East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland, California


Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates includes native and Mediterranean plants appropriate for the Oakland area.

“Today, the East Bay is better prepared than it has ever been to cope with a severe drought,” says Nora Harlow, community affairs representative with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which serves 1.3 million people in two Bay Area counties. Taking a cue from the devastating droughts of the past, the district increased water supplies and storage and put a heavy emphasis on conservation, which is Harlow’s bailiwick.

Harlow worked in landscape architecture and joined the public affairs department of EBMUD 20 years ago. Although she still occasionally designs projects, her main responsibility is reaching out to the public on conservation—“influencing the gardening practices of the area.”

Her most far-reaching influence has been the result of a 336-page book called Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, published in an updated edition in 2004 by the utility district. It’s a remarkable book for a public agency (or any publisher), full of useful and specific advice on selecting plants based on their water use and design potential, good photos, and inspired writing. Over a three-year period, Harlow wrote and edited most of the book, and as she consulted with an extensive advisory board, the biggest debate centered on which plants to include and whether they should all be natives. The final decision was to include natives and Mediterranean plants appropriate for the area, but no invasives.

Harlow’s own garden brings the pages of the book to life. She took out 2,500 square feet of lawn and replaced it with a flagstone patio and raised beds with sage, lavender, and other drought-tolerant plants under drip irrigation. She says, “There are wonderful things that can be done with hardscape.”

—Bill Marken, Honorary ASLA

Credits: Nora Harlow portrait, Bill Brown; Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates cover, Photo by Saxon Holt, courtesy of EBMUD.


Stanford University, Palo Alto


While the oval lawn at Stanford is a lush green paradise, much of the other plantings around campus consist of native or drought-resistant plants.

As California’s drought drags on, Stanford University’s diverse and self-sufficient water supplies are in better shape now than those of neighboring communities, says Cathy Deino Blake, the university’s landscape architect, who arrived in 1995 after working with Peter Walker and Partners. The campus relies on university reservoirs in the hills for landscape irrigation, along with groundwater from its 8,000 acres; drinking water comes from San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy system.

But Blake says that there’s the university’s “public face to think of,” and its desire to do its part supporting efforts to cope with the water shortages in the area. Campus fountains were shut off in early spring. Water recycling efforts were stepped up. A maintenance guide spells out how to irrigate by planting zones during drought, and a Maxicom irrigation controller makes use of data collected from a campus weather station. In July, campus residences were asked to limit lawn watering to no more than two days a week.

As of midsummer, the big grassy oval at Stanford’s main entrance—a front lawn that greets more than 50 tour buses a day and hosts impromptu volleyball, soccer, and sunbathing—was mostly green but had conspicuous brown patches. “The oval lawn is highly used for games and relaxing. We limit grass to where it serves the most people, events, and students,” Blake says.

Debates over the use of lawn grass and appropriate landscaping go back to the origins of the university. The original campus design was a compromise between Frederick Law Olmsted and the university’s founder, Governor Leland Stanford. In 1866, Olmsted urged Stanford to look for campus inspiration from the landscapes of “the wiser men of Syria, Greece, Italy, and Spain”—in other words, no turf. Stanford wanted the grandeur of the Gilded Age campuses of eastern and English colleges. That meant big lawns and more.

Both the university’s original plan and design guidelines that were produced a century or more later encourage native plants and water conservation. Today, Blake says that 75 percent of the campus consists of native or drought-resistant plantings, with mulch or nonirrigated grasses as a base and native oaks for canopy. The university does not plant annuals. Its guidelines stipulate that “Water conservation and management should be given a high priority.”

—Bill Marken, Honorary ASLA

Credits: Cathy Deino Blake portrait, Courtesy of Cathy Deino Blake; Stanford University view of the Oval, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Mia Lehrer + Associates, Los Angeles


The Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles bolster a range of species native to the area.

Mia Lehrer arrived in Los Angeles in 1979, just two years after the end of California’s most severe drought of the century. She recalls that she and others “were still in awe of all that could be grown in this climate—of course, that was because of all the water being pumped in.” Since then, she has witnessed a growing awareness of the true nature of the area’s climate and water limitations. Right now one of her public projects, the master plan for the revitalization of the infamously concrete-lined Los Angeles River, has put her in the center of the area’s water dilemmas.

The current drought, while not yet as devastating as earlier dry spells, “has heightened a sense of urgency,” Lehrer says. “The younger generation seems more in tune. The major droughts of the last 40 years have made it painful getting here, but we entered this one with a lot of preparation.” She points out that Los Angeles uses the same amount of water as it did 25 years ago despite a population increase of well over a million.

Lehrer lauds the public agencies for getting their message across about conservation, capture, and reuse. “They’re more engaged at deeper levels this time, but homeowners still don’t know what to put in place of a grass lawn.” She thinks that there aren’t enough good examples of replacements for a front lawn and would like to see more hands-on instruction. “Lush green is still the sense of the norm,” she says. “Unless water costs more, people won’t change.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the Ambassador of Dry,” she says. It’s not easy to convey the “beauty of dry,” and she wants to see more examples. She cites a few exemplary models: the meadows and natural habitats of the Newport Beach Civic Center and Park, designed by Peter Walker and Partners; the historic Desert Garden at the Huntington Library; and Legacy Park in Malibu, a former vacant lot now emphasizing environmental stewardship, designed by Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey. Lehrer’s own design of the garden at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles shows what can be done to encourage sensitive water use and to attract birds and butterflies to create an ecological laboratory in the heart of the city.

—Bill Marken, Honorary ASLA

Credits: Natural History Museum garden, Tom Lamb, Lamb Studio.

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo


OHara_PalosVerdersEstateFLO site plan
Site plan of Olmsted Jr.’s drought-conscious residence in Palos Verdes.

“Drought is a great opportunity to rediscover design,” says Christy Edstrom O’Hara, an associate professor of landscape architecture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. In her classes and public lectures, she’s an unabashed promoter of her special focus: the farsighted, climate-appropriate work of Frederick Law Olmsted and his son Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

One of the junior Olmsted’s projects still serves as a model for climate-smart California design: his visionary plan for Palos Verdes Estates, a new town on the coast just southwest of downtown Los Angeles. As described by O’Hara at a symposium earlier this year presented by the National Building Museum and the National Association for Olmsted Parks, the plan was developed in the 1920s for 16,000 acres, intended to be the largest unirrigated development in the country at the time. Olmsted Jr. modeled the town after the hillside villages of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Lots were shaped and sized to match the topography and to showcase the natural landscape. Front lawns were limited, and the plan put a premium on interior courtyards. The construction involved a lot of stone found right on the site. Green spaces were designed to deal with stormwater. The Depression prematurely halted development, and only one village was built—Malaga Cove, today very much a thriving, pleasant place.

O’Hara often brings up Olmsted Jr.’s climate-appropriate second home in Palos Verdes, with a tiny lawn, Mediterranean perennials, and an orchard. Her own garden also shows sensitivity to water saving. Instead of a front lawn, there’s a planting of Juncus, needlegrass, lavender, and society garlic. The driveway is permeable gravel. In back, there’s an 800-square-foot lawn for badminton and other games. A patio was graded to drain stormwater to adjacent plantings. O’Hara has diverted water (as much as 200 gallons a week) from the washing machine to her front yard, where it percolates into the ground. She says, “It doesn’t need a permit. Reusing graywater should be mandated in California, as it is in Australia.”

—Bill Marken, Honorary ASLA

Credits: Christy Edstrom O’Hara portrait, Patrick O’Hara; Olmsted Jr. Palos Verdes site plan, Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Van Atta Associates Inc., Santa Barbara


Drought-tolerant green roof and slope meadow planting at the Coyote Residence by Van Atta Associates Inc.

Susan Van Atta can take the long view on dry periods in Santa Barbara. She attended the University of California at Santa Barbara in the middle of the 1976–1977 drought and was practicing landscape architecture in the area during the prolonged 1987–1992 dry spell when the limited water resources fell way short, and she “saw native trees die.” During that drought, lawn watering was banned for 14 months, and there were restrictions on landscapes: Mulch could go in, but planting was not allowed until the rains returned. Even before normal rains resumed, desperate local voters approved bonds to link the area into the state water system and to build a desalination plant (which was shut down a few months after opening when sufficient rains fell). This time around, a larger water supply has the area better prepared. Van Atta also points out the enduring influence of Santa Barbara’s tradition of climate-appropriate Mediterranean landscape design, particularly the pioneering work of the landscape architect Lockwood de Forest Jr. in the 1920s to 1940s.

This past spring, the city of Santa Barbara declared a Stage Two Drought Condition (there are three stages) and encouraged residents to cut their landscape watering by more than 20 percent. Next door in Montecito, a community of large properties and limited water resources, where Van Atta lives, the local water agency declared a “water shortage emergency” in late winter, ordering total consumption to fall by 30 percent and warning that the town risked running out of water by July.

Van Atta was surprised at the suddenness of Montecito’s restrictions, which didn’t provide for recently planted landscapes “to grow in a bit and wean themselves from supplemental irrigation.” Around her home, she started cutting back water on her landscape, which had been designed to be drought tolerant. She describes a number of plants, primarily natives, looking good or even better than usual: sages, Achillea, Matilija poppy, toyon, ceanothus.

She feared that her green roof would suffer under the water limits; Sedum growing in just four inches of soil mix didn’t have much moisture to draw on. A sedge meadow on a slope started to turn brown but should come back.

Van Atta says that she is not adjusting her design work particularly to address the drought—her firm is already known for water-conserving designs with Mediterranean and native plants. She describes one current project that exemplifies this approach: The biggest share of a two-acre property is going toward re-establishing a native woodland, with oaks and an understory of shrubs that thrive in dry shade, such as Prunus ilicifolia, toyon, and Heuchera. She suggested a system of water-collecting cisterns and graywater to protect the landscape during prolonged drought, and the owners and contractor went for it. The goal of the project wasn’t to cut down on water use. “That’s second nature now,” she says. “The emphasis is on making a beautiful woodland garden.”

—Bill Marken, Honorary ASLA

Credits: Susan Van Atta portrait, Andrea Jones; Coyote Residence photo, Tyson Ellis.

DakeLuna Consultants, Los Angeles


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Drought-tolerant plantings at Hayworth House, West Hollywood, California.

Glen Dake, a New York native with a landscape architecture degree from Cornell, arrived in Los Angeles in 1987. A few years ago, he began work in politics as a “green deputy” for the current mayor, Eric Garcetti, when Garcetti served on the city council. Earlier this year, Dake was appointed to the board of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California. In a city with a long history of battles over water, he says: “Politicians don’t want to talk about water. There’s never good news. Water is always going to be scarcer and cost more.”

Dake says he “feels for Northern Californians,” who are hit harder now than people in the southern part of the state, where water supplies are considered sufficient for this year. But that could change next year, particularly if the Colorado River watershed continues its own 12-year drought.

The water district, Dake says, pushes conservation in its public outreach. He thinks water customers take the message seriously, but it could reach deeper than it does. He would like to see landscape architects work closely with contractors to promote conservation incentives offered to homeowners: Conversions from lawns to water-saving landscapes are now worth up to $3 per square foot in rebates. He points in particular to the enticing rebates offered instead of cash in San Antonio, where the water agency offers upscale outdoor furniture and grills that could be more meaningful to clients with high-end projects.

At Dake’s firm, his own work for schools and parks is based on high water-efficiency design. He says that the awareness of the current drought has made it easier to persuade clients of the need for long-range water-conserving plantings and irrigation systems. The drought puts a spotlight on plants like the new hybrid Bermuda grasses that he has been using as a turf choice for his park and school playfields. Hybrid Bermuda needs relatively little water, holds up to high use, and stays green longer if maintained properly.

—Bill Marken, Honorary ASLA
Credits: Glen Dake portrait, Miguel Luna; Hayworth House photo, Art Kartashyan.

3 thoughts on “EXTRAS: RUN DRY”

  1. Thought-provoking commentary . I learned a lot from the specifics . Does someone know where my business might get access to a fillable Bankruptcy B10 copy to use ?

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The Magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects