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Breaking New Ground : Santa Monica Uses Green Thumb to Push Water-Saving Gardens

April 23, 1989|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

Silver bells and cockleshells might have done the job in Mary's garden, but in Santa Monica, city landscapers have something else in mind.

Over the last few weeks, workers have uprooted the grass in three gardens near City Hall and replaced green turf with Australian bluebell creepers, bougainvillea and other "drought tolerant" plants.

The $10,000 demonstration project is designed to promote an increasingly popular method of gardening called "xeriscape." From the Greek word xeros, for dry, xeriscaping uses a combination of stones, mulches and plants that need little water.

A xeriscape can save up to 40% of the water that would be used by a conventional garden or lawn, officials say. And in Southern California, 50% of the average household's water bill goes to outdoor uses.

The concept of xeriscaping has been around for years, but the public--until recently--resisted exchanging lush green lawns for water-thrifty gardens planted with desert flora. Advocates of xeriscaping have had to dispel the notion that water-thrifty plants are generally drab and ugly.

"We want to show people that xeriscape landscaping can be nice-looking and colorful and not just consist of cacti and sage brush," said Stan Scholl, director of General Services for Santa Monica, the office that is overseeing the city's xeriscape project.

Although last year's drought--which led to emergency water-conservation measures in dozens of Californian cities--is now considered over in most of the state, water management officials are encouraging homeowners, developers and other water users to permanently adopt water-conservation habits, such as xeriscaping.

In Santa Monica, a new law requires that xeriscaping be used in all commercial and multifamily construction that includes landscaping.

The concept was first developed in Denver. Its slowness in catching on locally is perhaps ironic, given the fact that much of Southern California originally was an arid land of chaparral and tumbleweed.

But over the decades, hordes of Midwesterners and Easterners moved to Southern California, and they wanted the same kind of verdant front yards they had back home.

"We are trying to move people away from that mentality and toward a more natural landscape, toward plantings that are native to Southern California and to arid zones," said Jay Malinowski, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The agency, which provides just over half of the water used in Southern California, is about to launch a $2-million campaign to promote water conservation.

Malinowski said the tide has turned and that people are being persuaded to try xeriscaping. A conference on the subject in Orange County drew about 40 participants five years ago, he said; the same conference this year attracted about 600.

"As the word spreads that xeriscaping is less expensive, less labor intensive and can be just as pretty, if not prettier, it's becoming very, very popular," he said.

Landscapers point to dozens of species of flowering plants, shrubs, vines and even edible crops that can be used in a water-conserving garden. In Santa Monica's project, plants include Australian bronze ajuga, blue fescue, eve coffeeberry and strawberry trees.

Features that make a plant "drought tolerant" include long roots that can reach deep water sources and hairy or thick leaf surfaces that retain water. And some plants go semi-dormant in summer.

In addition to using certain species of plants, a xeriscape employs efficient irrigation that allows water to permeate the soil before running off and groups plants with similar water requirements. It limits grass areas, since turf requires a lot more water.

Scholl said the city will offer tours of its xeriscape gardens during Water Awareness Week, starting May 1.

WATER-THRIFTY PLANTS The features that make a plant "drought-tolerant" include long roots that can reach deep water sources and hairy or thick leaves that retain water. Some plants become semi-dormant in summer.

Water-thrifty plants include:

Lily-of-the-Nile

Lemon

Bottlebrush

White Rockrose

Manzanita

Gazania

Heavenly

Bamboo

Rosemary

Bougainvillea

Trumpet Creeper

Australian

Bluebell

Creeper

Creeping

Mahonia

Guinea Gold Vine

Passion Vine

Woolly Yarrow

African Daisy

Wallflower

Pineapple Guava

California

Grape Holly

Australian

Tea Tree

Sand Strawberry

Strawberry Tree

Bronze Ajuga

Blue Fescue

Eve Coffeeberry

Holly Oak

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