Note: This piece is a re-print from my weekly column in the Naples Daily News.
Your Design Pundit is in Los Angeles this week, enjoying the sights, the stunning museums, and the California vibe. Together with Mrs. Pundit, we’ve experienced the Frank Gehry exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, spent the day at The Getty Center, and of course found the unique beaches. I visited my high school, now nearly fifty years on, and visited Huntington Gardens.
Image: Damon Winter/The New York Times
The Big Elephant
But the elephant in the room is the persistent and debilitating California drought. The past 15 years and particularly the past four years have seen less precipitation than any time in 850 years. It’s serious major shade trees are dying along the freeways and shrubs have all but disappeared. The landscape has been drained of every last drop of water.
What can Florida learn from California’s pain?
Start by observing species that have survived the drought. It’s the cross-over species that are of interest, plants happy in the California Mediterranean climate as well as in our sub-tropical regime. I’ll discuss these plants in more detail next week. For now, let’s examine some surprising, broader effects of prolonged drought.
Uncertain Future for Workers
Removing water-hungry lawns is a big part of water reduction but there is an unseen human cost, and as usual it’s those without a voice who are hurt the most. Lawn care has served these entry-level workers for countless people, particularly Latinos. When lawns are removed, many low-wage people are hurt. They lose jobs.
The lawn care industry is trying to adapt by focusing on shrubs and on other services. Once homeowners lost beloved lawns, they planted specimen-quality shrubs. These expensive, new shrubs are also slow-growing, a characteristic of drought-tolerance.
Translation- don’t even think about shearing my expensive shrubs. The brutality we’ve seen in the past towards shrubs just won’t work anymore.
California contractors are finding new ways to serve, including specialized shrub knowledge. They face training costs, too, as workers must actually know something about the shrubs as contractors, eager to replace lost income, offer expert horticultural knowledge. And as California contractors must meet requirements in order to process grass-for-money applications, they are faced with more training costs.
Workers also require training in the mandated advanced irrigation techniques, here called ‘precision’ irrigation.
A Huge Shift
As I drove around LA County this week I wondered how to approach a new landscape without the benefit of sod. What is to be done with a disturbed site without sod? We will want to disturb as little as possible, of course. But still.
Alternatives include Bahia grass, a type of turf that survives without irrigation. Bahia will turn brown in winter, however, and isn’t without disease problems.
Wildflowers, you say? Realize that wildflower plantings are very energy intensive because weeds will overtake the plantings. Even so, I’ve no found a source of seed suitable for our climate.
What about gravel? Or shell? Never. Well, never being a long time, I can see the use of sand with palms as a beach concept from time to time or for the occasional project, but none of these materials offer a long term solution that can be widely used. All have heavy maintenance implications, heat load considerations, and are hideous. More on this topic next week.
Re-established native communities? Again, very energy intensive. I have labored over a small 2500 square foot plot for four years with no end in sight.
Keeping the grass, perhaps in reduced areas with advanced irrigation has real promise, particularly buried ‘soaker’ like technology. These are again expensive and are without data on long term reliability.
Plantsmen the world over are searching for new plants to replace sod. So far, no candidates. Groundcovers do exist but none offer the homogeneity and walkabilty of lawn grass.
I will have more on the California drought and lessons for Florida next week.
A longer discussion worth reading is here.