Landscape Lessons from Drought-Stricken California

By Cynthia Bee, Conservation Garden Park

Last weekend, the Conservation Garden Park hosted the second annual “Plant Con” event. Self-described “plant geeks” from all over the Wasatch Front converged to learn about the latest and greatest horticulture trends from experts. Of particular interest was the keynote address provided by horticulturalist and landscape designer Nan Sterman from Southern California. Nan is the host of PBS’s “A Growing Passion” gardening show, an author and garden communicator as well as long-time proponent of waterwise landscapes.

As you cannot help but be aware, the state of California is still in the midst of an historic drought. News of the drought may have only reached our Utah ears recently but the problem has been building for decades. A combination of rapid growth, overuse of a limited supply and disastrous weather conditions combined to create the “perfect storm”, or rather lack thereof, making water the most important issue in the state.

Nan’s message was not doom and gloom but rather a hopeful look at how embattled California is shaking off the dust of drought and building a more resilient future— and how Utahns might prepare now to avert a similar crisis.

Lesson #1- Reduce Total Lawn Area

Grass is not bad but we often use it badly. Lawn represents an ideal surface for recreation but it should be limited only to those areas where it serves this function, if it is used at all. The key is to use lawn as a planned element of the landscape rather than as a default groundcover.

Consider removing lawn completely from park strips and side yards. Do you really need all the lawn in the front or back yard? Might your family be better served by creating additional gathering spaces or activity zones instead of lawn in some areas?

Lesson #2- Stick with Native and Locally Adapted Plants

Using plants that are content to grow in our local conditions only makes sense. Plants with similar water and light needs should be grouped together in the same planting beds, then irrigated with drip irrigation. Nan strongly recommends in-line drip systems, such as Netafim. Drip systems conserve a substantial amount of water and plantings irrigated by drip systems are far less likely to develop weed and plant health issues than beds irrigated with overhead spray. The Conservation Garden Park offers an online database of Utah-happy plants on our website at

Lesson #3- Choose Your Change

The population of Utah is projected to double by 2060, but the water supply can’t.  Our current water supply is adequate thus we have time to slowly implement changes as budget allows. In California, those who did not adapt their landscapes prior to the crisis were forced to either let their landscape investment die or undertake significant renovations immediately—whether it fit their budget or not. Nan urged us to begin making small changes now that will leave us ready to face whatever challenges come.

Are you interested in making changes but aren’t sure where to begin? We can help! Visit us for more information.