The Road To Hell Is Paved With Chunky Gravel And Indifferently Chosen Plants

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**Trigger Warning*** This is a rant, and the images that follow may be unpleasant to some. They certainly are to ME.

A bit of background to set the stage: Los Angeles is in a severe drought. Considering the fact that Los Angeles is a city built in a desert and reliant almost 100% on water imported from outside its boundaries, you’d think water conservation would have always been a top priority, but no. We cycle in and out of water concern with every severe drought. During a water shortage, there is a panic. The Dept of Water and Power becomes draconian, establishing tiers for water usage and making it expensive to go over a (very generous, in my opinion) allotment. You have to ask for water at restaurants (people HATE this). Everyone flutters around, righteously proclaiming their drought awareness and talking about how little they shower and giving advice on how to wash a large load of dishes with one cup of tepid tap water. Once the Sierra snowpack (where we get most of our water) is replenished, the same people go right back into boom times, and start watering their big, beautiful lawns more than the every-other-day those meanies at DWP had previously enforced.

Then came the rebates. For the past few years, the Dept of Water and Power in Los Angeles has been giving people money for taking out their lawns – it is currently up to $4 a square foot. People are now ripping out lawns will-nilly, eager for the money and to lower their water bill.

So here enters a villain, maybe – or to some, a hero, maybe. A certain company who promises FREE LANDSCAPES. What they do is take the rebate and use that money to install a brand new “landscape”. Awesome, you say! A free garden! How could that be bad, you snarky and mean old Ivette Soler! Hold your horses, dear reader – gardens these are definitely NOT. Those rebates are usually within the $2000 – $4000 range, sometimes more … and the “landscapes” they get in exchange are a weary assortment of tiny drought tolerant standards lined up in rectangles, poking out of a thick layer of chunky gravel. Underneath that sad sea of gravel is probably landscape cloth just waiting to poke itself up out of the ground cover layer like the many-headed hydra we know it to be. And underneath THAT are most certainly drip lines, set up in a rectangle, also waiting to breech the thick rocks and offend all who look upon them.

This is NOT what I thought the new, state-of-the-art style of drought tolerant landscape was going to look like!

A detail of the planted beauty

From what I see, the resulting “landscapes” cost about $500 – $750 to install, including materials and labor. I secretly watched an installation – it was done in less than a day, including the removal of the existing lawn.

Here is another offending gravelscape – or load of “free” rocks with a few plants stuck in there

People should be able to use these refunds to install reasonable drought tolerant gardens, maybe not fancy ones, but certainly not these impoverished affairs! I am visually, financially, ethically and horticulturally offended! I think this company is a scheme! A rip-off! BUT – it seems like it is a legitimate and legal business. In my opinion it is a travesty. OR it is a very smart and canny business model. I am torn! I think both things. They have made putting in a quote unquote drought tolerant landscape easy. You don’t have to think about anything – just give them your rebate and they’ll give you … something like this.

For about $3k – $4k, (again, within the range of most rebates), people could get a drought tolerant garden like THESE, done by another LA company. I don’t know who the designer is, but I admire their work and am eager to see more of their front yards in the future. Goodness knows we need planted beauty to help battle the blight of the free rebated landscapes that are currently infesting our rain-starved city!

Here is a nice, clean, simple, spare, drought tolerant landscape. THIS.

Another simple, clean, straightforward, WELL-DESIGNED drought tolerant garden. The difference is important!

What say the Ranters? Am I being harsh? Judgey? Or do I have a point?

Posted by

Ivette Soler
on February 24, 2015 at 11:00 pm, in the category CRRRITIC, Everybody’s a Critic.

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18 Comments

  1. 2nd January 2015 at 11:51 pm —

    I know Pam! It’s so distressing, because these are all within a 2 block radius of my home. My garden is currently no jewel, but at least there is design and effort put in! Unfortunately, this kind of garden is becoming the standard and it is much less visually appealing than what it replaced. It hurts to say that, as an long time anti-lawn advocate! I want to give all of my neighbors a copy of your book and say THIS!!! not THAT!!!

  2. 17th October 2016 at 10:14 pm —

    I wonder the same thing, Joe! In a way, I get it – many people aren’t into gardens or aesthetics. They just want something that is acceptable, and they don’t want it to cost a lot. So these people ARE giving a needed service, but the results are truly hideous! I am so torn. I’m glad the lawns are out and that water is being saved, but much of my professional life has been devoted to figuring out how to make beautiful gardens in SoCal without being irresponsible vis a vis the water thing. Beautiful is the key word. When the homeowners see the work these people do, how can they say – Yes, I want that in front of my home. Not every home is suited to gravel and bits of tiny plants (I’d say NO home is suited, really), architecturally speaking. But the people who do this are obviously seizing an opportunity to make a fast buck – which, in our capitalist democracy – is perfectly fine. But its not pretty!!!!

  3. 24th October 2016 at 8:38 pm —

    Wow. That was just a poor excuse of a gravel garden… I think gravel gardenalmost always just look scattered, 20 different plants spaced evenly does nothing for me. The last pic was nice, a little story and dynamic to it. Road -gravel -house combo is a really boring and sterile design.

  4. 30th October 2016 at 2:00 am —

    Hi Louise! I happen to LOVE gravel and I’m always trying to talk my clients into some gravel component in a garden, whether it be paths or as a patio or as a chic mulch for the right kind of planting – but it has to be the perfect type of rock! Not that chunky stuff! You can’t walk on it, it looks bad … the only use I see for them is lining infiltration pits. The first 2 yards really give gravel a bad name, and I hate that! Now I am going to have a very hard time talking clients into gravel, because they will think I am going to do that to them! The last 2 gardens are really lovely and very appropriate to the houses. They are spare, but I think the lushness will come in time, as they are both fairly new. I’m so glad you see the difference between them! Thanks for commenting!

  5. 22nd November 2016 at 1:09 pm —

    I hate gravel. Not that it always looks bad; I’ve seen some wonderful beautiful gardens with large swaths of it, often drought tolerant landscapes. But…

  6. 24th November 2016 at 4:22 am —

    I’m glad you asked this Kermit! I love an opportunity to explain why I love gravel. First, gravel is a very budget friendly ground cover, and requires very little maintenance to keep it looking good – BUT, just like anything, that gravel has to be well-chosen and part of a cohesive design, otherwise it will look cheap and arbitrary, like the bad gardens posted above. Secondly, the kind of plants I work with the most love it. Lean, rocky soils are butter to xeric plants, they are so happy when ensconced within a nice bed of gravelly goodness. Something also happens that came as a surprise to me – I found that most of my edible volunteers loved gravel much more than they did the chocolate-cake beds of compost I had all laid out for them. Invariably, the seeds would sprout best in the gravel pathways in between the beds. My investigations into this phenomenon found that many seeds find gravel a perfect medium for germination – dark, a little moist from the mulching effect, and sharply drained. It is an excellent mulch – reflecting light and heat away from the soil layer and keeping it nice cooler in the scorching summers and holding moisture in, and it doesn’t get moldy like bark can (and I think it looks better when used in the right way). BUT it is not appropriate in every case! And it does look bleak and prison-like if it isn’t integrated well into a design! There are all kinds of drought tolerant gardens, and gravel isn’t the only option for ground cover! So my rant against these gardens isn’t really against gravel – it is against that awful chunky stuff used in a thoughtless way.

  7. 24th November 2016 at 7:59 am —

    I’m such a fan of gravel as a mulch and design element! This is a good defense of it.

  8. 24th November 2016 at 10:12 am —

    Thank you my Captain! I was really not wanting to be too harsh but damn, I agree – this deserved it! I would be so sad to see this kind of planting become the new default in southern California. It would be worse than lawn. I can’t believe I am saying that, but I’m heartsick seeing these go up everywhere.

  9. 24th November 2016 at 10:27 am —

    Hilarious.

  10. 24th November 2016 at 12:31 pm —

    You are right, Tara. It will affect property values. The neighborhoods will start to look bleak and uniformly gray, and worse – the trees may be affected because of the lack of supplemental water. What was thought of as a good way to get people to think about overusing our precious resource is going to have many unintended consequences. Sigh. It is s typically short-sighted policy whose repercussions we are going to have to live with, and it’s not going to look good.

  11. 24th November 2016 at 12:56 pm —

    That’s.Just.Sad

  12. 24th November 2016 at 12:56 pm —

    You said it Jane!

  13. 24th November 2016 at 12:56 pm —

    Are there no yards simply replaced with ice plants down there? They are easy to maintain, and during the summer they would provide a blinding festival of bright colors. As I recall, many of the highways down there have median strips and borders planted with them.

  14. 24th November 2016 at 12:56 pm —

    Kermit, don’t get me started! I will use an ice plant every now and then, but again – when appropriate. Too many people will throw down ice plant instead of thinking about what they are planting. But you do have a point – in the world of drought tolerant ground covers, I would MUCH rather look at a yard full of whatever variety of ice plant vs ugly chunky gravel. But we can do so much better than both!

  15. 24th November 2016 at 1:00 pm —

    I also am a garden designer in Los Angeles who sees the above gravelscapes as hideous. But I think in some cases, the previous existing garden was also unlovely & unloved by the homeowners. Some folks are just indifferent to their outside spaces. The stone suppliers must be making a bloody fortune!

  16. 24th November 2016 at 9:06 pm —

    Hi Nina! Ugh, aren’t they the worst? And since you are in the industry, you can price out that kind of yard and see that the actual cost was so little! Of course every company has overhead and operating expenses (they had a big, shiny new truck with their logo proudly emblazoned on it) – but they are making big profit on low budget gardens, which is almost impossible. So in one way I have to hand it to them – it is a very smart business model. But it isn’t RIGHT. And at this point I’m not sure that a weedy lawn is worse. Imagine the heat island effect if more and more people use highly reflective gravel as the default ground cover! We need more greenspace, not less! Especially in a drought. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the idea of drought tolerance is a big one and to live under drought conditions doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice our gardens, even at the lower end of the price points. I wonder what the owner of this business thinks about the spaces she/he is creating. And yes – the quarries are going to be the winners in the end, to the detriment of our hills and mountains, which also need protecting and preservation! AAARGG! I’m getting all hot and rangy about this! Nice to chat with you!

  17. 25th November 2016 at 3:29 am —

    I hate myself for laughing. But I did. It was probably a horror reflex. Anyone who has a ‘garden’ like this should have to pay an extra tax for adding to the heat island effect.

  18. 25th November 2016 at 12:58 pm —

    Right, Debra? It should be part of some city ordinance! No more than X number of squ ft of ugly chunky gravel per garden! These people will be really sorry in the summer, when the glare and the heat coming off the rocks makes these gardens more than just visually unpleasant – they will be seriously uncomfortable.

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The Road To Hell Is Paved With Chunky Gravel And Indifferently Chosen Plants