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Garden Thrives on Plants That Seldom Drink : Conservation: Xeriscape, a water-saving concept using drought-resistant plants, is being promoted in many cities, although Long Beach is not one of them.


LONG BEACH — Jane Fleming bent down to rub some leaves from one of her short sage plants, leaving a mint-like scent on her fingers.

"Just smell that. In the morning and at night, with the dew, there's just a beautiful, beautiful aroma," Fleming said of the small garden surrounding her Belmont Shore home.

Fleming's garden is healthy and green and aromatic. Her plants have thrived despite the fact that the last time she watered them was on Labor Day, and the next time she waters will be June of 1990.

The Long Beach resident has a "xeriscape," an increasingly popular type of garden that combines various landscaping principles aimed at conserving water.

In Greek, the word xeros means dry. But that does not translate to a bunch of cacti, tumbleweeds and rocks, xeriscape enthusiasts quickly point out.

In Fleming's garden, for example, there are drought-resistant plants with red, purple and blue flowers that need only occasional watering and are more suitable to the desert-like climate of Southern California.

It is a concept that is catching on in cities such as Los Angeles and Santa Monica, where officials adopted xeriscape ordinances last year, and in Irvine and other parts of southern Orange County, where new developments feature better irrigation methods, mulches and plants that need less water.

But in places such as Long Beach, city officials do little to educate people about the option of xeriscapes.

"Some cities have done nothing at all," said Phil Hitchcock of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "Long Beach, for example, has no requirements that I'm aware of. I was not able to find anything for Anaheim and Fullerton, either. (Such cities) encourage low-water use plants, but it's more lip service than a requirement."

Steve Ehren of the Long Beach Water Department acknowledged that "it's something we could do more of."

"I don't want to say that Long Beach is not doing anything," said Ehren, the department's safety and training officer. He noted that the city has an emergency water conservation plan that would go into effect in the event of a drought, and officials have also promoted water conservation in restaurants and through garden shows. In addition, the city has a xeriscape garden around its own Water Department building at 1800 E. Wardlow Road.

But it was not through the city that Fleming heard of xeriscapes. Earlier this year, the retired schoolteacher received a visit--and a lesson in water conservation--from John Griffith, a former student who is now a wildlife biologist.

"It makes absolutely no sense to plant anything that was not there to begin with," Griffith said from his home in Michigan. "Everything that happens in her native garden will keep everything under control." For example, fleas, ants and snails will stay away because they don't like to eat native California plants, Griffith explained.

"If you have native plants, which are the pyramid of wildlife, you'll attract native animals, like butterflies and lizards and hummingbirds," Griffith said.

The idea of a xeriscape is to use landscape designs and plants that fit the natural environment. Using mulch, for example, keeps soil moist and reduces watering and evaporation.

The right kind of sprinkler can also make a difference, said Hitchcock, the principal analyst in the water district's conservation management division. A drip or trickle irrigation system using narrow, porous tubes that slowly soaks plants' roots can cut water use by 20% to 50%.

In Southern California, about 50% of the average household's water bill is spent on watering outdoor landscapes.

"Water is a finite source that will become increasingly expensive as we face droughts," said Jim Van Haun, a spokesman for the Orange County Water District. Most of the xeriscape push in Orange County is toward the south, where most of the new development is taking place, Van Haun said.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County, the primary importer of water for the county, has sponsored for the last eight years an annual xeriscape conference, which attracts several hundred landscape architects, contractors, irrigation specialists, gardeners and homeowners, according to a spokeswoman.

In Los Angeles, where city officials adopted a comprehensive ordinance last year in hopes of conserving water, new developments must submit landscaping plans that meet a xeriscape point system, said John Stodder, the environmental affairs adviser to Mayor Tom Bradley.

The city of Santa Monica also adopted a xeriscape ordinance last year affecting new commercial and multifamily construction that includes landscaping. The new law limits lawn area to 20% of the landscaping, urges grouping plants with similar water needs together and calls for the use of water-conserving plants and efficient irrigation systems, said Atossa Soltani, the city's water conservation coordinator.

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