Turf Mullets and 9 Surprises from “Swimming in Succulents” at Palm Springs; Thank You Designers

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Frances Anderton, Brad Dunning, Craig Ewing, Michaeleen Gallagher and Stu Rowland

This weekend DnA went on the road to Palm Springs, to join desert style enthusiasts at Modernism Week. We set up at MW’s “Camp” in front of KCRW’s “living room” filled with objects by LA designers (see below).

While there we hosted a discussion, entitled Swimming With Succulents, about desert backyards in an age of drought. 

What could have been a rather dry topic proved quite juicy because the guests — Brad Dunning, Michaeleen Gallagher, Craig Ewing and Stu Rowland — were so interesting on the future of the Palm Springs outdoor style, defined by golf course, swimming pool and colorful garden flowers.

Check out these takeaways from the conversation. 

1. Palm Springs Residents Top Water-Guzzlers in US

Palm Springs residents guzzle up to twice as much water as the average American home, even including Las Vegans (though Craig Ewing pointed out this number changes depends how you calculate water use — per capita or per household or per annum versus part-time occupancy).

2. The Water Supply is Drying Up

Palm Springs draws water from a groundwater supply that has dropped by around 55 feet in the last 50 years and now has to be supplemented by water from the Colorado River.

3. Golf Courses Are Prime Culprits

Coachella Valley has more than 123 golf courses in the Coachella Valley that each drink a reported million gallons per day. But according to Craig Ewing, president of the Board of the Desert Water Authority, most of that water is recycled.

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4. Golf is Not Eternal

According to Ewing and Rowland, Director of Golf Course Operations at Rancho La Quinta Golf Course, golf is on the decline and Palm Springs could see the number of golf courses drop by a half in the coming decades. Ewing reminded the audience that golf wasn’t always the defining sport of Palm Springs. In the early days it was horse-riding and polo, then tennis. Judging by the crowds participating in a bike tour that took place Saturday in Palm Springs (closing off the roads in downtown), maybe next it’ll be cycling. Stu Rowland however, begs to differ. He reminded DnA: “In the words of the great Sonny Bono, ‘without golf, Palm Springs wouldn’t exist’.”

5. Not Everyone Likes Cacti

Stu Rowlands said he has to try to and persuade his clients to find beauty in desert plants and grass alternatives. Brad Dunning, a designer specializing in preservation of classic Palm Springs residences, admitted candidly that even though he didn’t play golf, he loved to look out onto a vivid grass green golf course; and even though he was “too cheap” to heat his pool, he loved the sight of the pool as a manmade oasis in his backyard. He expressed mixed feelings at the demise of this aesthetic and suggested that those engaged with preservation needed to ask themselves: if you are going to restore a house to its original state why not do the same with the garden? Sunnylands, the historic Annenberg estate, is grappling with that exact issue: keeping the classic garden while demonstrating sustainable practices. Dunning predicted that even if expansive lawns shrink in popularity, smaller discs of grass, treated as a luxury item, will still be incorporated into desert yards.

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6. Milkweed is Good

Michaeleen Gallagher, the Director of Education and Environmental Program at the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, urged residents of Palm Springs to plant milkweed, which is both low on watero-guzzling (compared with English flowers) and attracts monarch butterflies. Gallegher, above, is trying to get other Coachella Valley dwellers to plant milkweed so as to increase the Monarch butterfly population. She also made the case for yellow, drought-friendly turf in place of green on the golf course.

7. Start Digging

You can dig your own well in Palm Springs. Having told us that high water bills are increasingly an incentive to water conservation, Ewing then surprised the audience by telling us that by law Palm Springs resident can drill their own wells down to the aquifer.

8. Blame the British

So why does Palm Springs love its lawns so much? Turns out the green yards in the arid West of the USA owe their existence to 16th century England when aristocrats showed off their land-wealth by having some of it be nonproductive, as in, a lawn. Difference is, England gets buckets of rain.

9. Let’s Not Forget the Turf Mullet

The biggest laugh of the hour came when Craig Ewing pointed out that the water authority focuses on incentivizing water conservation in residents’ front yards, leaving them to do what they want with their backyards; this prompted Brad Dunning to describe this short in front, long out back arrangement as a “turf mullet.”

Thank You Ana SerranoBari ZipersteinBen MedanskyFitzsuTanya AguiñigaJudy KameonHedley & Bennett and Louise Sandhaus

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The conversation took place in front of KCRW’s “living room” filled with objects donated to us for the occasion by: Ana SerranoBari ZipersteinBen MedanskyFitzsuTanya AguiñigaJudy KameonHedley & Bennett and Louise Sandhaus. See Ana Serrano’s cardboard houses in the hands of a happy raffle winner, above)

KCRW table at Modernism Week

We want to thank all of them for adding their style to KCRW’s presence at Modernism Week. See Aalto vases provided by Fitzsu, rope adornments by Tanya Aguiñiga.

Ben Medanksy and Bari Ziperstein

Succulent pots by Ben Medansky and ceramic coasters by Bari Ziperstein.

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The “heart warmer” provided by Fitzsu, above.

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Also on show: Louise Sandhaus‘ book Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936-1986; Judy Kameon’s Gardens Are For Living and the catalogue accompanying the exhibition An Eloquent Modernist, E. Stewart Williams, Architect, currently at the newly opened Architecture and Design Center, in a building originally designed by E. Stewart Williams, remodeled by Marmol Radziner.