Dry Summer

– Posted in: Garden Photography

dry summer woodland californiaWe expect summers to be dry here in California. It’s a summer-dry or Mediterranean climate of wet winters and rainless summers. Gardeners learn to adapt and use plants that are native to summer-dry climates.

But this year is particularly hard on gardeners because it is particularly dry. We have not had rainy winters recently, and last winter was one of the driest on record. In my Water District, we now have mandatory water prohibitions with limits on what we can water (no cars, fountains, or driveways), how we water (no overhead sprinklers), and when we water (only between 7 pm and 9 am). Saying this though, if you are still allowed to use hose sprinklers where you live, you might as well make the most of it and keep your garden hydrated throughout this dry summer.

My own garden is suffering big time and most plants are on life support. I suppose if I were a succulent gardener like my colleague Debra Lee Baldwin, I would not feel so conflicted about using water in my garden. Gardeners are being demonized for our relatively paltry use of water compared to California’s biggest industry – agriculture which uses 80% of the water in the state.

farm irrigation california

California cauliflower field being irrigated

I am conflicted because I know water is precious and gardeners need to be smart about how water is used. I know California farmers feed the world and restricting water to farms means crops simply won’t be planted at all – which has already happened. Many Central Valley towns are facing crisis times and high unemployment due to lack of water.

Water use – allotments, groundwater pumping, reservoirs, canals, river habitats, fish counts, suburban sprawl, swimming pools, and gardens are all once again, the center of discussion as we move to a $9 billion voter proposition on the upcoming ballot. Water has long shaped the growth of California and put at odds the competing interests of urban growth and rural (farm) populations.

Rancher opening sluice gate from irrigation canal, Merced California

Rancher opening sluice gate from irrigation canal, Merced California

For our inevitable growth, the summer-dry climate is at once a blessing and a curse. People clamor to live in this wonderful climate but the rains only come in winter and we need to store the water. Who gets to use the that water is a complex issue, requiring an understanding of all the competing water issues of farming (vegetables, dairy, wine, rice, alfalfa, citrus, almonds, flowers …), the environment (damming rivers, pumping groundwater, stream diversion, fish counts …), and urban growth (population growth, subdivisions, tech industry, Hollywood, tourism …).

I don’t want gardeners to be caught in the crosshairs of these competing interests, each with earnest and well funded advocates. Gardeners need water too. The benefits of gardening to collective society reach far beyond our own gardens, contributing to our collective sanity, communal and environmental well being. We provide oases of flora, homes for fauna; we freshen the air, nurture the soil (as well as the soul), and generally make the concrete jungle livable.

summer-dry garden

California backyard as a garden oasis.

As water becomes more precious we gardeners are asked to conserve drip by drop as agriculture fights for acre feet, while environmentalists want to tear down dams, and developers want more single family homes with pools and bathrooms for every bedroom. Gardeners need to stake a claim and prove the value of water spent on gardening.

The best way to do that to show that summer-dry gardens can be water efficient and beautiful at the same time. It is part of my job as a garden photographer to show this is possible, to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in gardens here in the West. East Coast, Southern, and English plants and garden styles may look great where water can sustain them, but in the West those gardens look out of place.

California suburban lawn and summer-dry hills

California suburban lawn and summer-dry hills

There is no worse look than a lush mown lawn; too often the default front yard garden. As a member of The Lawn Reform Coalition I advocate for alternatives to mown grass. There are many reasons to get rid of lawn but in the West the best reason is – they waste water, they give gardening a bad name.

Most water districts now give homeowners incentives to remove their lawns with cash for grass programs, as much as $4 per square foot, that help defray the cost of transitioning to more water efficient landscaping. There are many alternatives to lawn but, in particular I love meadows because I so love grasses. I have two books on grasses: with Nan Ondra – “Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design” and with John Greenlee – “The American Meadow Garden“.

California suburban lawn altrnative

California suburban lawn alternative of Carex

Grasses are native everywhere. They should be part of every sustainable landscape. Their water needs match their climate. They are particularly suited to summer-dry climates, so I am particularly enthused to become a member of California Native Grassland Association and to help them with an upcoming workshop Sept. 18 – Converting Water-Hungry Lawns to Drought-Tolerant Landscape.

California suburban meadow lawn with native grasses

California suburban meadow lawn with native grasses

It is certainly possible to have beautiful drought tolerant landscapes but they still need water. Drought is a relative term for every ecosystem and most drought tolerant and native plants still need some additional water to look good in a garden. This is where gardeners need to claim their share of water resources – and not feel guilty about it.

Summers may be dry, but they need not be barren.


Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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Professorroush August 25, 2014, 10:53 am

Agreed. There are many things we can do to keep lush landscapes and still conserve. We’re in a major summer drought here and things are suffering, but the ornamental grasses and heliopsis look as green as springtime.

Lisa at Greenbow August 25, 2014, 11:04 am

I have been reading about the horrible drought in your State. It is scary. It seems to be at a point that it will take Mother Nature to give relief to your area. Best Of luck…and prayers.

Christina August 25, 2014, 11:22 am

This water crisis is so sad. I have seen the devastation and am in awe of how dry it is. I feel for you and your garden!

Saxon Holt August 25, 2014, 11:53 am

Ahhh – Those grasses… I understand some of the roots of prairie grasses go down 20 feet

Saxon Holt August 25, 2014, 11:55 am

We are hoping on Mother Nature, and an El Nino weather pattern for next winter. If not, it will be a truly a legendary and worldwide crisis

Saxon Holt August 25, 2014, 12:01 pm

Y’know, most of garden will survive as most are natives or adapted to summer-dry climates and I still do water, just not as much; and I have not planted anything new in two years (except my veggies). My discrete weakness is my fragrant species rhododendron collection about 20 plants. I have cut back the water and lost 3-4 so far.

Pam/Digging August 25, 2014, 12:37 pm


Thanks Pam – You are certainly on the front lines yourself and an important voice in this battle; and your Lawn Gone book is great http://www.penick.net/digging/?page_id=17902Saxon

Laurin Lindsey August 25, 2014, 12:47 pm

Thank you for the update on California, I lived there my first 42 years! I am hoping you get back to normal rain soon. I have seen there have already been fires and that is worrying. Conserving resources is important and now more than ever. Hope the earthquake didn’t affect you!

Thanks Laurin – earthquake was only 25 miles away but other than some house rattling, no damage right here. Water resources are increasingly important everywhere that population demands outstrips rainfall – just about everywhere. – Saxon

Benjamin Vogt August 25, 2014, 12:53 pm

What a wonderful piece, saxon! I’m getting ready to run a kickstarter to tear out my front lawn and replace with 60% native grasses. Hope to go live in a week for fall install here in Nebraska!

Thanks for dropping by Benjamin. Wish you were eligible for the $4 per square foot cash for grass program that the City of Palo Alto is spending. – Saxon

Allissia North August 25, 2014, 1:20 pm

I live in Melbourne and unfortunately I’m also too familiar with water restrictions myself. In spite of the inconvenience of these restrictions, it’s a good thing to finally see that peolpe put efforts in saving water, while still managing to do what they love.

One of the maddening things about out current water restrictions is requiring a 20% cutback from last year, which was also a drought. Many of us in lawn reform movement and summer-dry gardeners have been conscious about saving water for many, many years. Cutting back now means killing plants – Saxon

D August 25, 2014, 6:16 pm

I agree good article and well said. I recently wrote on watering, but our area is not suffering from lack of rain or high heat this year. I feel for those of you in the west with these horrendous drought conditions. Conservation needs to be taken seriously all across the country, but like you mentioned, drought tolerant plants need water too. My concern goes beyond the plants though. It extends to all the pollinators that depend on these plants. Without them the food you produce in CA will not grow either. Watering gardens is necessary for these pollinators since farms spray and use neonicitinoid treated plants/seed so readily that we will be lucky one day to even see pollinators.

Thanks for this observation Donna. It expands what I was trying got say about gardens being oases for fauna – including insects. Denying water to plants is not just about garden beauty, there are complex ecological reasons we want to maintain gardens. – Saxon

Pam/Digging August 25, 2014, 10:53 pm

Sorry for the “shouting” of my all-caps comment. I’m not sure why that’s happening — only on my comments here.

LInda Lehmusvirta August 29, 2014, 7:21 pm

Dear Saxon, how beautifully said and photographed. Here in Texas, we’re facing the same restrictions and dilemmas. gardeners provide a valuable resource to wildlife, including those fountains! when we lose the wildlife, even our crops will suffer.

Diana, Zone 6, MA August 31, 2014, 8:09 am

I hope you get some decent rains this winter to save your rhodies. I’m also not a bit fan of mowed grass but here in New England it isn’t a bit water using problem unless you try for a golf course lawn.

I’ve minimized my grass not for water conservation but for local fauna diversity and personal interest – what’s more boring than a monoculture of grass?

Saxon Holt September 2, 2014, 7:57 pm

Hi there Linda – It’s frustrating for responsible gardeners everywhere. We try to do the right thing for the environs around us but get lumped in with the water waters. I am trying to cut back my water use 20% as recommended but I already cut back last year, the first year of this drought.

Saxon Holt September 2, 2014, 8:02 pm

Thanks of dropping by Diana – As a West Coast member of Lawn Reform Coalition it is an interesting debate about lawn as low maintenance ground cover, which it can be in the East. East Coast members of LRC are more concerned about fertilizers and pesticides (on golf courses for instance).

Dicksey Williams September 6, 2014, 12:48 pm

I have been in the nursery industry for close to 40 years. The drought cycles are guaranteed! I have seen many in my years, but maybe not like this one. We need to get our yards and gardens ready for this sort of condition as it will be with us forever. Rethink your landscape™ is key…including sprinklers!!

Saxon Holt September 13, 2014, 10:30 am

We certainly need to rethink our landscapes, but I am not sure about the sprinklers, unless, by sprinklers you mean drip irrigation

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