Photographer: Debra Lee Baldwin

California's Drought-Stricken Elite Trade Lawns for Luxury Cactuses

A drought gives rise to high-end landscape design that favors stylish succulents

James Burnett, a landscape architect hired to build a public garden on a 15-acre tract of the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., dug his heels in the desert sand. His client, Leonore Annenberg wanted a lush, English-style garden that would flow seamlessly into the water-hog golf course at which she and her late husband, the publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg, had hosted such political and entertainment luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan. “We convinced her that it would be better to build something that would be sustainable and practical and a model for a new approach to gardening in the Sonoran Desert,” Burnett says.

The designer's intransigence put the Annenberg garden ahead of the emerging fashion for low-moisture, naturalistic landscaping on luxurious properties. Burnett embraced aloe, a spiky, flowering succulent that’s a favorite of hummingbirds, and he planted barrel cactus by the hundred. “I wanted to take a van Gogh approach to painting the desert,” Burnett said. The gardens, which opened in 2012, do look lush, thanks to 53,000 desert-native plants that flourish, despite using only 20 percent of the water allowed by local law. Three years later, drought-tolerant landscape design is blooming across the state. 

Cacti at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Cacti at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

As California’s water shortage grows more severe and local governments enact increasingly stringent conservation policies, homeowners across the state are reimagining their lawns. Conservation-minded designers have championed permeable walkways that allow any rainfall to be absorbed, as well as fruit-bearing trees that offer an edible bounty in return for the water spent. Others have opted for fescue and buffalo grass instead of thirstier varieties, or even artificial turf that requires no water at all.

Succulents, in particular, are enjoying a moment in the sun as landscaper designers turn to the fleshy, water-retaining category of plant for bursts of color: campfire crassula , pink echeveria, and a kind of euphorbia called sticks on fire. “It wasn’t so long ago that I would go scouting gardens and people would say, ‘I hate succulents,’” says Debra Lee Baldwin, author of Succulents Simplified and additional books on the subject. “Now people are coming to me and asking about them by their Latin names.”

The enthusiasm has helped drive business for designers like Eva Knoppel of the Los Angeles-based design shop, Garden of Eva Landscape Design Group, which is receiving 10 calls a day from homeowners who want to cut their water bills. Nurseries such as the California Cactus Center, a Pasadena business that specializes in succulents, also report rising sales. Altman Plants, a Vista (Calif.)-based horticulturalist, even opened an online cactus shop to keep up with drought-driven demand.

Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown Jr. ordered water agencies to cut usage by 25 percent and called for 50 million square feet of grass lawns to be replaced with drought-tolerant installations. Cities, meanwhile, are offering both stick and carrot to curtail water use. Los Angeles will pay residents up to $3.75 per square foot of lawn they pull up, a policy that has eliminated 15 million sq. ft. of grass since 2009. Santa Monica fines residents for watering lawns during daytime hours or allowing water to run off onto sidewalks and driveways.

Photographer: Garden of Eva Landscape Design Group

Modern houses with spare architectural design happen to look sharp with water-efficient plants. “About 50 percent of the projects we see under construction are going in the direction of a modular, modernistic style that happens to lend itself to drought-tolerant landscaping,” says Brad Fowles, a landscape designer in Moorpark, Calif. At one of his current work sites in Pacific Palisades, an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles, Fowles says he ripped up rose gardens and a grass lawn to replace them a wood deck, barbecue area, and poured concrete planters filled with agave americana, sedum, and a flowering succulent called peruviana.  

Not everyone is rushing in. “High-end clients with finer homes are not always concerned with the cost of water or being water-efficient,” says Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association. Even as local governments have implemented penalties for excessive water use, many wealthy homeowners simply opt to pay the fines.

At the other end of the spectrum, cost-conscious residents have installed barren lawns to maximize savings, particularly in cities that pay residents to replace grass lawns with drought-tolerant materials. Glimmering succulents and Mediterranean bushes qualify for the landscaping payments—as do plain old rocks and dirt.

The government payouts have lured some landscapers into the practice of turf arbitrage, replacing grass lawns for the right to collect their customers’ rebates. “They give you a front yard that is so bleak, basically a bunch of chunky rocks and a few carelessly chosen plants frozen in a grid,” says Ivette Soler, a garden designer and the author of The Edible Front Yard. “The more I see these kinds of yards go up, the more I see the character of the city starting to diminish.”

The costs of planting a beautiful, drought-tolerant garden, on the other hand, can quickly add up. Jeanne Meadow, a retired pharmaceutical executive, began replacing a grass lawn around her 4,500-sq.-ft. San Diego County home in 2009. Today, she lives surrounded by thousands of succulents, including 15-ft.-tall aloe trees and tiny senecio serpens. Any cost savings on the water that once went into her lawn have been spent several times over on cactuses. “There’s no real calculation,” she says. “I had an understanding that we were living in a desert and importing water. I said: 'Let’s see what these plants can do.' It turns out, they’re really pretty magical if you know what you’re doing.”

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