In His Words: Ed Begley, Jr. on Drought-Tolerant Landscaping

May 27, 2015 | By

In the drought-stricken state of California, water conservation has become an unavoidable requirement for homeowners. In fact, the state has mandated everyone to reduce their water use by 25 percent.

This means that washing driveways and sidewalks with potable water is now a no-no. If you want to water your lawn, you’ll now have only two days out of the week to do it — but you can’t water your lawns with potable water for 48 hours after a rainfall.

Many are just letting their lawns go brown. Angry residents have taken to “#droughtshaming” their neighbors on social media for violating statewide water restrictions and keeping their landscapes lush and green.

Then there’s Ed Begley, Jr., a celebrity who likely won’t be on the receiving end of a #droughtshame anytime soon. The environmentalist and actor — who is known for his work on “St. Elsewhere,” “Arrested Development,” and “A Mighty Wind,” among many others — has been putting the finishing touches on his new LEED Platinum Certified home in Studio City, California (the home is the subject of the web series “On Begley Street”).

One area of the house he has given considerable attention to: his drought-tolerant landscaping and the greywater and rainwater systems that he has put in place.

Begley tells The Home Story how he designed his backyard, and how homeowners everywhere can turn to drought-tolerant landscaping.

As told to The Home Story (edited for brevity):

The Value of Rainwater

Ed Begley, Jr.

The backyard of Ed Begley, Jr’s new LEED Platinum Certified home in Studio City, CA. (Ed Begley, Jr.)

I’ve captured rainwater for years with a rain barrel. I used to hack off the downspouts from my rain gutters with a hacksaw and put a rain barrel underneath it. This was in my old house. Later, I installed a 550-gallon tank underground and I would collect rainwater there, but that wasn’t really enough.

In the new house, long before any foundation was in place, we put in a 10,000-gallon rainwater tank. It’s a huge amount of storage and a lot of my environmental friends said, “Ed, I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re in a drought! How are you going to fill up a 10,000-gallon tank in a drought? Are you crazy?!”

Well, I’m here to tell you that after something like five to seven inches of rain during the period of November to February, my rain barrel was totally full. I can start irrigating now if I wanted to.

You can’t use the rainwater to shower, brush your teeth, or to cook with, because you could have squirrels and birds up there doing what you can imagine. And if you drank it untreated, you could end up getting sick.

Greywater

I have citrus trees that require more water. I won’t even use any of my rainwater on that, I don’t think. That will all come from my greywater, which will be a daily allotment of water that will be filtered out through series of mechanical filters and then through a mulch pit (I had some irrigation experts help me design this). This filters out all the soap and hair and stuff like that from the showers, the laundry, and the bathroom sinks.

Once it is filtered it will be a nice, healthy flow of water to my fruit trees. There is a diversion valve with any greywater system that can divert the flow to the sewer if you use any unproved chemicals in the shower or laundry. The system also diverts “blackwater” to the sewer. Blackwater is water from the toilet or the kitchen sink, which has a lot of organics in it that are not friendly to the landscape.

I have also reduced my demand for water by installing low-flow Kohler WaterSense showerheads, low-flow faucets in the kitchen and the bathroom, and low-flush toilets. Thanks to those important steps, I now have low demand in the house for water.

Vegetables

Because I like to eat like farmers in the Central Valley like to eat, I will be growing some corn, some tomatoes, some lettuce, some broccoli, and some onions. I’ll be growing all of these vegetables in a very confined and efficient way, with raised beds and minimal water usage (which will all come from my rainwater supply).

Trees

EdBegleyOakTree3

A majestic oak tree in Ed Begley, Jr.’s backyard. (Ed Begley, Jr.)

The two drought-friendly trees that I already have on the property — and have been there longer than me or anyone else in the neighborhood — are oak trees. They have very deep roots, and they go down deep enough to where they are still able to get water. We will certainly be giving some rainwater to those trees, as well. If the drought continues or — God help us — worsens, those trees will survive because of the way I am capturing, storing, and allotting rainwater.

I also have matching olive trees and two avocado trees (I need two for them to pollinate properly). I will have some citrus trees, and I might get an apple tree, or maybe a plum tree. All of those trees do require water, and they will be getting it from my greywater supply.

Front Yards

There won’t be so much as a postage stamp-sized piece of lawn on my property. There will be pavers and there will be rocks. I will also have drought-tolerant shrubs: ceanothus, toyon, lavender, and sage — all of which require very little water.

If you live in California, you should take out your front lawn right now! The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program will pay you for replacing turf with water wise landscaping features — like mulch and permeable pathways. [Editor’s note — residential customers can get $3.75 per acre for the first 1,500 square foot, and $2 per square foot for the rest of the lawn. You can visit here for more details].

Three things homeowners can do to enhance their water conservation

  1. Turn off the faucet when you’re brushing your teeth or when you’re shaving. I take a “navy shower” — I get myself wet, I turn off the water, I soap up, and then I turn the shower back on and wash off.
  2. Buy WaterSense faucets, toilets, dishwashers, and washing machines.
  3. Stop hosing off your driveway and washing your car. Use waterless carwash products instead.
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