Over the past few months, we have been talking with clients, family and friends about where food gardens fit in the drought discussion. Food isn’t the clear “villain” as lawns are cast, and they aren’t the clear protagonist like natives and other drought-tolerant plants. Instead, there are in a murky middle ground for most people, so the discussion begins with a basic question: how much water do food gardens use?

A typical Farmscape uses 75% less water than a lawn covering the same square footage. The water saving stems from the efficiency of drip irrigation, the addition of pathways to navigate between planting areas and the relative thirst of annual food crops compared to turf grass. Of course, every garden is different; I’ve seen parched lawns and soggy vegetable gardens where the numbers would undoubtedly be different. Nevertheless, a properly maintained food garden will use significantly less water than lawn.

As a result, clients have been including food crops in landscape overhauls designed to drastically reduce outdoor water use. What I like most about these landscapes is that the inclusion of food makes the transformation from turf to drought-tolerant landscaping more of a treat than a chore. Instead of focusing on avoiding water waste, the focus can be on something positive: getting a return from water what is used. If you’ll excuse an analogy that’s a little too on the nose: it’s the equivalent of growing fresh heirloom tomatoes to convince your kids to eat healthy, rather than lecturing them not to eat junk food.

To date, most municipal water districts haven’t detailed whether food crops do (or don’t) fit in drought-tolerant landscapes that qualify for “turf replacement” rebates. LADWP, for example, includes a number of recommended low-water plants on their website. It includes a few fruit trees, like pomegranate and loquats, but omits most herbs and annual vegetable crops.  They aren’t banned either, so they fall in that aforementioned murky middle ground when households are seeking rebates.

I applaud the efforts by LADWP and other municipal water districts to-date, but I think more can be done to promote a positive vision for landscapes rather than the absence of a negative. Focusing too much on what a yard doesn’t have promotes space like this:

Mulch Landscape

While focusing on the positive, while still drought-tolerant, elements produces spaces like this:

Drought Tolerant Farmscape

I’ll take the space that provides habitat to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds; produces fresh fruits and vegetables for family and friends; and provides a dynamic landscape for everyone in the community to enjoy.

We have a unique opportunity to remake California landscapes. Let’s make the most of it

Farmscaping in a Drought
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