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Expert talks tricks for drought-tolerant garden

Matillija poppies, pictured here, are an example of a good native flower for Malibu gardens, as discussed on Wednesday, May 6, at the Malibu Garden Club meeting. Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
Lili Singer smiles after presenting on drought-tolerant gardens at the Malibu Garden Club.
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
11:52 am PDT May 12, 2015

Creating a drought tolerant garden can be an adventure, not an ordeal. That was the theme horticulturist Lili Singer brought to a standing-room-only crowd at the May Malibu Garden Club meeting. 

Malibu residents are mandated to cut back water consumption by 36 percent, but while one of the major ways of reducing water use is by replacing lawns with native and drought-tolerant plants, it can be hard to know where to begin. Singer suggests that inspiration can be found in the tremendous biodiversity in Malibu’s natural landscape. 

Singer is the director of special projects and adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation, a  Los Angeles-based nonprofit that for more than 50 years has promoted and propagated native plants for California gardens. She’s also a lifelong Southern California gardener.

“The possibilities are endless,” Singer said at the start of the talk she titled ‘Look Ma No Lawn.” “That’s what intimidates people. There are so many [native plants] to chose from and they’re beautiful.”

Singer suggested homeowners who are reluctant to take the do-it-yourself approach should consider hiring a professional landscaping designer who specializes in native plant landscaping. 

“In the end, you will save money,” she said.

She cautioned against calling the companies that advertise they will replace a lawn for free in exchange for the homeowner’s “cash for grass” credits. 

“No one can replace a lawn for $3 a square foot,” she said. “Not if you want it done competently by someone who pays their employees well and is responsible for their work.”

Singer recommended old-fashioned hand labor to remove a lawn. 

“Have a party,” she said. “Hand out pickaxes. Just make sure you water really well the week before.” 

Inland homeowners can try “solarizing,” cooking grass and weeds with clear plastic, but Singer cautioned that coastal gardens often don’t get enough heat and sun for this technique to work well.

Some of Singer’s advice surprised the audience. 

“You don’t need soil amendment, you don’t use fertilizer [on native plants],” she said.

Singer is also not a fan of tilling or soil aeration. 

“It breaks up the soil structure,” she explained, adding that it can also exposed buried and dormant weed seeds.

Singer also surprised the audience with some recommendations for homeowners who would like to keep their lawn. 

“Make it smaller,” she suggested. “You don’t need a whole front lawn.”

Singer said that while sod is water intensive, Bermuda grass can be fairly drought tolerant, and that most gardeners make the mistake of over-watering it.

Singer explained that Bermuda grass is deep-rooted and should be periodically deep-watered. She recommended a half an hour of water, or three sessions of 10 minutes with time in between for the water to sink in, and said that a Bermuda grass lawn should only require water once every two or three weeks, even during the hottest weather.

Less frequent deep watering of almost everything was one of Singer’s key points. The practice saves water and encourages plants to grow deep roots, she said.

“We baby our plants, we over-water them,”  Singer said. 

She recommended watering only when the soil has dried out to a depth of four or five inches. However, she warned that even the most drought-tolerant plants need regular water during the first one to two years to become established.

“Get the smallest plants possible,” Singer said. She explained that young plants adapt more quickly. “And don’t plant too close. The right spacing is important.”

Singer also reminded her audience that not all native plants are drought tolerant, and that not everything that is drought tolerant is a good choice for Malibu gardens. She recommends choosing carefully.

“We don’t live in a desert, we live in a Mediterranean climate along the coast of California,” Singer said. “Cool, wet winters, long hot summers. It’s not unusual to go for seven or eight months without water. Drought is normal here.”

Singer also reminded her audience that native plants can help save more than just water. 

“Native plants create essential habitat for native bird and butterfly species,” she said. “The plants evolved with the animals. If you plant a native garden you’ll have butterflies you’ve never seen before. You’re saving the world and making a beautiful garden.”

The Theodore Payne Foundation website offers plant lists and advice at

Casey Zweig, the City of Malibu’s Environmental Program’s Specialist also spoke at the meeting, reminding residents that sprinklers can only be used from 8 p.m.-8 a.m. twice a week, although hand watering is exempt from the restriction. 

Zweig also discussed the current cash for grass program, which offers $2 a square foot for lawn removal. 

“They’re more lenient than they have been,” Zweig said. “They understand that people may have already let their lawn die, or that it may take more time to replace a lawn.”

Zweig said that there are also rebates available for rain barrels, water-saving sprinklers, and other plumbing fixtures. More information is available at

On June 3, the Malibu Garden Club will be offering another look at native plants for Malibu gardens in a talk entitled “Drought Tolerant Gardening with Natives,