From the Ground Up

Gardening, books, and other interests

The Lawn Goodbye

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I want to tell you about a great little 5-minute video from KCET, the local SoCal public television station. It’s fun and well worth five minutes of your time. It features homeowners (several of them are friends of mine!) who have taken the step of replacing their thirsty, water-guzzling lawns with a variety of natives, succulents, edible gardens, or drought-resistant native turf grass. These are some great examples of forward-thinking people who are taking the initiative to install more efficient irrigation systems and convert their lawns to more sustainable alternatives. In one case that you’ll see here, someone filled in their swimming pool and replaced it with a gorgeous succulent garden. Not one of these people regrets the decision to give up their big expanse of lawn.

Take a look!


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Harvesting rainwater

It was lovely to hear the sound of rain on the roof last night. Already the air feels cleaner. Now I’m hoping for a lot more–no flooding or landslides, please– just gentle, steady rain.

Harvesting rainwater is an easy thing to do, and you can use the rain you collect to water your houseplants. I find that my peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) get brown on the edges of their leaves if I water them from the tap.  One solution for this is to use distilled water–an expensive fix, even if I grab it on sale at 50 cents a bottle. Another option is to use tap water that has been allowed to sit out overnight, allowing the chemicals and salts to sink to the bottom of the container. The very best solution is collecting rainwater in a bucket, a plastic barrel, or whatever you have. Using a rain chain that directs rain from the gutter into a beautiful urn like this one is the most elegant option of all, I think. All your container plants and houseplants will thank you for it.


(Thanks to for the photo.)

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Not a pretty picture

The fact that we’re experiencing a record-breaking drought throughout California and the southwest may not be on everyone’s radar yet.  But now we can see the evidence from space. Images taken by NASA’s  space satellite on Feb. 16  show the effects of extended drought in the form of brown patches along the coast and throughout most of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In a normal rainfall year these brown areas would show up as white, since they would be covered with snow. In the photos below, if you look at the lefthand image, taken a year ago in January 2013, it shows the snow pack in the Sierras. In the image on the right, taken one month ago, there’s virtually no snow pack.

CA drought via NASA-NOAA

NASA pictures of California drought

That prominent strip of green along the western edge of the Sierras is also not a good sign.  In a normal year all that green would be white with snow cover; the green is an anomaly. The satellite also picks up scattered green patches in the central agricultural regions–the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Those are farms where they’re still irrigating the crops. Not that the farmers themselves don’t have plenty to worry about, as they plan to drastically scale back the planting of row crops this year.

A 3-year long pattern of subnormal precipitation has left us with a water deficit– meaning the lakes, rivers, reservoirs and snowpacks are all below normal levels. It would take greater-than-average rainfall to make up what we’ve lost. Last week the storm system amusingly named “Pineapple Express” brought us our first significant rainfall of the wet season, with 6-12 inches of rain recorded in the northern Sierras. There were even some flood warnings in the San Francisco/Bay area. But it wasn’t enough. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, we would need 3-4 more “copious” storms in the central Sierras in order to get us even close to average, and the likelihood of that is nil. And by the way, there was no rainfall recorded in Southern CA and the southwest.

At least both state and federal government are starting to take the situation seriously. Speaking at a rural water facility in Fresno County on Feb. 14, President Obama drew a clear connection between climate change and the water shortage. He urged Congress to pass legislation that would allocate $300 million to “emergency aid and drought-relief projects, upgrade city water systems and water conservation, and speed up environmental reviews of water projects”. And the White House also announced $100 million in aid to ranchers facing livestock losses and $60 million to help food banks.

But water in the state of California has always been mired in politics, and that is still the case. It all boils down to an argument over who gets the biggest share of the water pie–agriculture, the major cities, or environmentalists who want to restore the salmon runs. But arguing over what remains of the water reserves won’t help, and neither will praying for rain. What we need to do is bend our intelligence towards finding long range solutions to the problem.

I’m having my morning cup of tea, and reading the news about the freakish weather they’re having in the U.K. right now. Not only storms and flooding, but bog fires, too! Friends who live in Washington and New York are digging out yet again from another winter storm, and everyone is getting pretty tired of it. Record-breaking heat in Australia last month disrupted the Australian Open, causing athletes to faint on the tennis courts and some games to be suspended. We’ve got the polar vortex dumping snow on the Carolinas, while a high pressure system is responsible for intensifying the drought in California and causing unseasonably warm temperatures in Alaska for the third year in a row.  Sure, the weather is weird but it’s not any weirder than the winter of 2013 or 2012. Remember Hurricane Sandy? Rather it continues a pattern of unprecedented extreme weather that we’ve been experiencing across the globe as noted by the WMO-World Meteorological Association.

It’s amusing to watch the global warming skeptics make hay out of this, partly by making a simplistic and wrong assumption that “global warming” means an increase in hotter temperatures everywhere at once. By this logic, all the snow and ice makes the notion of overall climate change just plain silly. Witness Donald Trump railing against “global warming hoaxters”on Fox news. (I know the link to the Colbert Report isn’t officially “news” either, but it was too funny to pass up.)

In fact, it’s the extreme fluctuations that are indicative of climate change, as 97% of climate scientists agree. If you’re interested you can read more about the connection between the polar vortex and global warming. There are scholarly journals devoted to the topic, but I’m happy to have Time magazine break it all down for me in simpler terms.

Whatever your politics, there’s an economic cost to our failure to prepare for what has been and what’s yet to come. We need to set a higher priority on preparedness on the national level. This would include retrofitting of buildings, wetland restoration, and improvements in storm water infrastructure. It will cost some money, but so does doing nothing.

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The 100-Year Drought


I’ve been thinking a lot about the water shortage since the Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last week. It’s pretty clear that the situation is getting dire, with evidence everywhere you look: reservoirs are running at below half of normal; the snowpack is at 20% to 15% of normal; January temperatures have been abnormally high; and red flag fire conditions have been declared in many communities that haven’t seen any rain at all during what are supposed to be the wettest months of the year. This is serious and it affects the economy in general. The impact will be felt by farmers, ranchers, and consumers not just throughout the state but throughout the country.

And locally? So far the Governor has asked residents to voluntarily cut back water usage by 20%, but soon we’re definitely going to reach the point of mandatory rationing– it’s just a matter of when and how soon. During all of  2013, Los Angeles only got 3.4 inches of rain– that’s less than 1/5 of what is considered “average” rainfall.

I’m grateful that several of my recent clients have ripped out their lawns and requested that they be replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping and drip irrigation. Thank goodness people are getting the picture.