In the Garden Drip by Drip

This water-efficient teaching garden, around for a decade, just keeps growing.

July 10, 1999

By Dena J. Rosenberry
The Press-Enterprise


Inland area garden styles are as diverse as the region's inhabitants, but they have a common denominator: a need for water.

Whether you're tending roses in Riverside, ferns in Fontana, nicotiana in Nuevo or iris in Idyllwild, you're living on the edge of a desert, and deserts are notable for their scarcity of water. Yet half the water used in a typical suburban household goes to the landscape, according to Melanie Nieman, garden specialist for Western Municipal Water District.

The dwindling water supply is a concern to everyone in the area, even those who don't garden," Nieman says. "And as more people move to the area, the concern will only increase."

That concern prompts many to re-evaluate their yards, striving for landscapes that require less water yet don't solely consist of crushed rock and cactuses.

For 10 years novice and experienced gardeners have turned to Nieman and the professionals at Landscapes Southern California Style, a 1-acre demonstration garden in southeast Riverside, for advice on creating water-wise landscapes. Still, the garden, its lush plantings set along winding paths and dotted with information centers, remains largely unknown to the people who need it most: Inland Empire homeowners.

That's really who this is geared for, who we're here to help," Nieman says. The water district created and maintains the garden in conjunction with University of California Cooperative Extension. "The whole purpose of the garden is to help homeowners create water-wise landscapes they can enjoy."

Homeowners can cut their landscape water use by 25 percent to 50 percent by following the garden's planting and maintenance tips, she says.

The garden is teaming with colorful blooms, birds and butterflies, proof that a beautiful yard can require minimal water. There's no set style for a water-wise yard, either. The demonstration garden includes more than 250 plant varieties in an array of niche gardens, including a woodlands walkway, a cottage garden, an herb garden, a Southwest-style landscape, fire-resistant plantings, a children's garden and a perennial border. With careful planning, homeowners can create virtually any style of garden and still put a dent in their water bills.

In addition to serving as a springboard for planting and irrigation ideas, the garden provides tips for creative hardscape treatments and amenities. It includes a wooden deck ringed in greenery, a wisteria-shaded patio, flagstone walks and crushed rock paths, recirculating fountain, dry stream bed and an Oriental patio tucked among the greenery.

The garden was designed by Eric Barnett of RCB and Sons Inc. in Riverside and Susan Frommer of Plants for Dry Places in Menifee. Jean Marsh and Cherri Sebelius of Garden Design Associates in Corona and Riverside worked on specific themes within the garden. Local businesses donated more than $150,000 in materials.

More than 15,000 people visit the garden each year, many wandering the walkways with spouses or neighbors. Signs designed by Frommer identify most of the plants by Latin and common names, and 50 education stations provide detailed information ranging from determining your yard's soil type to plants that may help protect your home from wildfires.

Visitors can stop by the garden's Resource Plaza to pick up complimentary copies of Garden Guide, a magazine created by the water district that includes color photos of individual blooms, a list of water-wise plants and pages of water conservation tips.

Also available is a free color brochure from the editors of Sunset magazine that contains advice and design ideas for California

gardeners. In addition, Landscapes Southern California Style has printed a new series of free brochures covering specific topics, such as water-wise ground covers, climbing vines, fragrant flowers and plants for swimming pool areas. Each brochure contains a list of appropriate plants and descriptions related to the theme.

The people working in the gardens are knowledgeable and able to answer questions and recommend plants" for specific growing conditions, Nieman says.

Master Gardener volunteers and the California Department of Forestry provided labor for the original planting and Master Gardener volunteers continue to work at the garden, its plant sales and seminars.

Homeowners often return to the garden repeatedly for its in-depth seminars on topics ranging from landscape design, installation and maintenance to cooking with herbs. Nan and Bob Simonsen, whose 2 1/4-acre Riverside garden is a staple of local garden tours, know the garden intimately.

It's an invaluable resource for people in this area," Nan Simonsen says. "We went there time after time before we planted our garden and continue to visit. Every timeyou go you see something new. There's always something different in bloom."

The Simonsens' efforts at water-wise gardening and advocacy recently were recognized by the California Water Awareness Campaign, which awarded Nan in the "individual" category of its annual Water Efficiency Awards Contest.

The Simonsens' property includes a native plant garden, riparian gully, English garden, small turf areas and swimming pool and patio in addition to more than 1 acre of winding paths amid swaths of perennial color. No pesticides are used; the yard is a National Wildlife Federation-designated Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

The Simonsens' landscape is living proof that aesthetics and water conservation can go hand-in-hand," Nieman says. "Nan is a very active, articulate, effective proponent of environmentally sensitive home landscape practices."

Homeowners who want to convert their own landscapes can purchase water-wise plants at the demonstration garden's annual sales. Those hoping to learn more about the garden and water conservation can join guided group tours, which are arranged for adults and children by appointment.

Still, the garden remains in flux. Staff members and volunteers celebrated the garden's 10th anniversary by breaking ground on a new niche garden aimed at green-thumbs-to-be. The children's garden, now home to a multilevel patio, whimsical birdhouses and kid-friendly plants, eventually will be the scene of hands-on fun.

We'll have lots of activities that allow kids to get their hands dirty, but that also teach appropriate gardening practices, preparing them to be water-wise adults," Nieman says. "We want them to be able to actually dig in the soil and learn to plant."

And years from now, when they plan their own Inland area gardens, it's likely they'll turn to Landscapes Southern California Style for the latest in water-wise research. ----------

Landscapes Southern California Style

Where: 450 Alessandro Blvd. (corner Mission Grove Avenue), Riverside

Cost: Free

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily (closed holidays)

Information: (909) 780-9764, Ext. 37 or (909) 780-4177. ----------


Tall fescue lawn Fire-wise landscape Patio Herb garden Parking Resource plaza Entrance Southwest landscape Recirculating fountain Woodlands walkway Cottage garden Amphitheater Bermuda lawn Microclimate house Dry steam bed Perennial border Children's garden Hummingbird and butterfly plants Wood deck -----------


July is a peak month for watering in Inland area gardens. The trouble is, many gardeners continue heavy watering through fall, when needs diminish. Overwatering when plant growth is slowing encourages shallow rooting in lawn grasses, stunted trees and increases the possibility of disease in plants of all types.

Use a soil probe to monitor moisture and adjust your watering schedule, whether manual or automatic, accordingly. ----------


When installing or altering your landscaping, try hydrozoning - grouping plants with simmilar water needs. This reduces risk of overwatering or underwatering plants, reduces runoff an promotes healthy growth.

Use "thirsty" plants near your home, in areas most used or seen: highlighting the entryway, decorating a patio or defining paths. As you move away from the house toward the property line, plant more natives and varieties that require little watering.

The concept is adaptable to any size yard and already is required in some commercial developments throughout the state. To help choose appropriate plants, read Sunset Western Garden Book or other books on native plants and check out the free booklet, "Water Use Classification of Landscape Species," by University of California Cooperative Extension and California Department of Water Resources. To receive a copy, write to Department of Water Resources, Box 942836, Sacramento, CA 94236-0001. ----------

High water need

Greenbelt. This is the place for the biggest water users - limited lawn, container plants, treasured tropicals, small flower beds, and perhaps a cooling fountain. ----------

Low water need

Transition. A compromise area, unthirsty but not barren, for moderate users - plants that grow and look best with deep irrigation five times a year or more. These plants should blend visually with any native vegetation beyond the fence or garden boundary. ----------

Nature provides water

If you're lucky enough to have open space around your home, this is where nature should take over. Plants in this zone require little or no water beyond what nature provides. ----------

A closer look

No one style fits the description "waterwise." The demonstration garden is composed of themed niche gardens, with something to inspire any Inland gardener. Plants are labeled for easy identification and finding alternate plants is easy if you follow the printed Garden Guide.

The gardens within a garden include:

1. Hummingbird and butterfly plants: Salvia, yarrow, agapanthus, verbena, buddleia, penstemon, oleander, Grevillea "Noelli," blanket flower and penstemon species.

2. Dry steam bed: Fortnight lily, strawberry tree and desert willow under protection of Mexican fan palms.

3. Cottage garden: Grevillea "Noelli," yarrow, day lily, society garlic, Germander, New Zealand flax, Geranium incanum and Fortnight lily in the shade of Chinese pistache and Yellow Bells trees.

4. Woodlands walkway: Snow-in-summer, Lemon bottle brush, foxtail fern, sea lavender, Leucophyllum "Green Cloud" and pineapple guava shaded by Nichol's willow-leafed peppermint and Brazilian pepper trees.

5. Southwest landscape: Mexican primrose, New Zealand flax, Our Lord's Candle, Desert Spoon, Baja Fairy Duster, Hesperaloe parviflora, Yankee Point and white rockrose under the shade of silk oak trees.