Atherton talk: water-wise gardening in time of drought


With the drought on everyone's mind, a talk on "Water Wise Gardening" drew a sizable crowd to an Atherton Earth Day event in Holbrook-Palmer Park on April 21.

Julie Montanari, a master gardener and landscape designer from San Mateo, told the gathering of about 60 people that the worst outdoor residential water wasters are pools and lawns.

She recommended homeowners, at a minimum, follow the guidelines in California's 2010 Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance. The law sets minimum regulations on landscape water use for cities and towns, she said.

The most important guidelines in the law, Ms. Montanari said, are:

● Start with a water budget, a limit on how much water will be used (which local officials are threatening to impose) and design landscape to fit that budget.

● Limit or eliminate lawns and pools.

● Use water-wise plants.

● Use drip irrigation, efficient sprinkler heads and "smart" irrigation controllers that change watering patterns with weather changes.

● Make sure all water that goes on a property (rain and irrigation) stays there, with no waste.

● Use mulch.

● Group plants by their water needs.

Use at least 50 percent low-water plants

The guidelines say that no more than 25 percent of plants in a garden should be in high-water plants, which include lawns, white birch trees and annuals. In the summer such plants need an inch of water every six days, she said.

Moderate-water-using plants, including many shrubs such as roses, hydrangeas and azaleas, need an inch of water every 10 days in the summer, she said. With the high-water-use plants, they should add up to no more than 50 percent of a garden.

At least 50 percent of plantings should be low-water plants, Ms. Montanari said. Those plants include many plants native to California and other Mediterranean climates including most of the Mediterranean coast (southern Europe, Middle East and Northern Africa) and parts of Australia, South Africa and Chile. Some examples are Italian Buckthorn, yarrow, bush anemone, Lantana, sages, wormwood and lavender.

In the state guidelines, fruits and vegetables are allowed additional water.

Over-watering plants is a widespread problem, Ms. Montanari said. "They probably need less than you or your gardeners are giving them," she said.


Ms. Montanari says there are hundreds of water wise plants to choose from, including many that offer colorful flowers and, or foliage. "People tend to be more familiar with traditional thirsty plants, but they don't need to give up on color or interest in their gardens. They just need to use different plants," she said.

The common, thirsty, pink Hydrangea macrophylla (Garden Hydrangea) is an example of a common higher-water-use plant that can be replaced with lower-water-using substitutes with a similar look and feel, Ms. Montanari said. She recommends planting Ribes sanguineum 'Claremont' (native California Flowering Currant), which grows about 5- to 10-feet tall and takes sun or shade; the Lantana hybrids 'Bandana Cherry' (2-feet by 2-feet) or 'Irene' (3-feet by 4-feet), which are best in full sun; or Lagerstroemia 'Pokomoke' (Dwarf Crape Myrtle), 3- to 5-feet tall, and also best in full sun.

To substitute for the common, thirsty, blue/purple Rhododendron, Ms. Montanari recommends Prostanthera ovalifolia 'Variegata' (Australian Mint Bush), 8-feet tall, and best in full sun; Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree), a small tree that likes full sun or Ceanothus 'Dark Star' (California lilac), 5-feet tall and best in full sun.

"These are the kinds of plants we need to see in our gardens," she said.

Wait before you plant

After her talk, Ms. Montanari emphasized that now is not the time to put in new plantings, because even low-water use plants need lots of water until they are established.

"They should turn the water off now, but wait until fall to plant," she said. In the fall, she said, "plants can begin to get their root systems established through their first winter and spring and be in better shape to take on their first hot summer." It takes at least two winters for a new plant to become "established," she said and for a low-water plant to be able to be irrigated at a low level.

Instead of running out to buy and install new plants, Ms. Montanari said, now is a good time to plan the garden, to sheet mulch the existing lawn, to do any hardscape changes such as paths and patios and convert irrigation from spray to drip. "This will take some time," she said. "The planting can then be scheduled for October or November."

Sheet mulching is something that can be done now, and will relieve the resident of having to spend the summer looking at a dead lawn. To sheet mulch put compost, paper or cardboard and lots of mulch right on top of the existing lawn, Ms. Montanari said. "This allows the lawn to compost in place and helps to build healthy soil." By planting time, she said, the soil will be in much better shape.


Ms. Montanari said that in addition, by turning down the irrigation right away, people will be able to see what plants should be removed in the fall. "People often have shrub and flower plantings that are a mix of plants that require a little water and plants that require a lot," she said. "If they turn down the irrigation, some plants will suffer, but many will not." She said plants that perform poorly can be taken out and replaced in the fall with plants that require less water to thrive.

The correct way to "turn down the irrigation" is to reduce the frequency, not the duration, of watering, Ms. Montanari said. Watering for too short a time means water will never get to a plant's roots, she said.

Making changes in an irrigation system can also save a lot of water, Ms. Montanari said. Not using sprinklers is preferred. "We want to move to things that we can water with drip irrigation," she said. Barring that, the spray heads on existing irrigation systems can be changed for more-efficient spray heads.

Mulch, a layer of at least two inches of organic matter put on planting beds, can also conserve water. To start with, she says, don't rake leaves. "They call them leaves because you should leave them," she said. Another source of free mulch is wood chips, which many tree companies will deliver. "Any mulch will keep the water in the soil," she said.

Ms. Montanari urged local residents to "use our limited water to preserve the trees," which can be irreplacable. "If people have any question about the health or water needs of their trees, they should bring in a certified arborist to look at them," she said.

In response to questions about watering redwood and oak trees, Ms. Montanari said that neither should need supplemental water; native oaks because they have evolved to need no summer water and redwoods because "if your redwoods are healthy ... they're probably tapped into ground water."

If you must have lawn

What about those who think they just can't live without a lawn? There are alternatives, she says. One is "no-mow turf" of native California grasses, which grow to be about a foot tall and then flop over. "If you don't mow them, you don't need to water very much," she said. "Dogs love them. Kids love them."

There are also flat, walkable ground covers, incluing Silver Carpet, Elfin Thyme, germander and beach strawberry, Ms. Montanari said. On slopes, try low-growing, sprawling shrubs, she said. In shady areas, native yarrow can be planted as seed and then mowed like a lawn, she said.

Once the lawn is gone, paths will need to be added; she said. "These paths can be a main design feature of the garden."

Low-water-use gardens can also, she said, be in almost any style, including a cottage garden. "Roses aren't too bad," she said, "especially on drip irrigation."

How much difference can taking out a lawn make? In a project Ms. Montanari did in Millbrae, replacing a small front lawn with 15-percent gravel paths, 80-percent low-water shrubs and two Japanese maples, all on drip irrigation, water use went down from an annual 16 CCF (CCF means 100 cubic feet) to 3 CCF, Ms. Montanari said.

The residents also saved on maintenance because instead of weekly attention, the garden now only need quarterly weeding, pruning and irrigation checkups.


Ms. Montanari shared following resources:

Water Use Classification of Landscape Species table:

WUCOLS Website

Local Organizations for help with Water-Wise Landscaping and Native Plants:

California Native Plant Society

Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA

Arboretum All-Stars plant list:

Arboretum website

Books about Water-Wise Landscaping and California Native Plants

(Most are available from the San Mateo County Library system):

● Sunset Western Garden Book, Kathleen Brenzel, editor

● Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, Nora Harlow

● Reimagining the California Lawn, Carol Bornstein, David Fross, Bart O'Brien, John Evans

● Landscape Plants for California Gardens, Bob Perry

● California Native Plants for the Garden, Carol Bornstein, David Fross, Bart O'Brien

● Growing California Native Plants, Marjorie G. Schmidt

● Designing California Native Gardens, Glenn Keator, Alrie Middlebrook

● The American Meadow Garden, John Greenlee

● Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, Brad Lancaster

● Designing with Succulents (and other titles), Debra Lee Baldwin

●The Water Wise Home, Mora Allen.

Other books available from the San Mateo County Library System:

● Beth Chatto's gravel garden: drought-resistant planting through the year, Beth Chatto

● Lawn gone: low-maintenance, sustainable, attractive alternatives for your yard, Pam Penick

● California native gardening: a month-by-month guide, Helen Ann Popper

● Waterwise plants for sustainable gardens: 200 drought-tolerant choices for all climates, Lauren Springer Ogden

● Drip irrigation for every landscape and all climates : helping your garden flourish while conserving water: outwit droughts with expert guidance, Robert Kourik

● Life after lawns 8 steps from grass to a waterwise garden, Molly Bogh and Bill Schnetz.

Display Gardens and Garden Tours focused on California Native Plants:

San Francisco Botanical Garden (formerly Strybing Arboretum)

Regional Parks Botanic Garden (California Natives)

Going Native Garden Tour

Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour

Master Gardener Educational Garden Tours

Native Plant Nurseries:

Yerba Buena Nursery, Half Moon Bay

Blue Sky Farms, Half Moon Bay

Bay Natives, San Francisco

Las Pilitas Nursery, online.

San Marcos Growers, online.

Sheet Mulching (Lawn Removal) Instructions:

Resources for Drip Irrigation:

The Urban Farmer Store, San Francisco

Foothill College holds classes, Los Altos Hills

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1 person likes this
Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2015 at 9:16 am

While driving through Atherton yesterday morning on the 300 block of Selby Lane I encountered a gardener who had been instructed to water the DIRT on the blvd. There were no plants on this street-side strip of land, just dirt.

The gardener said the order to water the dirt came from a neighbor, not the resident of the house he worked for -- the neighbor didn't want any dirt from the neighbor to "come across the street" onto her property.

I don't know if the gardener was ordered to water the dirt when it dried 15 min. later

1 person likes this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

One has to wonder why a gardener would follow the instructions of someone that isn't paying him.

1 person likes this
Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Menlo Voter
Perhaps I didn't spell it out completely -- evidently neighbor complained to neighbor, and that homeowner told the gardener to comply.......I guess it was to maintain good relations (rather than to conserve during a drought)

Wonder if they'll continue to water down the dirt. Keep a look-out when you are in Atherton.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 25, 2015 at 7:00 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Dirt in Atherton - shocking, just shocking.

1 person likes this
Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2015 at 3:38 am

Don't understand Peter's comment -- is he saying that watering dirt (where there are no plantings whatsoever) just to keep it from blowing at all is just fine during this drought?

Is he saying that since the wealthy can afford whatever water they want, they can pour it down the gutter?

Peter -- please tell me that you didn't mean this. I agree with so many of your comments and find them to be responsible....this one isn't though

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 26, 2015 at 9:47 am

Menlo Voter is a registered user.


I think Peter was being sarcastic.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 26, 2015 at 9:51 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Don't understand Peter's comment "

Did you see Casablanca? "
"Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."

1 person likes this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 26, 2015 at 4:54 pm

'Rick, why did you come to California?'
"I came for the waters.'
'But there is no water in California.'
"I was misinformed."

Like this comment
Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2015 at 7:49 pm

Belittled for my legit concern --

Casablanca??? Guess I should have chosen another nom de plume to avoid the insider's sarcasm.

So much for a plain ol'citizen trespassing onto the insider's private comment forum. Won't do that again.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 26, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Guess I should have chosen another nom de plume"

Yes, it is much better to use your real name.

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Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2015 at 10:05 pm

Derision from Mr. Carpenter as punishment for not using my name when I attempted to bring up a legitimate issue -- in this case water conservation during this very challenging drought. Wow.

I know the name ID issue is a pet peeve of his, since he cannot imagine legitimate circumstances why a person can't identify themselves on this forum. But my reasons to omit my name are legitimate and private --- as is my right to express an opinion on a community issue without derision.

Again, the issue was water conservation.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 27, 2015 at 7:29 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

There was no derision in my use of the word, not a name, shocked but rather laughing at the fact that there would be dirt in, gasp, Atherton.

To quote my statement "Dirt in Atherton - shocking, just shocking."

If I had been referring to a poster who was using Shocked as him/her name then I would have capitalized the proper name.

Hopefully this linguistic confusion will peter out.

Like this comment
Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2015 at 8:54 am

Perhaps a more effective pricing structure for water use proportional to household size -- with penalties for exceeding thresholds -- will discourage some wealthy folks from watering the dirt on their huge properties or taking other heedless actions, but I think further more dramatic public policies will be necessary.

Any ideas folks? If a fraction of our local creativity were applied to this urgent issue perhaps we'd be prepared for the inevitable resource and policy issues we'll face as the drought continues. It's almost summer --- praying for rain isn't going to help.

We're talking water, not just an average commodity.

Like this comment
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 27, 2015 at 9:12 am

really? is a registered user.

So mindlessly dumping fresh water over large areas of dirt in Atherton is inconsiderate waste, but doing the same in an almond orchard is sanctioned business.

Water is water, no matter where it's used or abused.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 27, 2015 at 9:24 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Any ideas folks?"

Yes. 1 - Ban lawns on any new construction; there are plenty of good alternatives
2 - Provide incentives for taking out existing lawns and replacing them with zero water surfaces.
3 - Provide a list of liquid films for pool surfaces that prevent evaporation
4 - Publish a list of the top ten percent of water users each month

Like this comment
Posted by shocked
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Great ideas Peter!

Mr/Ms "Really?" Anything positive to add? (note: I never mentioned and certainly never justified almond growers' water use....they need to pull back)

Like this comment
Posted by American National Sprinkler & Lighting Co.
a resident of another community
on May 5, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Communities across California would greatly benefit from working with local outdoor water professionals to do proactive care to their water systems and help with updates. By stoping waste before it starts, and adding drip irrigation property owners can save water and money. We have worked in this industry for over 25 years and we can't stress enough how important basic upkeep and upgrades are when it comes to conserving water.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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