Curious About Drought Tolerant Landscape Design? Read This Interview With Our Very Own Expert Bill Wagner APLD!

People on the Move

We recently sat down with Bill Wagner, LandCare’s Landscape Designer APLD for the Southwest and SoCal regions. Wagner’s office walls are covered with many of his landscape creations over the years and provide a testimonial to his immense talent, particularly when it comes to drought tolerant landscape design. Wagner’s ability to seamlessly blend uncompromising aesthetics with water-conscious plant palettes puts him in high-demand as prolonged drought continues to impact the two regions he serves.

1. How did you get into designing landscapes?

I was actually a pre-med major and wanted to be a physical therapist, but as I got into my coursework, I realized I just didn’t have any passion for the field. I wanted a more creative profession and I wanted to work and create outdoors. So I switched to the school of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. It was a good move. The major was really hands-with at least half of my learning experience in a design studio. When I got the opportunity to design in my major, I knew I had made the right decision for my future.

2. Many of your designs involve drought tolerant elements. Why is that?

Because I live and work in San Diego, I can say that our city has been a forerunner in drought tolerant landscapes. Long before the drought, many projects I worked on focused on converting to more water friendly landscapes, especially in the commercial sector. As the severity of the drought has increased, other areas such as the residential market have certainly caught on and have realized that we need to adapt to this. I believe that San Diego made a water conscious requirement long before everyone else did.

3. Due to current drought conditions in California and elsewhere, many of our clients are becoming more concerned with having drought resistant sites. What determines if a landscape is drought tolerant?

Water use obviously. For Southern California, you will see that most tropical plant material has a high water use. Many people not familiar to the area view this area as a tropical oasis. They do not realize that we actually live in a desert.

Here, Bill puts the finishing touches on a new drought tolerant landscape. When I asked Bill what materials are now vital to LandCare due to the drought he said with a laugh, “Sod cutters!”Here, Bill puts the finishing touches on a new drought tolerant landscape. When I asked Bill what materials are now vital to LandCare due to the drought he said with a laugh, “Sod cutters!”4. How do you approach a design? What factors do you consider when creating drought tolerant landscapes?

It is all about the client and what they ultimately want. Then I consider the type of property it is, the existing plant palette, the geographic location, and ultimately what how much water use the client is looking to cut. I try to stick with plant material that has been successful and proven. I like to work with what I believe will make the property shine and what the client will approve of.

Here, Bill puts the finishing touches on a new drought tolerant landscape. When I asked Bill what materials are now vital to LandCare due to the drought he said with a laugh, “Sod cutters!”

5. What are the most popular drought tolerant designs?

It varies. Again, it depends on what people like as well as the location. Trends seem to lean towards using more succulents along the coast. As you move inland, California natives or adaptives, water friendly plants, ornamental grasses, and desert-scapes seem to be more popular. A lot of this is based on temperature as well.

6. What are the steps in the process to make a client’s property water friendly and how long does a project typically take?

  1. Design/Budget
  2. Clients approval
  3. Getting rebates if possible
  4. Installation
  5. Maintenance

How long it takes really depends on the size of the job. We can propose a job and complete it within it within a month or it could take six months or longer.


7. How has the California drought impacted the landscape industry?

When Southern California was developing in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s a lot of facilities had turf installed because it was the most economical medium, and water was cheap and plentiful. Now, many are removing and converting turf to water friendly landscapes so they can save money and contribute to water conservation.

I think there is a common misconception about drought tolerant landscapes. Most people do not know or understand that it is still possible to have a beautiful landscape that can save water. The industry is being challenged to be more clever with design, and when we succeed we can change clients’ perceptions of what a drought tolerant design will look like.


8. How has LandCare adapted to the change in the landscape industry due to the drought?

LandCare understands that while our customers want to save money and water, they also want their sites to remain attractive. We have fun designing landscapes that are not only resource-efficient, but are beautiful to the eye. We try to be proactive about educating our clients on ways they can save water, including landscape renovations, more comprehensive water management programs, and installing more efficient irrigation systems.

We will also look into using state funded rebate programs to help with turf conversion, where available. On-going maintenance is the key to success of any design, and that often involves leveraging technology to make the best use of the water that’s available. We help our clients choose the most appropriate technology, such as smart clocks and efficient irrigation components, that will keep their site healthy and beautiful.


9. Has the landscape industry as a whole been able to adapt to this change?

As far as appealing design goes, there is still a lot to be learned. Many landscape companies are behind the curve in drought tolerant designs that are both effective and visually appealing. Most landscapers understand which plants, materials and technology are required to make the designs efficient, but they don’t always turn out to be the most attractive. How the designs look in the end is vital to our clients because their business depends on the image their property looking good. They trust us to save them money through water conservation and are while they are happy to help the environment they are not willing to compromise on curb appeal.

I’d like to see the industry provide more education in drought tolerant design, maybe establish a water smart certification to educate landscapers further on this issue, especially with respect to aesthetically pleasing, drought tolerant designs.


10. Do you think that water efficient landscaping will continue even when the drought is over?

Yes, in California in particular, it is going to continue because the states infrastructure in terms of reservoirs and water storage is way behind where it should be. And as the population grows, water will continue to be a valuable asset. We need to look at what Australia did during their drought and I believe we are. They had a very similar situation to what we are currently going through. However, during their drought they concentrated on infrastructure to capture the rains when they returned….now they are not as vulnerable to drought. We can learn from Australia’s efforts and use their model as a reference. The bottom line is, we can all live and survive without turf, but we can’t live without water.

 Left: Wagner's previous work displayed on his office walls. Right, Wagner is sketching out a drought tolerant design for a Client. Left: Wagner’s previous work displayed on his office walls. Right, Wagner is sketching out a drought tolerant design for a Client.

Thanks for your insight, Bill!