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Gardening : Garden Offers Lesson on How to Be Water-Wise : Conservation: Demonstration project in Riverside has 140 drought-tolerant plant varieties that thrive with minimum of irrigation.

April 29, 1990|KATHLEEN SOMMER | Sommer is a Corona del Mar free-lance writer

"Landscapes California Style," a 1-acre water conservation garden in Riverside, is the perfect place to visit for new ideas and reliable, up-to-date information on water-wise gardening. The garden was created by the Western Municipal Water District and the University of California Cooperative Extension, and has been open to the public since last June. The garden looks its best in spring when just about everything seems to be blooming.

At the garden you can see more than 140 species of drought-tolerant plants, used in settings similar to those you may have in your own yard. Signs and exhibits demonstrate water conserving techniques and explain, step-by-step, how to plan and plant a healthy and attractive low-water-use landscape.

I asked Tom Ash, garden director, which plants in the garden have proven to be the best, in terms of what blooms the most and looks good all year long.

For lots of showy flowers he suggests Cassia artemisioides, Feathery Cassia, which blooms almost all year round in their garden. It has yellow flowers and grows to a maximum of about 5 feet in height--an occasional light pruning keeps the plant more compact.

Another good bloomer, and one of the fastest growing plants in the garden is Ceanothus 'Yankee Point,' Wild Lilac. It produces blue flowers on long, arching stems, and can be used as a shrub or as a quick-spreading ground cover on slopes. Another unthirsty plant that Ash says has performed exceptionally well in the garden is Cistus purpureus, Orchid Rockrose.

Cistus ladanifer, Crimson-Spot Rockrose, has thrived equally as well, and has beautiful, large white flowers with a dark crimson spot at the base of each petal. Rockrose are sun-loving and fast growing.

Flowering perennials provide added greenery and color among the larger flowering shrubs in the garden. Plant lots of showy perennials that bloom at different times of the year for color year-round. Ash recommends Lavandula dentata, French lavender, a perennial with aromatic gray-green foliage and purple flowers that bloom almost continually here in Southern California. Lavenders are often seen in cottage gardens and in English garden designs.

As we experience a fourth consecutive year of drought in Southern California, the value of attractive, drought-tolerant plants becomes increasingly apparent. City water conservation ordinances and the threat of water rationing are becoming a reality. In the city of San Clemente, for example, an ordinance was passed in February, adding a 50% surcharge to the water bill of any resident who exceeds a set limit for daily water consumption.

In the city of Santa Barbara, it is now illegal to water lawns. The good news is, low-water-use landscapes can be lush, green and colorful as well as sensible and economical.

Just how often do you need to water a garden of this kind? Depending on the rainfall and your particular climate, soil and location, you will need to water anywhere from once a week to once every month, or so. Despite the drought, Ash said they watered the garden only about once a month during the winter.

Even drought-tolerant plants require regular watering until established--this will be for the first few months the plants are in the ground, and through the first summer. Gradually decrease the frequency of your waterings as plants become established. Infrequent, deep waterings are preferable to frequent, shallow waterings, and encourage plants to develop deep roots and to withstand drought.

"Landscape California Style" is located next to the Western Municipal Water District office at 450 Allessandro Blvd., Riverside. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. Phone (714) 780-4170. Events at the garden in May include a "Water Efficient Plant Sale" on May 5, and a seminar entitled "Watering Strategies" on May 26.

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