Home Gardeners are NOT the Problem!

23 Apr

© Art by Lisa Crowther

Gardeners! Are you as confused as I was over whether we should just completely stop watering our gardens because of California’s “worst drought in history?” Even as I was seeing the greenest grass, the most wildflowers and more vernal pools filled to the brim than I had seen in at least 5 years on my morning hikes in the East Bay Hills, everyone was telling me how scary the drought was. Folks visiting our nursery would apologize for buying a few plants and for even watering their small urban gardens at all. I was away from the nursery one day when the final straw happened. I was taking a shower in the communal shower room after a swim at my local swimming pool. Picture me naked (lol, no don’t!), showering with 3 other ladies, when I bent over to pick up my shampoo bottle off the floor. This took me no more than 3 seconds. The lady showering across from me gave me the stink eye and said in her most disdainful voice “Looks like you forgot to turn off the water when you did that …” Really? I thought to myself “Are people just getting ruder these days or is this a new thing? Naked Water Police?”


© Art by Lisa Crowther

On my drive home, I thought about all I had heard about California’s drought while talking with random folks around town. I thought about all the fear-inducing news reports I had seen while watching network news shows with my TV-loving 82-year-old mom when she was in town last Fall. You’ve probably seen these headlines too: “Worst California Drought in History”, “Empty Reservoirs Everywhere!” and the scariest, “ONLY ONE YEAR OF WATER LEFT IN CALIFORNIA!” Whoa! Was this true?

I’m a flower-loving gardener and my business involves sharing my love and enthusiasm for all the joys and benefits of gardening. But now? I was getting a panicky feeling that any water I use on my garden was threatening the future survival of California residents. Was I really supposed to use water only for essential needs and let my garden die as my eye doctor told me he was doing, during my annual eye check-up? Should I stop gardening forever? I don’t want to hurt anyone or the environment!


Read more about how to attract bees to your backyard HERE

Then I thought about all the good my garden provides my neighborhood, my environment – and me! Bees. Lots of organically grown flowers feed lots of bees and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s not only a joyful, beautiful thing, it’s important, too. Under a slew of threats, including habitat loss, flowerful urban gardens provide essential support for dwindling bee diversity and populations. Some say that bees are doing better nowadays in urban spaces as compared to rural areas. Then there are the butterflies; we all know they are in serious trouble. I’ve walked for many years in Pt. Pinole Regional Park, near the nursery, which also happens to be an overwintering site for Monarch Butterflies and I have watched their numbers shrink until this year … nothing. Short of our local civic leaders funding acres and acres of native Milkweed plants for our Monarch friends to lay their eggs on and whose leaves their caterpillars must eat to grow, our backyard Milkweed plantings offer islands of survival for these wondrous creatures. Add in a multitude of other pollinators and all manner of birds and I started think, where is the media interest, where are the conversations, defending gardens in all this? And who wants to live in an ecological desert?


Monarch Butterflies May Join Endangered Species List. Read more HERE

So I spent the next few days doing some research, and after all I had heard, I was shocked to discover that residential water use is a mere 5%-8% of total water use in California and roughly half of that is going to watering lawns. 75%-80% of our water goes to agribusiness and another 15% goes to industry. Fracking in California currently uses 2 million gallons of water a day. A month later I was chatting with a visitor to our nursery who works for the Sacramento Water District. He scoffed at the media reports and confided in me, “Annie, if every domestic household in California stopped using water completely it would barely make a difference at all.” I tried to convince him to share his insider info with us by giving a talk at the nursery but he just laughed, “Public speaking gives me the willies” and was off with his carload of plants.

Next I called Scott Sommerfeld, EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Water District) water conservation representative and irrigation specialist. Scott gave a jam-packed talk here at the nursery in February on drought and the resilient garden and had some surprising things to say about managing water use. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, in fact, he’s a champion of beautiful, sustainable gardens and doesn’t believe for one minute that gardens have to suffer from lack of water. He works with cities, counties, developers and EBMUD customers to evaluate irrigation systems and provide efficiency recommendations AND he helped develop EBMUDs Lawn Conversion and Irrigation Rebate program.


© Art by Lisa Crowther

Though concerned over our recent less-than-desirable rain pattern, Scott certainly did not seem panicked. When we asked him about the headlines that claim California only has one year of water left, he put it into perspective for me. In a normal year, EBMUD has only two years worth of water stored in its primary reservoir and doesn’t have the capacity to store more than that. One year of storage was not an anomaly. Drought is nothing new to California, Scott said. “There are more dry years than wet years in California,” he said. “37% of the last 80 or 90 years have been dry or critically dry.”

Scott’s main concern isn’t the headlines – it’s lawns. Lawns are a high water use groundcover that don’t fit into a sustainable landscape, especially now. His mission is to promote sensible water use – and discourage the watering of large residential lawns, especially in hotter areas.

“It is an immense challenge to change the way people think about lawns,” Scott said. “If the only time you walk on your lawn is to mow it, you probably shouldn’t grow it.

“Most people overwater their landscape [read: mostly lawns] a lot – especially when they have a drip irrigation timer. Auto-timers can be your best friend of your worst enemy. They water their landscape whether it needs it or not.”

Whether you have a lawn or not, and you’re using an irrigation timer, Scott says it’s essential to water deeply. Look for a “cycle and soak” function on your water timer – it promotes deep rooting by watering for a couple of minutes, then pausing to let the water soak into the ground. It will maximize deep root watering, minimize runoff and reduce how much water you’ll use. Or, you can always hand water, which allows you to water only when the garden needs it, which varies depending on the weather and time of year.

Finally, here was first hand, true information about water usage for home gardeners. This is what I learned from Scott: If you don’t have a large lawn in a hot Summer area, YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. If you’re growing a sensible mix of low and average water use plants YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. Home gardeners who are growing healthful fruits and vegetables or flowers for joy, beauty, and to support and enjoy our birds, butterflies and bees ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. You don’t have to stop watering your beautiful plantings – just be smart about it.



© Art by Lisa Crowther

“Our landscape is so important to our quality of life, so we’re not advocating no landscape,” Scott says. “If you’re doing everything you can do to conserve water, then you shouldn’t feel guilty about gardening. There’s enough to use, just none to waste.”

So folks, let’s do our best to sustain and support California’s natural resources including our wildlife as well as our water. I think organic gardening is a terribly important part of the whole picture. To alter an old hippy motto: “Gardening is Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” And finally, let’s hope for more activity on the part of gardeners, politicians and hey, even the media, to advocate better long-term, sustainable water resource management in California; to create and promote more small to mega-scale ways to recapture the rain that does fall. To protect the Delta and California’s waterways and eliminate destructive industrial and agribusiness practices that threaten the future of this beautiful place we call home.


© Art by Lisa Crowther

Be healthy and excellent to each other,


More links:

49 Responses to “Home Gardeners are NOT the Problem!”

  1. victoria April 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    thank you annie for the research and for easing my mind over water usage. I too like to plant bird and bee gardens but let my lawn die as I think they’re useless. 🙂 I love you and your blog, enjoy coming up to your nursery and hope to enjoy many more years of both.

    • Etienne (Cooky) Capiaux April 24, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

      Thank you Annie, this is what I and my neighbors have been telling our association here in San Carlos. But I am not sure anyone is listening.
      Cooky Capiaux

  2. Jodie cook April 23, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    Go Annie!!!! What a wonderful message to home gardeners. One additional thing gardeners can be aware of that will help them to grow abundant, wildlife supporting gardens is to focus on building Living Soil. Living soil makes gardens more resilient by holding water, fighting pathogens without chemicals and feeding plants without synthetic fertilizers.

    • Debrah E.Lyons April 24, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

      Hi Jodie,
      Can you say more about how to build a Living Soil?
      Thanks, Debrah

  3. Kathleen Till April 23, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

    Absolutely agree. 

    From: WordPress.com To: gardenkt@sbcglobal.net Sent: Thursday, April 23, 2015 2:25 PM Subject: [New post] Home Gardeners are NOT the Problem! #yiv4532946234 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4532946234 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4532946234 a.yiv4532946234primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4532946234 a.yiv4532946234primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4532946234 a.yiv4532946234primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4532946234 a.yiv4532946234primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4532946234 WordPress.com | anniesannuals posted: “Gardeners! Are you as confused as I was over whether we should just completely stop watering our gardens because of California’s “worst drought in history?” Even as I was seeing the greenest grass, the most wildflowers and more vernal pools filled to ” | |

  4. Amy D'Andrade April 23, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    Thank you for your research and this clear and helpful post. This has been a nagging worry for me, and it’s so helpful to have good clear information about it. Much obliged!

  5. Chris Martinez April 23, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

    Thank you Annie for bringing your wisdom to the conversation. We’ve all been thru this rodeo before and we can share this fabulous info and truth and enduring philosophy with our customers and friends.

  6. Darla April 23, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

    Great, thoughtful and fun article. I love the cartoons! I’ve been feeling guilty with my composting since it does take a lot of water to keep the microbes happy. This article helped keep it all in perspective.
    Thanks for showering us with your beautiful flowers and knowledge. Keep up the good work and good cheer!

  7. Emily Scott April 23, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

    Beautiful artwork. It does seem a bit crazy how many commercial orchards and crops a dry state like California has growing. And the native wildlife suffers as a result of all this water going to industry.

  8. Sara Shaw April 24, 2015 at 4:54 am #

    Thank you all for your info !
    I am a landscape designer in the SouthBay….San Jose / Campbell area
    I never recomend lawns for many reasons…ground covers are much beter…
    ornamental strawberries etc.
    Many flowers & plants will survive with 2xs a week Deep watering, etc
    Sara…..408 295-3037 sarashawrose@gmail.com

  9. Judy Tetter April 24, 2015 at 5:55 am #

    read about underground KERN UNDERGROUND WATERSHED

  10. hoov April 24, 2015 at 7:02 am #

    We gardeners are what, 1-2% of the problem? Yet we’re being forced to be 99% of the supposed solution.

    • kathy May 18, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

      Right on, hoov! Not only that but here in Los Altos we are expected to cut back 32% or face penalties on our water bill. This only hurts people (like me) who have been conserving for years and paying higher rates for using less so the water company can still make money. It feels like “punishment” for past conservation.

  11. Pamela Bateman Garden Design April 24, 2015 at 7:53 am #

    Annie~ I couldn’t agree more! The bees and wildlife need our flowers. I was so happy to see your nursery carrying Lippia repens syn. Phyla nodiflora. This is a great lawn substitute and the wildlife love it. I live on a farm in Northern California and have this growing in a former lawn area. It thrives on much less water than a lawn and even survived in one small area without any summer water at all. It is a wonderful California Native.
    I have a Pinterest board – Drought Gardening- with lots of ideas on how our gardens can survive and thrive in these dry years.

  12. Mark Cooley April 24, 2015 at 9:29 am #

    Your article provides an interesting perspective with an interesting perspective with which I tend to agree. I posted a link to it on a Facebook garden group page, “The Rose, Flower and Veggie Gardeners Group”. https://www.facebook.com/groups/133676416801690/

  13. Barb April 24, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    We in the midwest love your farm grown California veggies. We face water problems too from mega farms. As a small family dairy farm we are fighting a 5,000 cow dairy that wants to build on 160 acres. Wells in our area are often 150-200 feet deep. There is not that much water to be taken out for that many animals.

  14. Susan Stoesser April 24, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    Next time the “water police” bug you in the shower, smile and ask them how often they are showering….and then smile at them with a tisk tisk nod. (put the shame back on them)

    Really, people are out of their minds! A community shower is no place to admonish somebody.

    Thank you for being one of those touchstone places that brings people together, to be people! Humans. Lovers of life and all its beauty.

    We have the only Green Automotive Repair shop, that we know of, that has a certified wildlife habitat. It is drought savey, beautiful, inviting, and a feel good place. We have a special floculation, filtration system for when we detail our cars, to protect the environment. The only downside is we need to, on occasion, re-invite the birds or butterflies back outside of the shop.
    You and your nursery inspires, and perpetuates forward thinking, and enjoyment, not doomsday bitterness. Thanks for the HUGE impact YOU have on our society.

    • anniesannuals April 24, 2015 at 10:46 am #

      Hi Susan – thank you for the comment! Please tell us the name of your green auto shop so we can spread the word!

  15. igardendaily April 24, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    I agree altho I don’t live in CA but do live in a very dry western state. I forwarded your post to a couple of CA garden friends tho!

  16. Michele thurman April 24, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    I too work in a retail nursery and I completely agree with you! We need to keep our gardens and yards going for all of those insects, birds and others that need those plants for nutrients and help pollinize. People need to research or ask about better choices of plants that require less water once established, but you can still have beauty flowering in your backyard without settling for cacti alone! Thank you for the info on percentage of water use for residences vs agriculture, really puts it into perspective. Thank you again!

  17. Judy Tetter April 24, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    I planted drought tolerant plants months ago it still takes time we may not get the chance to get drought tolerant plants to be established with the water allowed

  18. Grace Peterson April 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    “Our landscape is so important to our quality of life…” So true! Although I live in watery western Oregon, I wouldn’t be without my garden. Thank you for this outstanding article.

  19. annamadeit April 24, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    Could not agree more – thanks for an excellent post. I find it interesting how the debate is somehow targeting the wrong people and causing the kinds of desperate misconceptions that you experienced in that shower. There has to be something we gardeners can do to turn the spotlights back on those that can truly make a difference. While I stew on this, I’m going to reblog and share your thoughts – they are spot on!

  20. annamadeit April 24, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    Reblogged this on Flutter & Hum and commented:
    This is such an illuminating post on the California drought, and the misconceptions surrounding it that are being purported and sustained, that I just had to share!

  21. Bruce N. Goren April 24, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

    Thanks Annie!

    Considering that this year’s rainfall was pretty close to normal in most of the state it is time for the politicians to shut-up about the ‘drought’ and start talking about California’s chronic Water Shortage ! While conservation is generally a good thing, clearly we can not conserve our way out of this problem, contrary to the lying politicians and water Nazi extremists.


    Here are some ideas on how to relieve the shortage of water —


  22. Cinda Johansen April 24, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

    Hear Hear! I too think lawns are useless unless you actually do things on them like playing with your kids or setting up a table and chairs and spend time in your yard. I have now In two different houses removed lawns and planted primarily native and always drought tolerant plants. Fortunately Annie’s has many of these types of plants and if you plant them in the winter, by the summer you will still have to water occasionally but by the second summer very little watering will need to happen. That’s the beauty of native plants….you see them by the side road taking root where they can and thriving without any external water except rain.

  23. anniesannuals April 25, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    TRUE RAINFALL TOTALS BY AREA to the end of March . Explains why the northern coastal hills are so green , filled with wildflowers and vernal pools when we are being told we are in the midst of the worst drought ever:

  24. Berkeley Garden Coach April 25, 2015 at 9:29 am #

    Reblogged this on Berkeley Garden Coach.

  25. marianvbrown April 25, 2015 at 11:11 am #

    Yea for this!!! I said this to my husband last week after emptying our small bucket of shower captured water onto our lemon bush, we need the flowers for the bees and birds! We need the small fountain for the birds too who come over to bathe and drink. Thank you, Annie, for this timely message!! I’ve been complaining about the wasteful watering of golf courses for over a year. I do practice conservation so I don’t feel awful, especially now!!

  26. maria elena Gomez April 25, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    This has been the best and most sincere article I’ve read in a long time. I have been freaking out about the amount of water I use. I took my lawns out years ago and decided to plant natives, edibles, veggie garden and fruit trees. Since the media scare, I have changed my irrigation system twice and I’m about to do it again.
    What really makes me angry is that there is NO real effort or incentives on doing REAL water conservation. The water company is not offering rebates or incentives to build cisterns, equipment to filter our water instead of wasting it nor creating ways to explore permeable roads, sidewalks, walkways, etc. We can use a lot of the tech already in existence from Earthship houses built near Taos in NM. They are self sufficient in every way.
    Thank you for the article, it has brought calmness to my ‘water anxiety level’.

  27. Leslie Peluso April 26, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    Unused or rarely used lawn is an issue in residential landscaping. Annie’s is a great inspiration for replacing lawns with beautiful plants!!!

  28. Trey Pitsenberger (@pitsenberger) April 26, 2015 at 9:05 am #

    Thanks for posting this Annie. The finger pointing will be rampant this year, and it nice to see you stand for the garden. I am going to pen my own article, and will link to yours. Best wishes!

  29. valentino Mumford April 27, 2015 at 11:38 pm #

    Annie, I’ve been a great booster until I’ve contracted ALS but I’ve only bought my plants from your business mainly because of your wonderful sense of humor and altruism . Please keep up the good fight and work!!

  30. Laurin Lindsey April 28, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    Great post with good information and perspective on watering. Even in places like Houston that usually has decent rainfall we learned a lot during our drought. Waste is waste being water wise is important drought or not. We don’t have to water our lawn but we do have to mow it and unless we get a reel mower we are polluting. So I am making it smaller and smaller all the time : ) Happy spring!

  31. Patsybell April 29, 2015 at 1:57 am #

    Reblogged this on Patsybell’s Blog and commented:
    Residential water use is a mere 5%-8% of total water use in California and roughly half of that is going to watering lawns. 75%-80% of our water goes to agribusiness and another 15% goes to industry. Fracking in California currently uses 2 million gallons of water a day.

  32. Lori May 1, 2015 at 1:36 am #

    GREAT post – didn’t read all the comments so I apologize if someone already said this…. Contra Coast Water District also has a rebate program going for front yard lawn removal.

  33. Julie B May 2, 2015 at 1:01 am #

    Thank you Annie for your article. I have been very worried about the water restrictions as I too have a garden with hundreds of plants. Since the house was mostly paved with concrete when we first moved in several decades ago the vast majority of my plants are in containers so naturally I would really be worried about watering.
    I don’t have a drip irrigation system as I can’t afford one right now and I move my plants around as the seasons change so it’s not always feasible. I didn’t buy into the media blitz that big lawns and pools are a major reason that we may lose all of our water. Why is it that when big problems like this occur it’s always the responsibility of citizens to do something about it ‘or else’ as the government threatens? The drought cycle is common to California and has been made worse in the opinion of many scholars because of the carbon footprint that humanity has been making over so many decades. It angers me that we are being threatened by government agencies (with neighbors and city employees being encouraged to ‘bust’ water offenders by reporting them) with steep fines when most of us are barely using water. If it gets any worse we will revert back to the days of our ancestors when we had to trek down the road to the local well to get water because the government will have us soon living that way while water bottling companies and fracking industries and mega farmers will continue to do business as usual.
    I don’t make a lot of money and plants are my passion. I am known locally for my garden and, unlike many, I view my plants as living things that rely on me to help them do well. It’s not like plants can uproot themselves and walk on over to the water faucet for a drink. I have to bring it to them. My garden sustains many varieties of bees, insects, birds, earthworms and even the occasional raccoon, possum, squirrel, and cats that wander into my yard. I feel like I have to ‘creep’ around my front yard to water the numerous plants I have in containers lining my driveway and porch. I live on a busy street close to an intersection and am fearful that somebody is watching me when I water and waiting to report me to the city officials. I’m feeling guilty about having plants and I’m now having to sell plants that may take even a moderate amount of water. I’m angry because I have had to collect my plants over a 35 year span. It wasn’t easy as I had mostly minimum wage jobs so it means a lot to me to have earned these plants through my jobs as well as my own labor in caring for them and propagating them over many years. I had been considering a nursery business of my own (as so many people said I should have to begin with) but this drought has me discouraged.
    I’m glad to see after reading this article that I’m not the only one who believes we are not exactly being told the truth and that average citizens are being especially targeted as if they are the bad guys in all of this when, in fact, it’s industries like water bottling companies, fracking industries, wineries, and mega farms that are the true water thieves. I know they need to make a living but they are very wealthy and can more easily find and fund ways to solve their problems whereas many citizens cannot so easily recover from the losses incurred by letting ‘ornamental’ plants die as well as redesign their homes to be more water efficient (the greywater system wouldn’t work too well in my home). If we truly have only one year of water left than I would think that the government would shut down the water bottling companies and other industries that are guzzling water daily as well as those hired to drill deep into the earth for what is left of our groundwater. I do believe that we should do what we can to help alleviate the problem but when we are threatened with thousand dollar fines and dictating to us what days we can water our yard while these industries keep going (and yes I do know that many farmers have already reduced their water use but honestly they have been told for many years that their systems needed upgrading as well as their environmental practices) it begins to smell of a government fear campaign waged against the average citizen.

  34. foresterfan May 11, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    I do not think it is proper to have grass that just sits there and does nothing but use lots of water and also to plant anything that uses too much water. we should consider natives and drought tolerant plants as a courtesy to the California environment.

    • Gail Rose May 18, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

      Planting new Native trees, shrub, and drought-tolerant plants still require that they be watered deeply and regularly for the first one to two years to become established. At that time, after they are truly established, they could be watered deeply less often.
      Tree and Shrubs already existing in the landscape require less water than planting new ones, so I encourage keeping as many as possible. Canopies, leaves and flowers/fruit can also be removed to lessen the need for water to maintain a large plant.

      • Alix Greenwood May 19, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

        Hi -interesting comment about removing canopies to lessen the need for water. I know that plants lose water through their leaves so I see the logic. But on the other hand I think the reduction of self-shading can cause greater heat and dryness for the roots. I also wonder if pruning trees & shrubs that are dealing with dry conditions can actually stress rather than help them. What do you think? I feel it’s important too to remember that during much of the year there might be nests hidden in tree canopies and shrubs – really there are only a few months over the winter when there’s little risk of disturbing nests when pruning (especially if chainsaws are used of course).

  35. Garden Walk Garden Talk May 15, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    Your post was balanced and while acknowledging the lack of water problem, it is shining a more positive and truthful look. In the east we have not had much rain in my area either, but it is certainly not the end of the world as many reports lead one to believe. I too am in the industry and have seen a reduction in installations of flower gardens. The bees and other wildlife need the flowers and trees so it is our responsibility to keep the gardens hydrated for them. A bee cannot live on hardscape!

  36. mzjoyze May 15, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on My great WordPress blog and commented:
    Everyone should have these facts

  37. Alix Greenwood May 16, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    Yes! Something that particularly bothers me is seeing young trees in parking and median strips dying for lack of water. I don’t think letting newly-planted trees die is any sort of water (or anything) policy. In a low-rainfall environment that’s getting warmer, we need more plants, as close together as possible, to provide shade and humidity for us, for eachother and for the non-humans whose habitat we are occupying. And for carbon-capture. Turning sub/urban areas into even more of a concrete desert (with a few artificial lawns lying around!!??) is not the answer.

  38. Barbara July 12, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    Reblogged this on Bees and Chicks and commented:
    Such a great take on our drought in California! Please read. For the amount of water home gardeners use, we could completely turn off the taps and still be in dire straits. My thoughts are: We get rid of any lawn we are not using, be mindful and careful with our water usage, and then call it a day.

  39. Mominthegarden July 18, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    Thank you. That makes so much sense, and it is so good to read that sensible gardens are not the problem. Not only that, it is important to keep those gardens, for which wildlife rely on, alive and growing!

  40. Jean Johnson July 27, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    Thank you for a very informative article!!


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