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How do you plant a drought-tolerant garden during an El Niño?




Landscaper David Puac installs a succulent plant during the installation of a drought-tolerant landscape in the front yard of Larry and Barbara Hall's home in the San Fernando Valley area of the city of Los Angeles, July 17, 2014.
Landscaper David Puac installs a succulent plant during the installation of a drought-tolerant landscape in the front yard of Larry and Barbara Hall's home in the San Fernando Valley area of the city of Los Angeles, July 17, 2014.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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For gardeners, the weather's only seemed to get stranger here in Southern California. We all know about the historic drought by now, that goes without saying. But now there's an El Niño on the horizon, and with it a record-breaking rainy season is also on the horizon. What's an Angeleno gardener to do?

Off-Ramp's made a habit of checking in with Frank McDonough, botanical information consultant at the Los Angeles County Arboretum — here are some of his tips for cultivating a sustainable garden in the coming year.

Remember how you were supposed to wait until October to rip out your lawn? That was before El Niño.

I'd still wait if you can. We've got an El Niño coming. If you tear your lawn out, or a great deal of your landscaping, and all your neighbors do the same... yeah it's a good time to plant, but what happens when El Niño comes? We're talking a huge amount of flooding. It just happened in Boyle Heights.

If you must rip out your lawn now, replace it with sod.

Sod's gonna be absorptive right off the bat, so you should be OK with sod. There are certain sods that people have already been using that are actually quite drought tolerant, like good old Bermuda grass. But there are — it's now available — buffalo grass. The UC Verde Buffalo Grass is available as sod — you can put it down all at once and you won't have a problem with a large area of dirt that's gonna get washed down into the storm drains. 

You can try to capture water, but it'll cost you.

Water capture is a tricky thing. Water capturing systems are things that have to be excavated to install. And anytime you're doing any excavation and it's open to a rain storm, you're looking at a major mess, and the same problem — the excess water goes flowing out in the storm drain. So wait for that, as well. But there are many good water-catching systems – for instance, buried pipes underneath permeable stepping stones. 

These water collection systems are great, they can collect up to 10- to 20,000 gallons of water. That'll give you a lot of water to do a lot of things for a long time.

Avoid big chain nurseries, if you can.

Make sure that when you buy your seed, you're getting the correct seed. There's several great mixes out there that are water-saving mixes, a lot of them contain red fescue, which is a California native. They're pretty good for partially shaded areas, to half-day sun.

But make sure when you go to get these mixes, you get the right mixes. If you go to a box store or any of these large chains that purchase for the entire country, and they have a water-saving mix, it may not contain the grasses that will do well here.

A lot of the water-saving seed mixes are out on the Web. Just type "California native drought tolerant grass" and you'll get a lot of hits.