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?”
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!
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?
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.
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.
“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.
Be healthy and excellent to each other,