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The Dry Garden: Southern California's most interesting experiment in water-wise landscaping


Spotting a pumpkin identified as a gourd prompted Leigh Adams to write John Lyons. She was (and is) an expert in gourd-craft as well as the artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Lyons, whose website carried the photo of the pumpkin, was (and is) a garden designer and lecturer at the arboretum. Yet until Adams wrote, they had never met.

Adams-street That was two years ago. They now joke that they are "as much in love as a non-couple could be." And they have a baby, a 4-month-old garden that is brimming with art, native sages and fruit trees and is irrigated by rainwater harvested from the street.

The idea came as a steady trickle, over 15 years, as Adams watched rain run like a small river down the gutter by her house and then around the corner. The water slipped into storm drains, leaving her with debris that included a collection of neighborhood garbage cans.

A desire to somehow tap that rain mounted, but Adams is above all things an artist and educator, so over the years, she became involved with mosaic projects at the arboretum, Five Acres School in Altadena and Piece by Piece in downtown Los Angeles. But  after the arboretum asked her to train a team constructing a "weaver's garden" for the Los Angeles Garden Show, she became intrigued when she heard of Lyon's business, the Woven Garden.

There on Lyons' website was a pumpkin labeled as a gourd. Adams dashed off an e-mail. With that chiding on one of the finer distinctions of the Cucurbita genus began a friendship that would turn them both into water bankers.

It was pure kismet that Lyons is the kind of garden designer who believes that beauty starts in the soil. After meeting him, Adams went to a lecture by Paul Stamets, author of "Mycelium Running," which stressed the ability of fungi to clean water.
Adams Taking part in building a small permaculture garden at the arboretum only further inoculated her with enthusiasm for banking water in a garden whose soil was tightly knit by a web of fungi known as mycorrhizae. Thus inspired, Adams, right, hired Lyons for help converting her backyard turf to a water-harvesting operation.

The assignment: This new garden would divert rainwater, clean it, hold at least some of it on a steeply sloped site and sustain an orchard in the hot foothills of Los Angeles County. Given the client was Adams, and the designer Lyons, it would also be studded with glass work, sculpture, native sages and lupines.

Diverting the rain meant poking holes in the curb running along her home. County officials overseeing the permitting of curb breaks were not enthusiastic. Adams remembers their response as: We're concerned about your neighbor down the hill.

Adams-drainWhen Adams explained that she was her own neighbor -- she was the last house on the block and sewer catchment -- there came the question of cutting into publicly owned concrete. They could not call them "curb cuts," the official reportedly said, who then added that the county did allow something called "parkway drains."

Parkway drains are legal because they are usually created by homeowners to drain storm water off their property and into sewers, not to harvest rain from the street. No law prevented Adams from setting hers below grade, so as to reverse the direction of the water. Adams decided that she wanted three "parkway drains," all of which would have shut-off valves, so she could control how much water she diverted. (The second photo from the top shows the street view, and the photo above right shows a detail of one of the "parkway drains": a brick helps to divert runoff into the drain and toward a catchment basin called a swale, pictured at the top of the post.)

As they came up with a plan for punching holes in the curb, Lyons suggested a protocol under which they would allow the first couple of hours of a rain to wash into the storm drains, taking the worst pollutants with it.

Late last year a local building firm overseen by Lyons and Adams came in to install the drains, build the terraces and dig the swales.

"They hadn't a clue what was happening," Lyons said. "It was blind faith."

Adams-swale-logs-verticalAdams-swale-dry-verticalNew berms were piled high with local stable compost, all the better to seed the ground with contaminant-eating, growth-promoting fungi. Then the water-catching trough, or swale, was filled with logs from a felled cedar.

Why logs? They keep swales open, Adams said. "It keeps people from falling in. It keeps the dogs out."

As the swales began to fill during the first December rains, the floating logs provided beautiful cues to Adams to shut off the intake valves. (In the photo above left, water flows into the garden during a storm; in the photo above right, logs sink back down after a storm passes and water percolates into the ground. Both photos are courtesy of Leigh Adams.)

As a final safety measure, the team designed an overflow system where, if the swales flooded, the water would travel around the side of the house and out into the driveway.


But that never happened. In December, as the rain kept falling, Adams and Lyons lit up Facebook with constant postings of the logs rising and falling as their new system took in an estimated 1,500 gallons every time it filled -- five times in a heavy rain. (The photo above, courtesy of Adams, shows how the water-catchment system in the upper part of the garden fits into the larger terraced plan.)

Adams-Lyons As rain broke in January, a small orchard of newly planted stone fruit trees began to flower. An established citrus tree began a flower the likes of which Adams had never seen. At one point in February, an earthen swale head broke, and Adams swiftly plugged it and topped it with a broken sculpture of an alligator head. She has decided to reinforce the shut-off valves, too.

Once the garden is established, Lyons, right, hopes that the fruit trees will need minimal summer irrigation, even in the blazing heat of the foothills. Mycorrizae-studded soil should act as a sponge, holding banked water in reserve while also aiding root health.

Time will tell. In the meantime, this 4-month-old garden is the most interesting experiment in Southern California horticulture. The fact that it's quirky and beautiful is simply a byproduct of a friendship that began over gourds.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow her and our other coverage, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

Photo credits: Emily Green, except where specified



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Comments () | Archives (16)

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That is a great story and great idea. I wish I could collect all the gutter water my uphill neighbors waste with their too frequent irrigation--it would be enough to water my own garden for free.

Wonderful and very timely! I am featuring this article on my water blog. Such a beautiful place that was created! Thank you for sharing! It is approaching Spring here in Indiana, and this may just inspire some beautiful gardens!

I think it is a great idea but what happens when the system clogs with silt, debris and sediment transported by the runoff water? Is there a provision for cleaning the holes that have been drilled into the curb described in the article and asphalt of the street as shown in the photo above?


The swales should be cleaned out annually (and extra logs added if needed) and the curb cuts are easily cleared but so far they do not clog up IF you let the first run of water go unharvested to let the leaves and debris etc wash away.

This is such a great garden idea! The swales with the logs are so beautiful. A great idea too for keeping dogs and people out. And the parkway drains are such a clever alternative to curb cuts. Especially since it allows you to have a shut off valve. I did not see an associated photo gallery with further pictures on the la times website or the chance of rain blog. I would love to see a few more views if they are available. Have the neighbors even noticed that the runoff in the gutters has diminished? I always worry that my neighbors would feel put out or disgruntled when I start "atypical" projects in my yard...

Swales need to be maintained and kept open but as the logs (inoculated with spores) break down, the mycelium from the mushrooms carry water laterally as well as the gravity pull downward. We are gifted with a sandy loam here but at the Arboretum we have a heavy clay. In both cases, despite some silting, the swales are already emptying more rapidly all the time....with a tip of the hat to Paul Stamets, "Mycelium Running" and thanks to Caitlin Bergman for all her instruction.

Wonderful article, thank you!

Leigh is also probably California's finest stained-glass artist:

Water harvesting like this can solve a looming problem related with water conservation here in the southern California; love it or hate it, turf grass is probably the most efficient conduit for rainwater underground into our aquifers and as more and more people replace lawns with water saving ground covers, shrubs and even concrete, storm run-off is increased and groundwater stores decreased. Also, when storm run-off increases so does pollution of our coastal shores and bays.

This type of water harvesting, however, ameliorates this unintended but harmful effect our conservation efforts can have.

Wonderful Water Wisdom.

living in a sloped forested area at 8000 ft northern new mexico - rather than digging contour swales, i produce contour swales on site, by simply layering small logs and sticks as i prune deadwood - sort of andy goldsworthy style. in a matter of years with leaf litter etc., lovely terraces and drainage swales are developed to hold and direct runoff.

additionally another thread is:
the "ancient" acequia system in northern new mexico
which not only includes the physical irrigation system itself, which is hand dug and hand maintained over the years, .... but the social rules re water use as well, for sharing the water between those individuals and families "upstream" and "downstream", and the rivers themselves.

thank you for the lovely article

It's actually against the law in some citys to collect rainwater

this is super cool, thanks so much for the experiment and for explaining it to all of us. please keep us posted!

can i ask, aside from the generally good idea of recharging groundwater, how come the water was not diverted into an underground tank for use all summer? as you no doubt know, many australians use a catchment tank system (some with elaborate plant and sand/gravel purification systems) and it seems to be pretty successful.

is it because you are trying to determine how much water you can "bank" in fungus-rich soil and are hoping it will be a full dry-season's worth? or trying to determine how effectively this kind of soil cleans the water?

sorry so many questions - it's all very interesting!

i don't know if you are familiar with harvey ussery's soil philosophies, but he has really opened my eyes through a series of articles in countryside/small stock journal. he has a website at www.themodernhomestead.us (for the soils stuff, click on his "grow it!" then "soil ecology" tabs).

thanks again.

Leigh Adams is a gifted woman in more ways than any single person may realize. Beyond her genius as a teacher,glass-mosaic-gourd artist, landscape designer and permaculture expert, she is an extraordinarily loving human being who happens to know a lot about a lot. Need a referral for ANYTHING? Leigh knows. Need a deal on tires . . . Leigh KNOWS. Consequently, she's an amazing connector of people. She touches, moves and inspires them by unpretentiously sharing her resources and experiences, and by the time you're through, you wanna go home and dye your hair purple just because she seems to have so much fun doing whatever she's doing. She seeks and celebrates the miraculous in the mundane, and shares her Joy Juice with anyone fortunate enough to be in her midst. This has no small influence on the the sales and benefits reaped by EACH of the corporations, businesses and clients who sell/buy her glass art and commission installations, and/or hire her to teach art, or design their landscape projects. Leigh is hired by people all over the country and abroad. Why? Sure, she's gifted, she shares her countless gifts and resources with a generosity of heart,and she mindfully ensures a hefty profit for her benefactors. You can't lose with this woman!! Loved the article . . . .

How ironic. Here I am in NW Pennsylvania trying to manage our spring melt, and planning future drainage efforts to mitigate the impact of flooding on an area that I want to cultivate into gardens.

I guess that I'd rather have my problem than yours, but it's a coin toss on any given day!

I really like the idea of putting cut -up timber in the swales. I need to be able to traverse mine with our tractor, and this is so much easier than installing a culvert. I can just drive over the logs with the tractor since they will be resting on hard-pan clay.

To: Save the Deserts!

It is hoped that in two years the soil mass will be at the peak of water retention capacity and should see the garden through the greater part of an average hot summer. We assume if the weather gets excessively hot (as it can in Los Angeles) that some supplemental watering will need to be done,


John Lyons


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