Descanso Gardens Opens New Drought-Tolerant Garden: Aims to Educate and Inspire Angelenos to Landscape Smartly

Tomorrow, Descanso Gardens will unveil their low-water terrace to the public. The Center Circle garden welcomes visitors with native California plants and flora from areas around the world with a similar climate. All the foliage was carefully selected to thrive year-round in a water-scarce Southern California.


“This new garden demonstrates that low-water landscaping can be lush and beautiful,” said Richard Atwater, executive director of the Southern California Water Committee and a Descanso Gardens trustee. “Many people don’t realize that in cities, about half of our water is used for outdoor landscaping. Switching to low-water landscaping, like the Center Circle Garden, can save homeowners from 20 to 30 percent on their water bill.” Atwater mentioned that his home water bill dropped 40 percent when he swapped his traditional lawn for low-water plants.


This ground cover is a water-conscious alternative to traditional lawns. On the left is Angelina Sedum, the right, Bentgrass.

The idea of a drought-tolerant exhibit had been in the making for the past two years, according to Rachel Young, Director of Horticulture and Garden Operations at Descanso Gardens. Young says they had been thinking about how the state could save water, so they began work on transforming their changing Center Circle garden display. She recalls Descanso Garden’s mission of stewardship – inspiring Angelenos to replace thirsty yards with water-sipping plants and greenery.

A popular California native shrub, this is also known as California Lilac because of its bright blue clusters of flowers. Credit: Descanso Gardens.

A popular California native shrub, this is also known as California Lilac because of its bright blue clusters of flowers. Credit: Descanso Gardens.

The Center Circle garden presents a new look for Los Angeles gardens – one that foregoes the traditional lawn in favor of plants that are more vibrant and lower maintenance.  It is foremost a demonstration garden, featuring distinctive plants and hardscape, as well as the latest in irrigation technology, and it illustrates what a homeowner could achieve in their own garden. The garden is complemented by educational materials, including plant lists, to inspire do-it-yourselfers who want to achieve a similar landscape look. Many of the plants featured in the garden will be available seasonally for purchase in the Descanso Gardens gift shop.


The garden is designed to capture and use all of its water efficiently. Here, you can see the walkway covered with permeable dirt, allowing it to absorb water.

“Low water is normal for Los Angeles, and nothing will make a bigger difference for our water future than rethinking how we design our landscapes,” said Descanso Gardens Executive Director David R. Brown. “We are committed to showing Los Angeles that there is no competition between low water and high design.”


Descanso Gardens enlisted FormLA Landscaping, a firm that specializes in designing sustainable landscapes that echo Los Angeles’ diverse architectural styles.

Also known as Common Yarrow, this plant has been used medicinally since ancient times. It is covered with clusters of small white flowers. Credit: Descanso Gardens.

Also known as Common Yarrow, this plant has been used medicinally since ancient times. It is covered with clusters of small white flowers. Credit: Descanso Gardens.

“Not only do we not need to sacrifice aesthetics in Los Angeles, we can achieve a lusher, more vibrant look using foliage designed to thrive in our climate,” said Cassy Aoyagi, LEED AP, president of both FormLA Landscaping and the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants. “Just because you want a drought-tolerant garden, doesn’t mean you have to settle for a plot of cacti.”

Salvia clevelandii

Five varieties of sage were used in the Center Circle Garden installation. The flowers of these tough plants attract hummingbirds and pollinating insects. This one is Cleveland Sage. Credit: Descanso Gardens.


Eric Crow, a landscape architect with FormLA, explained their use of a bioswale to channel rainwater into a shallow pond, where it can trickle down and replenish the groundwater. He also mentioned the implementation of drip emitters to deliver water directly to the roots, instead of wasteful pop-up sprinklers.


Above is the bioswale feature of the Center Circle garden. It is designed to trap excess rainwater into a pond and slowly dissipate it into the ground.


Another water-saving feature of the garden is its gabions (derived from an Italian word meaning “big cage”). These gabions are wire cages filled with rocks to form columns and support wooden benches. These porous structures let rainwater fall through to the ground and irrigate the garden.

The gabions used arond the garden

The gabions used arond the garden

The drought-tolerant garden at Descanso had only been planted for a month, so they still have yet to mature. FormLA Landscaping also completed a project for the La Canada Public Library. FormLA transformed each of the plots around the library to host native plants from the different Mediterranean climates around the world including Australia, the Mediterranean Basin, California to name a few. Below are a few pictures of what the Center Circle garden will look like after two years.







Re-landscaping can be an expensive task, but thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency drought declaration, the LADWP will be offering up to $3.75 per square foot for the first 1,500 square feet and $2 per square foot thereafter.  Even after replacing a traditional lawn, with something much more water-wise, a new low-water yard may require far less upkeep. Find more information here.

There’s no excuse to waste water anymore. With the Governor’s state of emergency declaration, California is in a dire situation. Visit Descanso Gardens to get some ideas on how to replace your thirsty grass with something more California friendly. You can learn more about Descanso Gardens and their Circle Center installation at their website.

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