Designing with Drought Tolerance

by Mike Tripp, DynaSCAPE Account Manager

California has now gone through four years of severe drought causing water shortages and forest fires, all at a great impact to the state’s economy and businesses. To account for the difficult climate, the landscape industry has been forced to change its practices.

Many landscape contractors are turning to “drought-tolerant” plants, which require very little water in order to survive, in lieu of traditional plants. One landscape company is very familiar with this practice, Taryn Tree, of Treehouse Landscape Design. Taryn became comfortable working with drought-tolerant plants in the High Desert area of California where she worked for several years as Ambassador for the Indian Wells Water District before moving to Camarillo. With her knowledge of Xeriscaping, landscaping that uses “various methods for minimizing the need for water use”[1], Taryn is able to reduce the home’s dependency on water for plant material. Taryn says she has seen a rise in homeowners requesting contractors to rip out all turf and opting instead to go with synthetic turf, resulting in at least a 50% decrease in the amount of water needed. Taryn is happy to see that several nurseries in her area, such as Bamboo Pipeline (, are stepping up and becoming a source for drought tolerant plants and information.

Rob Henderson of Artisan Outdoor in Irvine has also witnessed the impact the drought has had on his business. In response to the crisis, new municipal regulations have been adopted making permits for things such as pools more difficult to get. He has also had to purchase new equipment to cut and install for artificial turf. As a result of the drought, Rob has seen drip irrigation, which is a “method of irrigation which very efficiently delivers water to the soil surface or the root zone; this is done by having water drip slowly from emission devices, most commonly called ‘drip emitters’ or ‘drippers’”[2], become more mainstream. Rob has seen some positive increase from the drought for his business as homeowners see companies like his who have become experts in the field of drought management as important resources.

Designer, Charlene Brum of San Martin, has also seen a big increase in customers wanting to retrofit their homes to incorporate more drought-tolerant plants and become less dependent on water. She has seen at least a 50% increase in designs and customers wanting to retrofit existing lawns and gardens to properties less dependent on water. She has been doing many more designs that incorporate boulders and dry creek beds in replace of plant material in front yards. In the back she will utilize pergolas, arbors and walkways to offer additional interest in addition to a selection of drought tolerant plants. The challenges of the drought have given Charlene opportunities to be creative in new ways with her designs, for example, replacing the natural curves of the lawn with hardscaping lines.

Homeowners in California are doing their part to conserve water.  Water use in the state has dropped 27.3%,[3] more than the mandated amount of 25% set by the governor. Rebate programs are offered through the state to encourage water conservation. Some programs, such as the turf removal program, were so successful they had to be shut down as they had insufficient funds to meet the demand.[4] Homeowners and landscape contractors alike are also starting to make decisions on what to plant based on the ever-growing chance of fire in California. There is a growing trend of ‘fire-smart’ landscaping that aims to control a fire should it break out near your home.[5] Tactics such as using wide paver walkways at least 4 feet wide to divide up garden sections, use low-lying and compact shrubs, trees and perennials so as to not completely cover a home in foliage and clean up dead branches and leaves from around the garden.

The ongoing water shortages and increasing risk of forest fires in California have brought changes and challenges to how outdoor spaces are utilized in California. The landscaping community is responding by finding creative ways to reduce water use and protect homes against fire while continuing to provide unique, relaxing outdoor spaces.  Designers and Contractors in California will no doubt be looked upon for ideas as water shortages and drought spreads to other areas outside of the state and water conservation methods continue to be sought after.



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