This winter started with a deluge in much of Southern California. Over nine inches of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles in December 2021, more than three times the monthly average. We were ecstatic here at Theodore Payne Foundation, looking forward to super blooms at homes and in the wild, waterfalls overflowing in the mountains, and people shutting off irrigation systems across the region. Those hopes were dashed at the beginning of 2022, when less than two inches of rain fell from January through April. To contrast, the average rainfall for that time is 9.65 inches. The riches to rags story of the 21-22 rainy season in Southern California is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence these days. Drought is becoming the rule rather than the exception.
With the incredibly dry start to this year, and the perilously low reservoirs throughout the state, it’s not surprising that the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to much of the region, has called for wide sweeping restrictions to outdoor watering. Those restrictions go into effect on June 1st, and call for limiting outdoor watering to once per week for certain parts of Southern California, including many areas in LA. These restrictions are currently limited to the six million or so Southern Californians who receive water from the California State Water Project, but the writing is on the wall for everyone. We need to stop wasting water in our outdoor landscapes to ensure that there is enough for drinking, bathing, and other uses.
There is a silver lining to all of this. We can replace high water landscapes (think lawns, tropical plants, and northern/temperate trees) with low water landscapes. But not all drought tolerant landscapes are created equal. During the last drought, gravelscapes and artificial turf yards proliferated. To me, this is an example of the cure being worse than the disease. Those landscapes reflect light, adding to the urban heat island effect and speeding up soil moisture evaporation, creating a feedback loop where things get hotter and drier. And worse than that, they are about as sterile and lifeless as a landscape can be, turning our outdoor spaces into literal plastic.
Last weekend I hosted a plant hike for the TPF education department. On a below average rainfall winter, and the driest start to a year in recorded history, we were amazed at the incredible diversity of plants that we found. Dense flowering patches of longstalk Phacelia (Phacelia longipes) natural rock garden colonies of the delicate urnflower alumroot (Heuchera caespitosa), and majestic groves of canyon live oak (Quercus chyrsolepis) were just a few of the botanical treasures we encountered. These plants are part of an ecosystem that anchors a complex and beautiful web of life, and though that ecology mostly survives in the wildlands of our region, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t restore it in urban spaces. That is what we focus on every day at Theodore Payne Foundation: Getting people to save water and support local biodiversity by choosing native plants in gardens and municipal spaces.
Things are never simple, and we can’t just make a blanket statement that all natives are going to be good choices to transition to low water landscapes. Context really matters in this case. Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) may be native to California, but their natural habitat on the foggy coast of Central and Northern California receives much more rain than we see in urban regions down south, so planting them is probably not a good choice in many situations. And it gets very specific. Plants that will be great in Santa Monica may not be the right choice for Studio City. But I do feel very confident making the following statement: Native plants selected for your specific location are the best choice you can make to save previous water and to save irreplaceable biodiversity. As this transition unfolds, nuance will be extremely important, and I look forward to working with TPF and its community to share this message broadly, in a compelling and scientifically rigorous way.
Another piece of the puzzle that I often think about is aesthetics of drought. We are preconditioned to think of the dormant, brown, and yellow season of Southern California summer as ugly or bad. But why? I devoted a blog article to this last year, but it’s something that remains on my mind, and we’ll continue to talk about. I hope this summer you can take a moment to reflect on the unique beauty of our seasons and their ancient rhythms. One of the great joys of gardening is the anticipation and reward as seasons change, plants push new buds, flower, fruit, and senesce into a spectrum of summer and autumn color. I can think of no better way of experiencing that than by growing native plants.
We’ll be sharing a lot more about the drought and native plants in the coming months. I see this moment as an opportunity for a large scale re-thinking of the landscape in a way that has never happened before. And it’s a chance for the native plant community to share its message as widely as it ever has. It will be nuanced, complex, and challenging, but we can face this situation with hopefulness, to create a new landscape in Southern California that is tuned in with the climate and ecology. In the process, we will save water, restore habitats, and bring the unique beauty of the natural world into our towns, cities, and homes.