Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Use Your Garden Water Wisely and For Pleasure

By Ron Sullivan
Friday April 27, 2007

After driving past for months and months, I noticed an opportune parking space and misbehaved badly enough to get it, and so I finally got inside the Sahara Import shop on Ashby just east of Shattuck.  

I was greeted by a friendly young woman and the offer of Moroccan tea, which proved to be a little glass of mint tea just sweet enough to heighten the flavor. Lovely. Among the handsome jewelry pieces and lamps and even a small selection of clothing, I found a few garden or courtyard fountains. 

Made with that fantastically complicated, geometric-patterned tile that characterizes several kinds of Arabic architecture, these came in both wall-hung lavabo and ground-level central-basin styles, in blue-and-white and multicolor schemes. 

I’ve always thought the effect of these was refreshing and oddly restful, for something with so visually complicated a surface. The blue-and-white arrangement in particular dramatizes the effect of clear moving water in a hot dry place, declaring the place an oasis.  

Water, of course, actually does cool the immediate area around it. So do trees and other plants—measurably!—as they use energy in respiration and photosynthesis, and exhale water vapor along with oxygen.  

There’s generally a conflict in a California pleasure garden between water conservation—always a good thing, whether it’s an official drought year or not—and having a pleasant place to hang out on a hot day. We do get a few of those even on the west side of the hills, and it really is cheaper in terms of natural resources as well as money to have a green retreat than to air-condition a whole house.  

The classic strategy for allotting water to a garden seems to have been inspired by an aesthetic tactic that’s also happily useful for our nonhuman neighbors. This method concentrates the most manicured and/or exotic plants, the most clearly human spaces, in one area—usually close to the house—and lets the rest of the garden shift toward a looser, more natural look.  

The water equivalent gets the most use out of water by concentrating water-loving plants in one place—again, often nearest the house and the existing plumbing—and moving toward more drought-tolerant stuff farther out.  

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but a pond or pool or fountain—a “water feature” in trade jargon—is another way to get the most bang for your bucket. In fact, I’ve heard it said that a reasonably maintained swimming pool uses less water than an equivalent area of lawn, depending on where it’s sited.  

That’s defensible if you understand the radiator principle and evapotranspiration. Water vapor gets thrown off every blade of grass, which adds up to an area many times the evaporative surface of a pool.  

Most water plants are sun-lovers. If you want a water feature in the shade, it works well to have a decorative tiled pool or fountain like the ones you’ll see in Sahara Import and surround it with shade-loving plants in pots or in the ground.  



Sahara Import 

2110 Ashby Ave. 


Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.