Tag Archives: water use

talk about it

Some people think that conversation has run dry when you start talking about the weather. They’re obviously not gardeners–or even golfers or joggers or construction workers. Weather matters. And I can’t think of many things nearly as fascinating.

Here in the far southwestern corner of the country it’s been dry. Scary dry, almost. I have buckets below the eaves to catch and save runoff from the roof, and even last week’s “big rain” day didn’t fill them more than half way. At least the storm had the decency to drop some rain by the time I was leaving work so that I didn’t feel like a fool for bringing an umbrella and taking the car instead of riding my scooter.

Today we’re in Day Two of a several days of predicted light rain. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sunny days. Last month we picked a bright weekend–we had many choices–to head east, into the desert. Destination: Salvation Mountain.

I’m about as religious as Howard Stern is subtle, but you couldn’t not to feel the earnestness of this big pile of folk art.

The whole installation is built into a hillside, using not much more than haybales, mud and paint. As we walked over it you could hear things crunching underfoot. Without constant maintenance the whole thing would start to degrade into the desert around it.

This is a polaroid that someone had left showing Leonard Knight, the man who built this. He gave me a detailed personal tour the last time I visited, maybe five years ago. But the news reports last fall mentioned that Mr. Knight’s dementia was taking over, and he had been institutionalized in a facility in El Centro. For an artwork as fragile as this is, it seemed like this winter might be the last time to see the place in the state that he left it, before the desert claimed it.

The side of the Mountain that faces west is crossed by a painted yellow path up the mountain that you can see in this image, the Yellowbrick Road.

I’m not sure what the main highway from the Wizard of Oz has to do with the Christian messages being communicated, but there it is. Please stay on it.

People bring stuff here. This bible, blowing in the wind, fits right in.

Something else people bring here is paint, thousands of gallons of it. Used to be, you came to Salvation Mountain, you’d bring a bucket of paint. It was a great way to share paint leftover from projects. The word now, though, is that people should leave their paint at home, now that Mr. Knight isn’t able to do anything with it.

Built into one size are a series of grottoes that appear to have been built as little shrines. On a scorching midsummer day these spaces are a cool escape. People have brought contributions here too, but I’m not sure if the angel and bowling trophies were original to Leonard Knight’s original vision.

Parked in front are several art cars that have been customized by Mr. Knight. At this point I’m sure they’re fixed sculptures and no longer mobile.

[ Details of the art cars… ]

Another feature of the Mountain is the side maze-feature, made of telephone poles, salvaged trees and more haybales, mud and paint. It’s hard to photograph but would work great as a video shown from inside as you walk through it.

Here’s a view from inside the maze, looking up.

As long as we were way out in the desert, we stopped by the shores of the Salton Sea, just a couple miles away.

Part of the south shore is set aside as the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. (Yes, that Sonny Bono, Cher’s late ex.) You don’t see any in this picture, but birds were everywhere. You hear about the Pacific Flyway but it’s always a stunning experience to visit one of the main avian truckstops along the route.

And with this image we return to the theme of rain and water. This viewpoint is a fairly famous one. I’ve seen a few photos shot from here, with trees covered in birds and still water below, reflect birds and trees. (I have a few old shots myself.) But that was probably ten years ago.

Southern California has been drawing increasing amounts of water that was formerly used by farmers around the Sea. With less agricultural runoff to feed it, the water level has been dropping, so that the Sea itself is now a quarter mile away.

My little buckets of water, plaintively waiting for the rain, probably will do next to nothing to restore the Salton Sea. But a drop in the bucket is more than nothing at all.

from the desert to the coast

Sunday I went for a little plant walk out to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s been a good year for desert flowers, but it’s not one of those spectacular seasons when the ground pulsates purple with sand verbena or gold with brittlebush. Some of the ocotillo were in bloom, and the desert agaves like this one (Agave deserti) were sending up their pink and green stalks.

Lots else was in bloom. But as I review the photos from the trips I’m finding that I’m staring at a pile of images of plants I don’t know the names of. I’ll share more of the pictures than this first one once I get them a little better organized and the plants matched up with my list of names.

Since it’s Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day I’ll share with you some plants from my garden that I do know the names of. Some of these are old friends that have been blooming for a while, and I’ve been sharing over past Bloom Days. But a lot of these are just coming into bloom for the first time this year.

I thought the blooms on this carpenteria were finished a month ago, but the plant has surprised me with a robust bloom spurt, bigger than the first one.

Unlike the carpenteria, this old friend, the tree coreopsis, won't be blooming again for another nine or ten months.

Many of these plants survive in the garden with minimal added water. The climate in this area is dry in a coastal-influenced sort of way. I might water once or twice a month in the summer, but the frequent morning overcast and occasional fog helps keep the plants hydrated. Additionally the plants in the garden have enjoyed a slighter higher than average rainfall so thoughts of the dry summer ahead aren’t in the minds of these plants. Spring is here.

This Salvia Bee's Bliss has been in the ground for over two years, but only now is it starting to take off.

Black sage, Salvia mellifera.

The local annual chia, Salvia carduaceae, with the exotic Phlomis monocephala in the background. The chia is one of the coastal plants that also can get to be pretty common in parts of the desert.

Here's another combination of plants, the lavender pink of the stinging lupine with the strident gold of the crassula relative behind it. The contrast is pretty strident to my taste, but hey, spring isn't all about subtle plays of one color against another...

Last month I showed this orange mimulus seedling. That time I got it in focus.
From the same parents that lived in this bed comes this other monkeyflower, this one velvety red with almost black detailing.

And here's another velvety red mimulus seedling. You might confuse it for the previous one, but the flowers are subtly different.

Nuttall's milkvetch, looking full and flowery, close to its seasonal peak.

Verbena lilacina looks better for me with a little more added water than some of the plants around it. But it survives even when I forget.

The pale Verbena lilacina 'Paseo Rancho' was just starting to bloom last month. It's starting to wake up for the spring.

Some parts of the garden get treated to more frequent watering.

This California buttercup, Ranunculus california, comes up reliably every year in an area of the garden where lawn meets unwatered gravel.

Blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum, appreciates a moister spot as well.

Geum Red Wings, a pretty, informal plant.
Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathacea, is a California plant from moister places than my garden. Even in semi-shade it looks best with water two or three times a month.

And these last two of these go about as far from desert plants as you can get without getting aquatic plants. Both of these grow in my bog gardens, with their feet in standing water most of the year.

Sarracenia flava var. maxima is one one of the first plants in the bog to put out flowers. The common description of the scent is 'cat piss,' but I think that's a little too harsh a description. The flowers are nice, but most people grow these for the pitcher-shaped leaves.

A couple more sarracenias, a different S. flava in the back, and a hybrid of S. flava and S. alata up front.

Head over to Carol’s blog, May Dreams Gardens, to check out all the other bloggers celebrating Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day!

but they said to cut down on watering…

I read this in the weekend paper and had to share: It looks like the population of San Diego County is doing so well in cutting down our water use that the water districts that supply us are suddenly feeling the financial pinch. Here’s a snippet from the San Diego Union-Tribune article:

“We don’t need to keep telling (customers) to do a better job,” said Bill Rucker, general manager for the Vallecitos Water District in San Marcos.

His agency’s sales fell 20 percent in the April-to-July period compared with the same period in 2008. To make up for the downturn, the district will leave some positions vacant and roll back conservation education.

During a meeting of the region’s top water managers in late August, “everyone was concerned about the lost revenues,” said Dennis Lamb of the Vallecitos district.

He said the decision-makers expressed support for allowing residents to continue watering their lawns and other landscaping a maximum of three days a week during the winter and spring, even though current regulations call for irrigation only once a week from November through May.

After reading reactions from the authorities I’m left wondering: Should it really be the water districts that are at the public forefront of water conservation? On one hand they’re telling us to do the right thing. But at the same time it’s in their financial interest if we don’t. Conflict of interest, anyone?

thinking about water

It’s easy to obsess about something you don’t have enough of, and water in California is one of those things.

Dustbowl on a stick

On my recent trip to Northern California it was hard not to notice the dozens of signs stuck along the side of the interstate like so many Fox News soundbites-on-a-stick. I can’t tell you all the details about our water-use wars, but it has something to do with ongoing drought, overpopulation and a mandate to return water to natural watercourses in attempt to keep some small fish from vanishing from the face of the earth forever. As cheap, plentiful water is shut off or diverted to the big cities with more political clout, it’s easy to see that some farmers aren’t happy.

Old water lines

New water lines

Back home, we’ve been reminded that water doesn’t just magically fall from the sky in plentiful amounts. The cast-iron water lines that supply the neighborhood have been failing, and the old lines are being replaced with new, bright baby-blue water mains. All summer long the street out front has been a construction pit as they installed temporary supply lines, cut through pavement to remove the old problem pipe, installed the new lines and prepared to hook up the houses to the never-ending font of the life-giving fluid. They’ve said that the street will be a no-parking zone for the next six weeks. Feels like it’s been forever already.

Of course that water supply isn’t without limits. The city has been on a mandatory water-reduction program since June, and I was happy to see that city water use dropped 20% that month. But as the novelty of saving water wore off, July’s numbers fell to 12%.

Reverse osmosis unit

I’ve been trying to do my part. Overall I feel pretty good about it, but I’ve found myself falling off the wagon a bit myself. My new offense is this little number, a reverse-osmosis purification system to improve the water quality I can offer a new little collection of carnivorous plants (more on that in a future post). A reality with almost all R/O systems is that producing one gallon of good water generates several gallons of waste. I knew that going into it, but the reality of it is pretty stunning.

Reverse osmosis drain modification

But instead of following the installation instructions, which outline in detail how you send all the wastewater down the drain through the special pipe fittings the manufacturer thoughtfully supplies with the unit, I modified the installation to aim the waste stream into a water bottle. The rejected water ends up being a little saltier and grosser that what comes from the tap, but it’s still cleaner than the graywater we’re recycling from our showers and is perfectly good for watering the plants that aren’t among the chosen few.

Now that I’ve lived with this setup for a couple of weeks I’m finding that lugging around five gallon water bottles can be a bit of a chore. Maybe I’ll rig a way to divert the waste directly to the garden. But that’s a project that will have to wait. Fall planting season is coming up, as well as a pile of house projects. And then there’s that new collection of plants to play with…

the most recent water bill

We’ve taken a lot of measures to try to conserve water. Each water bill we receive gives us a chance to look at how well we’re doing. Compared to last year, this last bill showed a 40.1% drop for the two-month period of mid-May to mid-July.

40 percent decrease

To get to this point we’ve installed drip irrigation for most of the remaining thirsty plants, reduced the number of times a week the outdoor sprinkler runs, recycled water from the shower, mulched many garden spaces, and replaced some water-intensive plants with low-water or no-water selections. It’s helped that this has been a fairly cool spring and early summer.

Still, 112 gallons a day average total for a household of two people–one of us working 40 hours a week, the other mainly working out of the house–still seems a little on the high side. That’s enough water to flush a 1.6 gallon low-flow toilet 70 times per day. But compared to an American per capita average of something around 60-70 gallons for just indoor usage, I guess that’s not too awful for both indoor and outdoor use.

Hmmm, I wonder if we can get the usage down to less than 100 total gallons a day for the two of us. It might be a little tricky over the summer. But it should be totally doable once the weather cools.

gardens from lands with little water

My thanks to James Golden of View from Federal Twist for bringing to my attention a book that he thought would speak to this Californian’s attempts to garden in a land with little water. Penelope Hobhouse’s The Gardens of Persia traces the development of gardens in the rainfall-challenged area, beginning with the the earliest known garden for which we have an archaeological record, Cyrus the Great’s gardens at Pasargadae, which date to the 6th century, BCE.

That earliest garden featured a rectangular space divided symmetrically into smaller rectangles by two water courses that intersected at a 90 degree angle. It’s a basic formula that would develop through the centuries into the Islamic, Mughal and Moorish gardens which, in turn, went on to influence garden-making in Europe and beyond.

Cyrus’s garden used water in a way that treated it as a precious resource in a desert land but also showed off the fact that water was available to the owner of the garden, reinforcing the prestige and power of the ruler. Subsequent gardens in Persia continued to strike this balance. They used water in careful, strategic ways, treating it as the rare resource it was, often in narrow channels where evaporation would have been minized under the desert sun. At the same time they highlighted the power of the owner of the garden, and perhaps helped to conflate water’s life-giving powers with legitimacy of the ruler.


Here in San Diego, you can see an interpretation of a Persian-influenced Moorish garden in Balboa Park’s Alcazar Garden. Purportedly “patterned after the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain,” the garden is a 1935 design by local architect Richard Requa, built for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

View Larger Map

Although I’ve never been to the Alcázar in Seville, a quick trip to the satellite overview of the original Alcázar gardens on Google Maps reveals the California garden to be a fairly loose interpretation of what you’ll find in Spain. But it retains strong overtones of traditional Persian gardens in its strong symmetry and thrifty use of water. (Garden sightseeing via Google Maps works really well for overviews of large gardens with strong structure. Take a look at Versailles or Isola Bella.)



In the Balboa Park garden each of the intersections of the main central axis and two perpendicular axes is celebrated by a small tiled fountain, six to eight feet across. Neither fountain throws water more than a few inches away from the fountainhead.

With San Diego’s current water restrictions, homeowners can’t have any sort of fountain that shoots water into the air. So even fountains that are as measured in their use of water as these are wouldn’t be permitted. But evaporation and water waste on this style of fountain is so different from what you’d have with civic fountains that are more like unplugged fire hydrants. (Think of the fountains in Las Vegas at Bellagio.) These little Moorish fountains celebrate water, they don’t waste it.



The garden features borders of clipped boxwood that outline the rectangles of the garden beds. Seasonal plantings rotate in an out of these bordered areas. Lavender, cosmos, and Shasta daisies were filling in the central rectangles on this July afternoon, with rudbeckia, penstemon, iresene, cannas, sunflowers and other warm-weather plants on the margins.

Are these plantings historically accurate? With the exception of the lavender, not at all. But chances are that if the Persian rulers were around today, they would used whatever materials were available to them, especially if they were plants that spoke to power and conquest over distant lands. Plants from all over the globe and modern hybrids would only serve to reinforce the viewer’s sense of the ruler’s power.

Penelope Hobhouse makes a similar observation about choice of plant materials in the Persian-influenced gardens at the Generalife in Grenada: “Archaeologists discovered that the garden must originally have been planted with low-growing flowers requiring little soil, although there were some deeper pits obviously made for shrubs, such as myrtle, and orange trees which had been described as growing there in the 16th century. After the excavations the soil was returned to the Acequia Court, and today modern annuals with no historical authenticity give a colorful display.”

If you were wanting to make a historically-correct Persian garden Hobhouse’s text list many other options throughout, including various roses, tulips, and several trees including white poplar, plane trees, plums, apricots, and apples.

Another resource for historical plants would be Ali Akbar Husain’s Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Deccani Urdu Literary Sources, a study that I knew nothing about until I happened to see it sitting on the shelf next to the Hobhouse book in the library. This fairly academic but quite readable book concentrates on Mhugal gardens and provides a long appendix of specifically fragrant plants mentioned in garden texts. Although the focus is on texts from India, plants of of European origin make up a big part of the list.

Many of the selections don’t come as any surprise: several rose species, narcissus, violets, lavender, jasmine, mint, crinum, crocus, lilies, iris. But a couple would be surprising selections for gardens today: one of the stinking corpse flower species (Amorphophallus camanulatus) and cannabis (yes, that cannabis).

my swamp creatures



Here are some of the pitcher plants growing in my guilty pleasure bog garden, a small concrete container in which I have more than a half dozen of these sarracenias and as many sundews. The guilty pleasure part of this comes in when you consider that most of California is now in its third year of drought, and when you realize that none of the plants in the bog garden likes to dry out. And preferably they’d like to have their toes, though not all their roots, in standing water.




The genus Sarracenia is native mostly to wet zones in the Eastern and Southern United States (with one species into Canada). The ones I’ve tried are proving to be pretty easy to grow as long as they get sunlight and good-quality water. (I’ve probably mentioned before how mine get reverse osmosis water from the local water cafe instead of the hyperchlorinated bong water that comes out of most Southern California spigots. So far, providing good water has been the most difficult part of growing these plants.)

These plants, left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Sarracenia rubra
  2. S. leucophylla ‘Tarnok’
  3. S. x Dixie Lace
  4. S. alata
  5. S. minor

There’s also a closely related swamp thing that’s native to Northern California and Oregon. That plant, Darlingtonia californica, however, is as difficult to grow in most locations as it is stunning. If your can’t provide summer night temperatures below 55 degrees, don’t bother with it. You’ll kill it. I killed mine. Not all native plants makes sense to grow if they’re not native to your environment! (If you really must do what I did and not as I say, you could try constructing a special darlingtonia box like they do in Japan to lower temperatures around the plant.)


So what’s the water use? During the hottest months the little bog survives on three to four 5-gallon servings a month of water. That totals around 15-20 gallons for a space that’s about six or seven square feet, or about 2.1 to 3.3 gallons per square foot. I was a little shocked when I compared this number to what one source says it takes to maintain a typical lawn over the summer here in the coastal zone: 2.6-3.6 gallons per square foot.

Like, I can have a tiny little swamp garden for about the same amount of water it takes to support an equivalent spot of average lawn? And when you consider that most lawns are larger than six or seven square feet, I suddenly feel a little less guilty about my little guilty pleasure. And it made me look at lawns differently, that they’re just green swamps full of grass. I think I’d rather have my little bog garden.

(Full disclosure: We still do have a small patch of grass in the backyard which gets greened up for the big Fourth-of-July party and then neglected most of the rest of the year. It helps to have heavy afternoon shade like we do to minimize how much water a lawn requires. But when the guy who keeps it mowed and edged won’t do it any more (you know who you are), the lawn is history…)

botanical side trip

While I was visiting San Diego’s Earth Day celebrations on Sunday, I took a quick detour into Balboa Park’s Botanical Building. It dates back to the 1914-15 Panama Pacific Exposition, and lays claim to being one of the largest lath structures in the world.



It was an odd feeling to leave the sun-drenched celebration of sustainable living outside and shift gears into the shaded, misted, and heavily watered Botanical Building. Humid and tropical, the interior reminded me of the over-watered vision of paradise that many people still think of when they think of California. Palms, cycads, begonias, orchids and other tropicals and subtropicals lazed in the shade or reached for the light dozens of feet overhead.

I usually go to public gardens and keep an eye out for things I’d like to have in my own garden. Gardens are amazingly democratic that way. If you look hard enough, you can often find some of the rarest plants, especially now with the web available to help source them.

In these days of looming water rationing, however, I felt a little queasy that the Botanical Building was showcasing all sorts of water-intensive plants San Diegans are trying not to fixate on so much these days. Our average temperatures enable the growth of these plants, our regular rainfall does not.

As I was thinking about that queasiness, I realized that many of the Balboa Park buildings nearby are museums that are full of unique objects or things that would be so far beyond my means to buy. The resources of these museums are focused on giving the public access to things and ideas they might not ordinarily encounter. I decided to try to think of the Botanical Building that way, as a sort of botanical museum. Although I could probably find many of its plants if I searched hard enough–and a few of them are actually totally common–I decided to try to look at and appreciate the plants as if they were museum objects I didn’t need to own.

And as my indignation started to lift, I started to be appreciative. Wasn’t it great that people in the city have a place where they can go visit some interesting plants but not have to worry about watering and caring for them? And the Botanical Building is free! If people decide to create little pockets of paradise at home, they don’t need to do their whole gardens this way. A little shaded corner could give you a lot of the same sense of coolness and shelter that the Botanical Building does.

In addition to the big lath house, Balboa Park offers a number of other plantings, including two succulent gardens. So it’s not like the park spends all its resources pimping an outdated vision of Southern California. And there’s value in seeing an old-school planting of this sort to help appreciate how local ideas about gardening have shifted.

So…back to my visit. Lots of things were in flower, but I ended up focusing on plants with variegated leaves that were used throughout the building. No forest would have so many variegated plants in so small a space, but this “garden museum” did a nice job in showcasing some of the botanical world’s interesting foliage patterns. Take a look…

(As usual you click on the images to enlarge them, especially if the signs in the thumbnails are too small to read…)
















Iresine herbstii





“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?