By Sean Belk - Staff Writer
May 22, 2012 - When the landscaping industry tumbled amid the housing slump, wholesale nursery owner Ricardo Arrivillaga survived by branching out into the retail sector, selling plants directly to homeowners in Bixby Knolls. Since then, an emerging source of income has come to light: “drought tolerant” landscapes.
Faced with uncertain water resources in California, water agencies, such as the Long Beach Water Department, have spearheaded various campaigns and incentives in recent years to keep reserves healthy and more reliable by storing up for times of prolonged drought.
Some residents and businesses are now embracing a new market for low-water use, low maintenance landscapes that mirror the region’s natural Mediterranean coastal climate. The modernized topography often consists of native or non-native drought tolerant plants, water-efficient drip irrigation systems and hardscape, such as decomposed granite, mulch, bark or topsoil.
The water department’s “lawn-to-garden” turf replacement incentive program, started a couple of years ago, has offered homeowners up to $2,500 in rebates per home to entice residents to replace their water-intensive grass lawns with “water wise” gardens. The program has converted close to 600 landscapes so far, with the potential to save over 100 million gallons of water over the next 10 years, in addition to drought tolerant landscapes converted outside of the program, according to the water department.
More recently, the water department has begun partnering with local businesses, such as Ricardo’s Nursery, that now offer a 15 percent discount to residents in the program. “We have good prices here,” said Arrivillaga, who took over the decades-old nursery, once called Garden of Eva at 6850 Atlantic Ave., nearly five years ago. “I’m very happy and looking forward to working with the program.”
Darlene Burtsfield, one of the program’s first participants, has replaced the grass in her front yard amidst a sea of traditional neighboring green lawns along Walnut Avenue. Her landscape was featured this month in the water department’s First Annual Long Beach Lawn-To-Garden Tour that showcased 31 different converted landscapes throughout the city. More than 2,300 residents signed up for the tour.
Since planting lavender, manzanita and other shrubbery, her water bill has been cut in half, she said. Burtsfield said the sparsely irrigated landscape has attracted humming birds and butterflies, while becoming a topic of discussion in the neighborhood. “People stop to look, especially now, with everything in bloom,” she said. “There’s reds, purples, blues and yellows . . . It’s 10 times more aesthetically pleasing than a lawn, if you ask me.”
For some residents, however, the traditional grass turf still has its pluses, particularly for children and pets to play in and other sentimental reasons, said Matthew Lyons, the water department’s director of planning and conservation. Even so, he said surveys show that some residents, although hesitant to make the full conversion, are still open to the idea of adding at least some drought tolerant plants that typically require only 20 to 25 percent of the water used for lawns.
“The question is, if you plant the seeds here, do other landscapes eventually get converted? And the answer seems to be yes,” Lyons said. “The people who say ‘I love my lawn’ eventually move into that middle group, who may be interested in doing part of [their] lawn . . . and then you’ve got people in the middle who are transitioning to the group ready to do it right now.”
Local nurseries have boosted their inventory in succulents, cacti and other low-water use plants. Some plants may not be native to California, but still thrive in the state’s Mediterranean climate and display a more colorful plant palette. The state’s climate is shared with only four other regions of the world located in parts of South America, Australia, South Africa and the Mediterranean.
Jeff Shibata, owner of H&H Nursery in Lakewood and a partner with the program, said demand for more varieties of succulents is five times higher than it was about five years ago, while sales of California native plants and hardscape has also increased. “There are a lot of people who are seriously thinking of switching over,” he said. “Anytime you see a well-done landscape, it’s pretty, it’s very attractive . . . and the more you see it, the more it’s not so strange anymore.”
Camilo Ayala, co-owner of Bonita Nursery in West Long Beach, said partnering with the city’s program has produced a “minimal” increase in sales. He said some small retail nurseries are still impacted by economic factors, while having to compete against wholesale distributors and growers that sell plants at lower prices.
Another partner in the program, Orchard Supply Hardware at 4480 Atlantic Ave. has increased its inventory in drought tolerant plants and hardscape supplies. Cindy Lippert, store manager, said she knows personally the financial and aesthetic benefits of drought tolerant landscapes since converting her own front yard into a desert-like Southwestern setting to fit her Spanish revival home.
While the store still sells more traditional plants, such as roses, perennials and trees, Lippert said more and more people are gravitating toward succulents and other drought tolerant plants. “There’s still a general interest out there,” she said.
The city’s water department also partners with local landscape designers, providing residents in the program with professional consulting services for a $25 fee. Barbara Paul, who teaches classes on drought tolerant landscapes at the water department’s headquarters, said the program has been a prime source of business in the last few years.
There are many benefits to drought tolerant landscapes other than just reducing water consumption, such as attracting wildlife and reducing toxic water runoff, she said. But making it work in the right environment often takes an expertise in the field. “It’s not just about throwing in a whole bunch of plants,” Paul said. “It’s about changing it into something that will thrive in our coastal Mediterranean climate without a lot of water and without a lot of other interventions.”
Jorge Ochoa, a horticulture instructor at Long Beach City College, said the region’s natural endemic plant life of years past mostly consisted of what’s called a “coastal sage scrub” habitat, similar to that currently seen on Catalina Island. But, he cautioned that local neighborhoods “might not be ready” for such entirely native landscapes.
Instead, Ochoa said residents should mix in plants that are more familiar to the community, such as purple lavender, which are colorful but still drought tolerant and thrive in the region’s climate. “There is a very large selection of plants out there that you can choose from,” he said. “And if you’re going to design a garden . . . design it in a way that’s still going to look as if it’s part of the actual neighborhood.”
Regardless of plant type, however, Ochoa said any garden still takes a certain amount of maintenance, care and attention. “Nothing is ever going to be problem free,” he said. “We’re still dealing with a garden that has to have some sort of order and control.”
Water conservation and drought tolerant landscapes have also become leading industry trends for landscape architects, designers and business practices that are now shifting away from the subtropical, water-consuming landscapes of the past 30 years.
Gary Flietstra, in charge of business development for Proscape Landscaping based in Signal Hill, said plans are in the works for shopping malls, homeowners associations and major manufacturers, such as Boeing, to start replacing traditional water-intensive landscapes with plants that have the same colorful blooms, but come with a longer shelf life and require less water. Water conservation for businesses has become more prevalent today as a way to prevent damage from overwatering and leaks, while cutting costs on water bills, he said.
Irrigation systems have become more advanced and water-efficient than typical sprinklers. Drip irrigation systems, for instance, now feed plants at the roots and are operated by high tech “smart controllers” and “hydro zone” systems, Flietstra said. “We can have less amounts of water and still have the same . . . and sometimes better performance with our plants,” he said.
As water conservation initiatives continue in California, landscape-related businesses should expect to become even more sophisticated, as technology advances and landscapes require more fine-tuned gardening rather than the standard commercial maintenance, said Baxter Miller, president of the Southern California chapter of the American Society for Landscape Architects.
“If you’re into fixing sprinkler heads, then your days are numbered, because it’s going to be drip irrigation for everything,” he said. “The days of mow and blow are pretty much over in the State of California . . . and the education and attention to maintenance is going to have to change.”
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