Most California landscapes (front and back yards) have been graded to be as flat as possible and to direct rainwater from the hard surfaces to the street as quickly as possible. This sort of grading makes it very difficult to build a successful drought tolerant garden! The drought tolerant garden relies on rainwater as a precious resource, so we want to slow, spread and sink as much rainwater as possible. Natural ecosystems are rarely completely flat. In nature, water and wind erode areas into hills or berms and gullies or swales. Over time plants more adapted to dry spots find themselves thriving on the tops and slopes of the hills, and the plants that don’t mind wet feet in winter find themselves nearer the bottom of the valley where it is wetter. If you are considering changing a big area of your garden, you can re-grade the landscape into a more natural form with some high and low spots. In some cases, where renovation of a large area is out of the question, you can still figure out ways to direct water from hard surfaces, move it around, and allow it to enjoy its stay in your garden. Your new drought tolerant plants will be very happy to drink up the rain! Look at your site plan and start thinking about slowing, spreading, and sinking rainwater in your garden. Have you noted the areas of erosion, low points and high points in the landscape, and places where water is flowing from hard surfaces (like patios, pathways, and the roof) into the garden? If so, you are ready to move on to making decisions about where to dig down and where to berm up. Look for naturally low areas to direct water into and allow it to soak into the soil before any excess overflows into the street. The size and shape of your graded areas can vary greatly. Your whole yard can be graded into a bowl! Start with the rain garden out front, if it works for your yard. As you make decisions about the rest of your garden, make sure that you aren’t directing water towards your house, garage, or your neighbors’ yards. If you live on a slope or in an unstable soils area, seek professional help before you start moving soil around. Observe your garden during heavy rainstorms. It is very important that any water your soil and plants can’t absorb is directed towards the streets, and not into your buildings.
IRRIGATION. Many parkways are mere strips. If the area is less than 10 feet wide, you should not be using spray irrigation because it is too difficult to keep water off the street or sidewalk when they are in use. Consider hand watering or connecting your parkway to the closest drip irrigation line in the front yard. If your front yard and parkway are sharing irrigation, make sure your plants in both sections have similar water and sun needs.
Garden like a pro When professionals transform a garden, they work differently than most home gardeners. Why? They can’t afford to fail, so follow their lead for success. PLANT only in the cooler, wetter season (Fall through Spring). LA climate-adapted plants, especially the natives, are much happier if you plant them between November and March. This gets them settled and watered by the rains before the summer heat convinces them to take a summer siesta. CHANGE one section at a time, but plan to tackle it all eventually. Home gardeners often haphazardly add a plant here and there, and end up mixing together plants with different needs. Instead, pick one section (or more) of your garden that you can completely remodel. After your whole garden is converted, and growing, you can fill in a few plants here and there every Winter.