A Voice in the NELA Wilderness: How Does Your Drought-Resistant Garden Grow?

2018 A Voice in the NELA Wilderness Christopher Nyerges Columnists Editions March

State water officials recently toyed with the idea of reinstating drought-era water rules and making them permanent. In the end, they didn’t act. But rules or no rules, it behooves all of us to find and practice a lifestyle of water conservation. Northeast Los Angeles is part of a coastal desert plain, with enough local water for only about one in five residents. Clearly, reducing and retaining water is crucial.

Here are some tips.

Use your water more than once.

When water is limited, you must find ways to do more with less. The easiest place to start is with your clothes washing machine, because you do not need a permit in L.A. to direct water from the washer into your yard. However, you do have to follow a few directions: Reused washing machine water must flow, not pool. It has to be released at least two inches below the surface of mulch, soil or rock, so it doesn’t come in contact with people and pets. You can’t cut into pipes to redirect the flow. That’s to make sure the washing-machine water doesn’t get into the drinking-water supply. Any system you rig or install to redirect the water has to let you easily direct the water back to the sewer if need be, say, if you use the washing machine to wash dirty diapers.

Obviously, reusing washing machine water necessitates carefully choosing detergents that are not harmful to the soil.

Let your trees do the work. 

A mistake some people make is to think they will save water by cutting down trees. But trees actually provide moisture by bringing underground water up to the surface and releasing it through the leaves into the atmosphere, providing shade and a cooling effect.

On small properties, trees should be planted around the perimeter, where they serve as a barrier to winds, capturing more moisture. Deciduous trees will lay down a layer of leaves which helps to keep even more moisture in the soil.

But choose your trees carefully, starting with trees that are already drought-tolerant and native to your area. If they provide you with some food or medicine, all the better.

Retain water.

The key to retaining water in your drought-resistant garden is to improve the ability of the soil to trap moisture. Mulching with grass clippings, wood chips, sawdust and other biodegradable substances is perhaps the single best way to do that. When these are placed on the ground around the plants, they both absorb moisture and help to retain moisture in the soil.

When I first began to garden, I had a source of grass clippings from a local cemetery. I discovered that layers of grass clippings helped plants thrive, even in dry spells. Similarly, layers of straw from discarded bales and, in some cases, alfalfa, have made a big difference in the quality of the crops I grew and in their ability to thrive later in the season when they normally would have died off.

There’s not a lot of water to go around. But if you use it wisely, you’ll have enough.


Christopher Nyerges is an educator and author who teaches ethnobotany and natural history. Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.  He works with the local non-profit, WTI, www.wtinc.info.

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