What is a California Friendly garden?

Since December 2016 we’ve enjoyed more rain and snowfall than this parched state has seen in years, lessening the state of emergency, but conservation needs to be a permanent way of life.

I was still in high school (a long time ago) when I was first consciously challenged by a statewide water shortage. I wasn’t yet responsible for household water restrictions and about all I can remember is that I was “grossed out” by a girlfriend  who refused to flush. Those were the rules in her house and she worked hard to convince me that it was my civic duty to follow suit.

I’ve since lived through many significant periods of statewide drought.

This past year as California summer turned to fall nearly 2/3 of the state was categorized as under “Exceptional Drought,” with some areas exhibiting sink holes from depleted ground water. We used water saving additives to hold onto every drop of garden moisture and the products really worked on the remaining front lawn, but keeping other plants alive was a huge challenge.

You can see some of my roses and a glimpse of part of the front yard taken in a brief rainfall a few years ago. I took the photos because the rain was so rare.

My roses were still hanging in there!

About two years ago, four years into the drought at that point, I began to notice my roses, gardenias, hydrangeas and assorted flowering plants showing definite signs of stress. I started admiring the way many garden landscapes had been dramatically changed as lawns were turned under and rose gardens and other high maintenance greenery gave way to succulents, cacti, California natives,  drought-tolerant plants and even rock gardens.

I finally stopped fighting. I took a deep breath, and started removing roses and other thirsty plants. After thanking them profusely for years and years of garden beauty, I gently removed them and put them (and me) out of misery.

Here’s a view of our work thus far. Its a project still in progress.


It is quite a change!

Before I picked up a shovel I was hoping to primarily re-populate with California natives. I have added many, and will “show them off” later when they’re a bit larger. But I realized I had many very beautiful succulents in the backyard, and I decided this was an opportunity to showcase them.

One of the joys of working with succulents is watching them change over time. They obviously grow grander and more spectacular if well cared for, but they also add delightful tones and hues to the garden even under duress. Some gain heightened color the more sun they absorb. Many are more attractive when lightly stressed! Perfect!

Hummingbirds love the different flowers, even after the original color glory begins to fade.

Hummingbird at Aloe spike

After years of feeling that I knew my garden very well, I’m challenged now with an entirely different landscape.

I’ll probably be bringing more succulents to the front and out of reach from one sneaky scavenger! When Darwin escapes his enclosure, which happens from time to time, he heads straight to the succulents and immediate begins to chow down.

There’s a learning curve in adapting to animals, too!












53 thoughts on “What is a California Friendly garden?

    1. I think if you make a trip to SoCal you’ll be very surprised to see how much has changed in neighborhood landscaping, as well as in most public spaces. Even Disneyland is taking bold steps in changing their traditional landscaping designs to include succulents and very dramatic drought tolerant garden design. I know you get a lot more rainfall than we do, traditionally anyway, but I am sure that the extended drought has changed our thinking forever about doing anything we can to irrigate conservatively. Once I made the choice to change my thinking I suddenly found myself enthused about gardeing again! 🙂

      1. Up here, similar changes are going on, but we’re using more native grasses and shrubs than I think you folks use. We don’t use as many succulents as we sometimes get winter freezes that can be bad for them.

    1. Boy is he a character, and a hand-full, Jo! Glad I could share him with you again. This photo is from summer….right now he’s doing his version of hibernation. 🙂

  1. I had a good laugh about you being “grossed out” – if you were in the scouts you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid 😉
    Succulents certainly make for a wonderful display and sedums have become the plant of choice for a ‘green’ roof! I’m sure it was hard removing the roses but I think you are doing the best for your environmental conditions and doesn’t your replanted garden look lovely!

    1. I would love to see a sedum roof, Martin! That really appeals to me! And I’m probably not as “grossed out” today as I was at 16. but it t took me a few years to learn that all of our resources weren’t necessarily unlimited–and that there might be a need for a little sacrifice! 🙂

  2. I like your new look garden. It does look very beautiful and should save a lot of water. Some years ago we were drought affected here in the Illawarra of NSW. There were severe water use restrictions. We saved some of our shower water in buckets and used it for flushing the toilet! We also used laundry water for the garden via a connecting hose. Recently we always had sufficient rain. So right now, the drought seems to be a distant memory for us.

    1. I definitely relate to your stories about using gray water, Uta. We’ve dona a lot of that. One of the funniest was taking a pot of water that had boiled spaghetti and adding it to my vegetable garden. There was so much starch in the water that I think it killed the tomato plant. But we tried. 🙂 I actually follow the droughts, fires, and other dramatic climate phenomenon in NSW because so often it mirrors what we experience. It encourages me that you have enough rain at the moment, and we’re sure hoping this season isn’t entirely remarkable, and perhaps we could have at least two or three more years??? I’m hoping. 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    Unfortunately, I was much older when I learned “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” It was at the vegan cooking school in Portland, OR. I kept wondering why “these people” didn’t flush! Now, I get it, and don’t judge!

    1. LOL! I can remember us talking about this, my friend. Ha! My tolerance has increased since those days when my friend lectured me. Ha! I don’t remember specifically, but I’m quite sure there is no way my mother would have tolerated a less than perfectly clean bowl! I think she’d let the garden die first. 🙂

  4. How wonderful Debra…I love the vignette you are creating and who knows you may inspire others in your community. I love succulents too however be weary that they eventually grow big thick roots when the have the space. Happy to hear the rain made it’s much anticipated arrival for a bit of relief at least for now. Enjoy your transformation with your garden and all the life it brings.

    1. We really have had amazing rain totals, Cristina. Some of our neighbors have been even bolder in taking out all of their grass and having landscaping companies come in and create very dramatic and beautiful garden designs with cacti and succulents. I’ve definitely been influenced, and also watched to note that they still aren’t carefree.There is work to be done, especially as you note, when the succulents get larger. I’m enjoying learning more about them!

  5. Do not mistake what I am about to say because I absolutely love roses, but somehow I find your new front garden space immensely more appealing. Hopefully, when all of the planting is completed it will turn out to be much less work for you, too, over time. Maybe some of your neighbors with the expansive, grassy lawns will follow your lead. 😉

    1. I appreciate your comment and observation, Karen. We have had a similar response! I was certain that I was going to miss the roses, and I haven’t. We have had so many neighbors tell us how much they like what we’ve done, and we simply want to continue with the overall plan. And what we’ve done has reduced our maintenance issues a great deal. 🙂 I’ll post again when we take up all the parkway!

  6. We have started changing our landscape too but not because of water shortages. We started looking for less maintenance. We put in knock out roses in because they are much less work than standards. We took out beautiful forsythia because it’s invasive and grows faster than we prune. I can’t use many succulents because they rot here unless I find a dry spot or a pot but I always admire them. They are so gutsy standing up to any water shortage. No wilty leaves in a bad year.

    1. It was a challenge to me to make the decision to remove the roses and other plants, Kate, but once I did, I immediately felt relieved. I know you, too, love your garden, but making choices to reduce some of the workload makes sense! And it’s funny you mention succulents and rot. I have been watching them! Here we went six years with almost no rain, and as soon as I put in succulents it rains days on end and they are sitting in standing water at times. So far we’re okay, but I’m watching them to make sure they don’t get too much water. I do have one variety that appears to be struggling. Mother Nature demands a lot of flexibility on our part! 🙂

    1. It was very hard for me to finally decide to take out the roses, Lori. But once we did it, I was happy with the result. I have been enjoying learning more about the succulents and now we’re going to move on to taking out the parkway grass. When I do that, I’ll post again! 🙂

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, Bruce. I know we can do even more, but this was a great start for us. Homeowners all over Southern California are making very dramatic and bold choices and most businesses (including Disneyland) have completely transformed their landscaping to accommodate water conservation. It’s quite exciting for me to watch and learn from others. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Nancy. We are enjoying the look, and the low maintenance! 🙂 Darwin is such a responsibility! I don’t like to keep him enclosed too much, but we don’t actually live on an acre of farmland. LOL!

    1. I so appreciate you comment, Otto. I’m glad you could feel the essence of a retreat, which is what we say all the time! You know the impact of living in SoCal has its very deeply stressful elements, but once we are home, we do feel we’ve left the chaos beyond its borders. I’m glad that is evident in the photos. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, my friend. It IS a different kind of beauty. I’ve been saying that for a while. I have friends who often state they don’t like succulents and simply aren’t appreciative, but I think once a person begins to really study the beauty and variety of the individual plants, it can really open up a new sense of wonder at how different landscapes suit specific environmental challenges and can be quite lovely. We are enjoying the changes and look forward to making a few more. thank you for stopping by.

    1. Thank you, Frank. We are enjoying the results of our summer hard work. The garden is fairly maintenance free right now. Darwin is currently hibernating so we are getting a little relief. He is getting so large and strong and he doesn’t like to be contained. He is a lot of responsibility, so it’s good we reduced our garden workload. LOL!

  7. My friend, you are to be commended for your remarkable efforts and successes in your renewed garden. This has surely been a great deal of work, and a few tears, too, for those lovely roses, but, the end result is magnificent and compatible with your climate and its challenges.

    I remember the first time I heard an environmentally conscious crusader/friend say “yellow, mellow, brown down”. Milt was way ahead of the times!

    I love all of your photos, but, that very last one is such a well framed shot. The spines of the cactus juxtaposed with the garden fork as Darwin’s determination is shown – love this. Perfect.

    1. I’m so glad you could share enthusiasm with me, Penny, for a garden that has definitely changed from anything I’ve traditionally enjoyed. We have worked very hard and although it is still a work in progress, the more physically challenging work is behind us. It was so hard to make the decision with roses and hydrangeas, but honestly, they weren’t looking good at all. The photo I shared was from several years ago. As I’ve become more in tune with our environmental challenges (and accepted the realities) I’ve also grown more enthusiastic towards the changes we’ve made. This next spring we’ll take up the parkway grass and I think that will really add a bit more drama. And Darwin…oh boy! If we let him graze without supervision he’d have us down to the dirt! I have a couple of succulents, however, that I grow specifically for him to eat! 🙂

  8. I really like the new look with lots of natives and succulents too. (Love the pics of Darwin in the among them!) There are so many lovely shades and shapes of succulents and I wish they were hardier as they would suit my garden situation. And I must say I personally prefer the new look to the roses… 🙂 Your shot of the hummingbird is lovely – I am always amazed at how tiny they are. Beautiful little creatures!

  9. It is fun for me to share photos of my garden with you, Cathy. We certainly have different climates and gardening environments, don’t we? I always marvel at all of your beautiful flowering plants and as you know, I often remark that most wouldn’t survive our “thirsty” landscape. I think it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate nature’s diversity and to adapt to and appreciate where we live. The important thing, I believe, is making it as beautiful as we can and to enjoy our gardens. 🙂

  10. Great photos and I love that Darwin enjoys the succulents as well! We also redid our garden, took out the grass and replaced with succulents, and had to water much less. I did not have any roses (even though I enjoy them) but I love the easy care of succulents 🙂

  11. Whether this is climate change or not, it’s interesting to see how we can adapt and still get pleasure from a garden. It reminded me of many years ago when I visited the Botanic Garden in Berkeley, I dont remember the details except that the garden was very different from a typical UK one.

    1. It’s a beautiful world and I am tremendously concerned about climate change, and certainly wondering what adaptations we may need to make in the future. I am always so impressed with the vibrant green in an English garden. Our California color palette is much more muted, that’s for sure!

  12. Attractive adaptation, indeed. We are in doom and gloom conditions with drought, too, and are having to get inventive with water collection and storage and re-use of grey water if the more thirsty plants are to have any chance of survival.

  13. I am truly always in love with your warm CA zone gardens! Ahhh, life in a warmer climate sure speaks to me, more and more each winter!
    If you would be at all interested in writing a Guest Blog post for the garden web site that I work for, let me know!
    You can write on any garden topic that you would like! http://www.gardeningknowhow.com is great to work with and the Editor Shelley is very friendly and helpful.
    You can email me directly Debra and I can send you the writers guidelines! It doesn’t pay, but the exposure is big!
    Hugs garden friend,

  14. We changed out our landscaping about five years ago and haven’t looked back! Not only do we no longer own a mower (or have to pay for a gardener), but I think our succulents are much more beautiful than what we had before! The colors, shapes, and blossoms are often other-worldly, and the upkeep is a breeze. Although they do well with little water, I can tell that the rain we’ve had recently has made them very happy! I love your new garden!

  15. Such a gorgeous garden Debra! I just visited my sister in the San Francisco area. I brought back a cutting of an aeonium. I am planting it in a pot to keep indoors. It’s too early to tell if it will survive but I am hopeful. Ever since I visited my daughter in AZ 2 years ago, I have fallen in love with succulents and cacti. Unfortunately, those kind of plants will not survive New jersey winters so I have none in my garden. I have a little cactus on my windowsill.

  16. Debra, well done! I’m a fan of succulents — so I’m looking forward to see how you use them. I love that I can take a leaf and place it on the ground and a new plant will grow. I also think other areas of the country can learn a lot from how Californians met the drought challenge.

  17. I love how you embraced your drier climate and found beauty in succulents! We used to have a mushy wetpart of my last house’s yard. It just seemed to collect water and ironically, we chose to make it a hosta garden, adding “Lake Erie rocks” in a circular (kidney shaped) “garden.” We added about eight large stone squares and put a suspended swing on the “pad” and made a path back to our deck, using the same squares so the very damp area became a shady place you could lie on the swing or sit with a friend in the cool of the tall trees there. We adapted to the challenge of the wetlands in our built from ground up home. There are times I truly miss the place. . . I now find comfort in my neighborhood of the college campus next door, with its arbor and labyrinth, plus plenty of sitting places!! 🙂

    1. I’ve been enjoying the photos of the university. I didn’t realize it was so close to your home, Robin! How wonderful! Our climates are certainly different, as I’ve never had a “wetland” part of my garden. You made the most of yours!

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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