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.
What is a front yard, and what does it do? Many front yards in LA County are just yards. Maybe a few tired shrubs hide the foundation of the house and a big stretch of grass runs out to the sidewalk. This grass is rarely used by people, though it is often popular with passing dogs. A traditional front yard doesn’t really do anything except fill space between the house and the street and use lots of water and maintenance time and energy. A drought tolerant front yard can be so much more! It can give you shade and privacy; it can provide habitat for birds and butterflies; it can feed you and your friends (depending on the rules in your community); it can be an outdoor living room, creating a friendlier and safer neighborhood; and most of all it is your last chance to capture and filter our precious rain before it runs into the storm drain and right into creeks, rivers and the ocean! That seems like a lot of work for this small space. Our Plant Design is a model that you can modify to fit your own front yard. Don’t forget that a front yard needs a good, safe path to your front door. This Plant Design uses pieces of flagstone, but your path also can be concrete pavers, brick, or concrete. Just make sure that any path is wide enough and safe for walking (level stones, no tripping edges). A good guideline is to leave a 3’ minimum width for pathways; 5’ is good for two people walking side-by-side. Feel free to mix and match the plants on our list to fit your taste. Don’t care for fluffy grasses? Switch them out with small, native evergreen shrubs. Or keep it super simple and just use groundcovers everywhere. Already have a few well-established plants that you love and that will survive on very little water? Keep them, and choose plants from the list that you think will look nice as companions. You may be wondering about the gravel and rocks in the middle of the garden. Meet your new rain garden (aka swale)! Sounds fancy, but really, it’s very simple. Your rain garden is just a little soil basin to slow, spread, and sink some rain water into your front yard. Follow the simple instructions in the sidebar on the next page and direct your downspouts into the basin. Your soil and plants will be really happy that you did! It’s all part of creating a truly drought tolerant garden.