. The the drought stress numbers, however, are useful if you want to concentrate on understanding how many months a plant might be subjected to severe drying conditions due to lack of rainfall.

Filippi writes in his book that “everyone’s drought is different,” so be sure to consider factors other than this single number, things like total rainfall, humidity, the sun exposure a plant might get or the amount of wind your site experiences. The technique presented in The Dry Gardening Handbook derives from work of plant geographer Henri Gaussen.

Figuring out hydric deficit is pretty straightforward but will take a few minutes of your time. Either use a spreadsheet program like Excel or a sheet of paper. First, go to a site like World Climate where you can find your area’s monthly total rainfall and monthly average temperatures. On the spreadsheet or paper set up a column with the months of the year, January to December. Next fill in a column with the monthly average rainfall in millimeters, and another column with the average monthly temperature in degrees Celsius.

Now you have two options: Follow the instructions in the book, which isn’t that hard but requires making a graph with three different axes. Or use my simplified technique, which requires some calculations but no graphing. I’ll send you to the book for the somewhat more precise method, but here’s my easier method: In a fourth column, divide the rainfall number by the temperature and multiply by 2. That’s where the math comes in to play.

Here’s my result for San Diego:

Month Rainfall (mm) Temperature (Celsius) 2 x (Rainfall/Temperature)
Jan 55.6 14.1 7.890
Feb 41.3 14.7 5.62
Mar 49.9 15.3 6.52
Apr 19.8 16.6 2.39
May 4.8 17.8 0.54
Jun 1.9 19.3 0.2
Jul 0.5 21.6 0.05
Aug 2.1 22.5 0.19
Sep 4.7 21.8 0.43
Oct 8.6 19.8 0.87
Nov 29.5 16.6 3.56
Dec 35.4 14.1 3.62

Count up the numbers in the fourth column that are less than 1, and that’s your approximate hydric deficit number. The higher the hydric deficit number, the more severe your drying conditions. For the San Diego Airport, the number is 6. (If you have a month where the average temperature is below freezing, for my oversimplified method just throw out that month and consider that there’s minimal hydric deficit.)

Now what do you with the number? For one thing, you can use it to compare you growing conditions with the drought resistance code for a plant in Filippi’s book. For example, the matilija (“tree”) poppy (Romneya coulteri) has a drought tolerance rating of 6–perfect for an unwatered garden in San Diego. By contrast, Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ has a code of 4, and Hidcote Blue lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’) has a code of 3. These other plants would probably survive without supplemental water, but to look their best the ceanothus might benefit from a couple months of occasional supplemental watering, and the lander maybe three. You can also use the number to compare the drying forces where you live other regions around you, or apply the number to better understand your climate in relation to that of a plant’s origin.

For fun, I added four other sites in San Diego County. You can see how the county offers a huge number of growing conditions, from dry coastal conditions, mountain meadows, backcountry chaparral, and full-on desert.

City Hydric deficit
San Diego Airport 6
La Mesa 5-6
Cuyamaca 1

Campo 3
Borrego Springs 7

And then a few other cities in California. You can see a general moistening the farther north you go, and a general drying as you head east towards the deserts.

City Hydric deficit
Los Angeles 6
San Bernardino 4-5
Victorville 6
Santa Barbara 5
Monterrey 4
San Jose 4-5
Santa Cruz 3
San Francisco 4

Richmond 4

Sacramento 4-5
Fresno 5
Yosemite National Park 2
Eureka 1 2
Redding 2

I’d never played with mapping in Google Maps, but thought this might be a fun first little project. I took the numbers above and applied them to a map. The results are pretty impressive for something that’s not hard to do. So far the blips are in California only, but I might work on the map some more to include other locations. Take a look…

View Hydric Deficit Map in a larger map

“drought emergency”

Our Governor has declared a drought emergency for California. The state rainfall and snowpack has been lower than average for most of the recent years, and reservoir reserves are dwindling. My county has been slightly over average in its rainfall this season but most of our water comes from the Sierra snows and the Colorado River. So this crisis is very real for us down here as well.

hang-tag_1At this point we’re on call for a voluntary water reduction, but if the rains fail us people will be required to reduce their water use 20%, and then–if things get worse–by 40% or more. Since landscapes consumes the majority of the water, our county water authority has started an advertising campaign to deliver these water-overuse doorknob hangers with the Sunday paper. It’s also available online: here.

There are checkboxes for “Your sprinklers are watering the pavement,” “Your sprinklers were on during the rain,” “You have a broken sprinkler, and/or your irrigation system is leaking,” “Your sprinklers are on every day” and “Your sprinklers are on during the day.” My local shopping center is a huge offender in the first category and will be getting a hang tag from me.

But this program is mostly about sprinklers and watering habits and doesn’t really address the underlying causes. There really need to be big boxes saying, “Your huge expanse of grass and water-thirsty plants are attractive, but I’d like to show you how you can have a terrific-looking yard that requires almost no additional water,” or “This extremely well-watered golf course has no place in the desert that is San Diego County.”

The very green golf course in the local canyon bottom would get a violation tag if that were the case. At least, to their credit, they let the driving range go brown with the end of the rains. Maybe in California golf could morph into a seasonal winter sport, like skiing? Maybe I’m delusional?