Drought Threatens Southern California Gardeners’ Survival

Posted in: Drought, United States Water News, Water Conservation, Water Crisis
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Landscaper Francisco Garcia mows the frontyard lawn for one of his clients on a recent afternoon in Fontana. Photo credit: John Valenzuela — staff Photographer

Article courtesy of Lesile Parrilla | November 8, 2014 | San Bernardino Sun | Shared as educational material

Salvador Munoz has dripped 35 years of sweat onto West Los Angeles lawns, rising with the searing California sun to haul heavy leaf-blowers and push bulky lawnmowers 12 hours a day until dark.

“I’m old, but I can’t survive without working,” said 72-year-old Munoz. whose skin had no wrinkles when he started as a gardener decades ago. The profession was easier then, and worth it.

But it’s likely to get more difficult, experts say. The industry of professional gardening is evolving, demanding new skills of workers for water conservation. Gardeners who choose not to adapt, or don’t know how, will be left behind, experts say.

Gardeners are faced with statewide drought conditions this year and staggering statistics showing thousands of California homeowners converting plush green landscapes to drought-resistant yards that need less maintenance from gardeners. Workers say they don’t feel threatened or see their jobs evaporating like the state’s water supplies. They simply plan to do what is instinctual — adapt.

That malleability is what experts say will save the gardening industry over the next decade, and prevent it from slipping into extinction.

“It’s not giving up, and I think Latinos, that’s what we have. We try to do everything,” said Jaime Aleman, a veteran gardener originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, with about 30 years of experience and with clients across the San Fernando Valley. “That’s our culture. We’re hard workers and we try to do a lot of things.”

A malleable attitude is the only thing that’s going to keep residential and commercial gardeners from capsizing in the long run, said water efficiency expert Bill McDonnell of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He points to statistics indicating that standard “mow, blow, and go” gardeners who don’t jump on the water conservation bandwagon to become stewards of water management will likely be left behind.

In a few short decades, McDonnell sees grassy Southern California landscapes as the rarity and drought-free desert and Mediterranean yards as customary, reshaping the entire Southern California panorama.

Recent Southern California statistics tend to back up McDonnell’s vision of the region’s future.

In August, about 2,500 Southern California residents sent in requests for rebates to remove 3.8 million square feet of turf from their front yards, a number that had languished in the thousands as recently as January.

But recent incentives, coupled with such dry conditions, has prompted a trend that has skyrocketed.

Golf courses, school districts, parks and homeowners associations are requesting rebates for plucking the green stuff and replacing it with desert or drought-resistant plants.

“It was like lighting a bottle rocket. It just took off,” McDonnell said of applications for turf removal rebates.

The shift has homeowners across Southern California letting go of the workers who for so long pruned, mowed and blowed lawns from Rialto to Torrance.

North Fontana retiree Bill Freeman sweeps his synthetic lawn with a broom about once a month. After 10 years, he let his gardener go, and now pays $10 a month for someone to trim the few bushes that remain. Adding synthetic grass helps Freeman lean green. “We’re pretty green. We have extra insulation in the house. We both drive hybrids. Plus, it looks good when it’s clean,”he said.

A few streets away, John Marsh uses a blower to clear debris from his perfectly manicured, shiny synthetic lawn installed in July. The small front yard on Hacienda Way no longer requires a gardener, and irrigation takes care of the few live plants.

Aleman, the San Fernando Valley gardener, said he doesn’t plan to suffer the kind of fate Marsh’s landscaper faced, because he’s adapting to their needs. Although he has only one drought-resistant yard in North Hollywood, he is learning the skills necessary to keep him in business, maintaining and installing drought-resistant landscapes.

“We have to learn all that because we don’t want somebody else to come for our client,” Aleman said. “We did a job last year where I changed all the plants and planted succulents and gravel around.”

Gardeners on the other side of the equation, who aren’t adapting, are suffering, said Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Service Center, who provides legal services to the immigrant population.

“They’re losing clients,” Amaya said. “One of my clients does gardening during the week. Then he collects trash,” to accommodate the loss of income. Others sell items at swap meets or find jobs in other unregulated industries such as car washes or as dishwashers, trades already saturated in Southern California. If things become bad enough, that population will likely migrate to another state where water maintenance is not an issue, said Alvaro Huerta, assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies Cal Poly Pomona.

Most gardeners say they realize the future of “mow, blow and go” gardening is not sustainable. But they’re not losing customers yet with any regularity, and expect the change will come gradually because Americans who lust for the lush green landscape won’t let go of it overnight.

Southern California won’t transform into a succulent paradise or Meditterranean mecca overnight. Lush green yards dripping with non-native plants are part of the American dream, Huerta said.

“Angelenos are not going to buy into that type of aesthetic,” he said. “The front lawn has been the symbol of the American dream …. Even if their kids don’t use it or play on it… just like the automobile… For Americans to change their habits, it’s going to take them awhile.”

“It’s going to take a while, but the gardeners will have to change,” said McDonnell, Metropolitan’s water efficiency expert. “I think the guy who sees his job as mow and blow is going to be out of a job in 20 years. But the guy who comes to your house and thinks, my job is to manage your landscaping and say, ‘you need to put in gutters to conserve water and drip irrigation,’ they’ll stay in business.”

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