Life in LA May 6, 2022

Tips on creating a drought tolerant landscape from an expert

California leads the nation in water conservation and cultivating drought tolerant landscaping. With a predicted major wildfire season upon us, we may have to conserve even more water than usual. For more than 27 years landscape architect and designer Jeff Smith of JMS Design Associates has created beautiful landscapes while considering water use. His full-service, Westside Los Angeles firm handles all aspects of landscaping from design plans to installation.

I met Jeff more than 15 years ago: I continue to be inspired by his gorgeous landscapes that are mindful of our specific Southern California environment.  Follows are Jeff’s answers to my questions on how homeowners can adapt to drought conditions and his valuable tips for eco-smart and attractive drought tolerant landscaping.

For more information on how to prepare for fire season (and P.S. now is the ideal time to review your homeowner’s policy and coverage) read my fire safety tips for homeowners.


Drought seems to be a new normal, so what can homeowners do to keep a beautiful landscape while conserving water?

Doing away with and replacing conventional sprinkler heads that broadcast a tremendous amount of water into the atmosphere is a first step that homeowners can take in the effort to keep a beautiful landscape.  Implement the use of drip irrigation into your flowerbeds and container plantings.  The rate that water is delivered is so minimal via drip irrigation, approximately .0.9 gallons per hour. Change out old irrigation valves with newer ones that have a pressure regulating device incorporated into the valve so the water is delivered through the drip tubing to the plants at a very low rate, which allows for it to seep into the soil instead of running onto the sidewalk and into the street.

Consider implementing MP Rotator nozzle-style heads in your hillside planting areas for ground covers and erosion controlling shrubs. These kinds of irrigation heads distribute water in a fine fingerlike spray at a low rate that allows for the water to percolate into the soil below the plants instead of running off.


What are your tips on when and how to water a landscape?

For plant health and sustainability, always water established landscapes in the very early morning.  Water can start to be applied to planting beds and turf grasses as early as 4:00am. Run the system based on the guidelines that have been established by your specific municipality.


What do you think of rain barrels and other on-property collection systems?

Rain barrels that collect water during times of heavy precipitation are great ways to collect water for use during the warmer days of the year. I would use it on ornamental plantings but would hesitate to use it on organic vegetable plots as the water that runs into them from a roof or gutter could have some harmful trace elements from the atmosphere, vehicular exhaust emissions, soot, etc.


What are your thoughts on irrigating using gray water? 

Gray water from your washing machine is a great way to use less water and help to keep your garden lush and green. However, the tricky part about its use is the delivery system once it leaves the house. You have to direct it via flexible tubing to a space that you actually wish to water.


Which plants are the most drought tolerant? Do we have to rip everything out and replant? And if we do replant, what do you recommend?  

I think that there are ways to gradually move an existing landscape’s planting towards a more drought tolerant one. Start with your main anchor element plants that frame the picture, and then slowly over time eliminate and replace smaller foundation plantings with less thirsty shrubs.  Try incorporating more native grasses into the planting design. Native grasses to consider are: Canyon Prince (Leymus condensatus), Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), Curly top sedge (Carex buchananii) or Pink Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).

Use ample amounts of mulch over exposed soil in planting beds to keep down the weeds. Mulch helps retain the water in the soil after watering and it looks a lot better than just exposed dirt.  Limit the amount of grass you have in your design or take it out completely.


I’ve seen so many lawns replaced with fake lawns (and some versions look good), but I’ve heard that it may not be the solution it is supposed to be.  What do you think?   

At the beginning when artificial turf started to gain in popularity many people dove in and installed it. But research has found that the artificial grass heats up, retains heat and actually makes the space that it surrounds hotter.  So I have shifted my position on it. I think it is a great solution in shady areas where natural turf will not grow due to low light.

If someone is going to remove a lawn from their existing landscape, I would like to see some attractive planting combinations of grasses, succulents and California native shrubs composed together and then add big swath of a drought tolerant groundcover like Lippia nodiflora, more commonly known as Kurapia.  Now we are very careful when we specify artificial turf into a landscape.  We certainly do not want to contribute to our environmental problem of global warming.