Building water independence with a garden that delivers blooms and joy
May 2022. By Eric Crow: Drought restrictions were announced just after the 2022 Native Plant Garden Tour, so water use was top of mind as I caught up with tour hosts Doug and Claudia Forbes. Their garden is a showcase for the water positive features that can help LA achieve water independence from statewide water resources – and lessen the daily-life impacts of drought. We are grateful they were willing to share their experiences living within it!
What motivated your garden renovation? Was water use a factor?
My interest in native plants stemmed from my work in the California Garden at Descanso Gardens and working alongside the native horticulturist. I understood the importance of bringing native plants into the area.
Another big factor was the wonderful inheritance gift I got when my mother passed away. Without it, this would never have happened. I know she is smiling down from Heaven seeing what was created as a result of her generosity. Our home growing up in La Canada was a lovely oasis and childhood land of wonder.
What happened to your water use as you first installed your garden?
Before, we had no irrigation. With our new landscaping and “smart” irrigation system, our usage went up initially as the plants were getting established. Since natives don’t require the same amount of water as a traditional landscape, watering can be finely controlled and adjusted as needed, and we came out ahead with a gorgeous native garden. Now that plants are established, usage has gone down.
How often do you water now? Do you have a sense of the volume?
It’s nice the system can be finely adjusted – we have 10 stations on our system plus it shuts off in rain. It’s pretty complex and we leave it to the FormLA Landscaping maintenance team to monitor it. If an issue is noticed in a particular area, it gets checked out and adjustments made.
Do you hand-water your well-established trees? Or anything else?
We don’t provide any additional water other than what the main trees get from the drip system. Potted plants are hand watered (often water captured in a bucket from letting the water heat up before a shower!).
How do you feel as LA faces drought and more MWD water restrictions?
I’m thankful our irrigation system is exempt from the restrictions. We have no overhead watering on the property. Our watering regime, being drip and with the cover of deep mulch, minimizes usage and evaporation.
What do you notice about your property on rainy days? During rainy season?
We are very aware of how well the stone driveway bands limit runoff. The bioswales do fill up some in heavy rain but it percolates down so it doesn’t stay long. While we have challenges keeping our gutters cleared of leaf debris from neighboring trees, yet even that overflow stays on the property since we have permeable surfaces surrounding the house.
An unexpected benefit… Lots of birds scratch around in the yard after a rain with all the exciting tasty tidbits that emerge. We’ve had birds bathing in the bioswale in the rain.
How long did the garden take to fully establish?
The front yard, which gets more sun, seemed pretty full after about 2 years. The backyard was much slower due to the amount of shade it gets in the winter months. We are about at the 3 ½ year mark now. Considering what the garden looked like when it was first finished, with so many 1 gallon plants, it feels very robust at this point. Having patience is not easy but worth it in the end.
Who helps you maintain the optimally beard and frond-free state of your Palm trees?
We are aware of the fire danger connected with the palm trees in our front yard. These were started from seedlings planted by Doug’s dad when we moved in 35 years ago. Because of the sentimental issue, they stayed as part of our design plan.
Believe it or not, since they are in the parkway, the County actually kept them trimmed! When we relandscaped, we hired our own tree people to keep them well trimmed and clear of dry fronds. As the fruiting season approaches, we will have them trimmed again before they start dropping their dates and creating more palm trees. They usually cut them back to 4 fronds only.
Can you tell us about your garden art?
The fireplace came with the house, in the family room. We added the entire second story to the house and at that time, the fireplace ended up outside at the side of the house for years. When we worked on our re-landscaping project, it became the perfect addition to our backyard seating area. We love the orange color and the very “60’s vibe it adds.
The anchor is actually off my parent’s boat that I grew up with and spent many summers on over at Catalina and the Channel Islands. What better place to have it than in a bioswale!
The chandelier is one of our finds from a stair walk we took in Eagle Rock. It was in the trash (actually very close to Garden #8). The idea comes from the Chandelier Tree in Silver Lake. Even though it isn’t designed to be outdoors, Doug, the electronics genius that he is, has it rigged to light up!
Which plants have you propagated?
We’ve successfully propagated the Indian mallow and buckwheat. Because our landscape is so complete, it’s hard to find places to put new plants. We tried our hand at some manzanitas and sages but we’ve yet to succeed there.
What is your favorite gardening tool?
My soil knife and Cobra for fine tuned weeding. I also like my small hand pruners and short handled rake. We joke at Descanso calling ourselves “women with weapons”! It’s hilarious at this stage of our lives that we get such pleasure from garden tools!.
What is your most memorable moment in the garden?
I can’t think of just one memorable moment. Every day and every season and at various times day or night offers so much to take in, whether it be by sight (colors, shapes, movement), sound (birds, bugs, wind in the foliage), smell (wonderful aromas from the various plants from the heat of the sun or dampness of rain). There are so many areas we can enjoy, whether sitting out in one of the many seating areas, or looking out from the house (upstairs, downstairs, front and back).
Who (wildlife!) visits your garden? Where do they spend their time?
We have lots of lizards! They’re around the front porch, on the driveway, of course the rock bioswales, and scampering around the plants, sometimes climbing and chasing each other in the deodar, the palm trees and even on the upper balcony! Lots of birds- hummers, goldfinches and house finches, blue jays, juncos, oak titmouse, phoebe, mourning doves, band tailed pigeons and others I can’t identify. Sometimes we hear very unique bird calls but can’t see the bird to identify. Some only come through the garden for a brief time and move on. We’re seeing more butterflies as well as various bees. I’ve spied a few praying mantis and of course ladybugs.
Which view of the garden is your favorite?
Can’t pick just one favorite. I love looking out into the deodar and oak trees from the upstairs great room over the garage. We love our view from under the deodar where we can see and hear what’s happening at the birdbath and in the shrubs and trees. Standing on the back patio, looking out and up to all the surrounding foliage (the tall stuff is in neighboring yards) you feel like you are miles away from a suburban area. All you see is foliage. The seasonal changes of foliage is always a treat.