The New Normal for Gardens—Lose the Lawn

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order mandating water use restrictions. This order requires California’s 400 water supply agencies to restrict water uses to achieve an overall 25% reduction, and monitor compliance with those restrictions..

The restrictions will have many impacts. Here, we consider only the impacts on small-scale gardening at residences and businesses. At another time, we’ll get to commercial agriculture’s water usage, which equals 80% of California’s developed water.

Studies have shown that 30-50% of residential water use occurs outdoors. Uses include washing cars and filling pools and fountains, but most outdoor water usage is intended to maintain the growth of plants, particularly lawn grasses.

If the current four-year drought continues for ten years or longer, as weather scientists have projected, gardeners should plan for the “new normal” for their gardens.

This is not the time to install artificial turf, learn to love the parched look, or pave your yard. There are better options.

The first step would be to remove the water hogs in your garden. These might include plants from tropical climes. For example, I have a long fascination with the Chilean Rhubard (Gunnera tinctoria), a riparian plant with enormous leaves. My garden once had one of these plants, but it dried out.

Here is a fine example of a clump of Chilean Rhubarb near a pond in a large garden in Santa Cruz.

Gunneras

Click to Enlarge

 

The next step would be to lose the lawn. A well-kept lawn consumes a lot of water, fertilizers and pesticides, plus the lawn owner’s time and money. Two-cycle lawnmowers also generate noise and air pollution.

In return, most lawns provide a green vista—or at least a resting spot for the eye—but receive very little actual use. Lawns used to symbolize status, but that was when only the wealthy could afford groundskeepers wielding scythes. The 1830 invention of the lawnmower transformed the lawn from status symbol to an easy option for many homeowners and an obsession for a few.

Now, our governor has said, “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

The plan for losing the lawn will vary with the size of your greensward. A small patch could be converted to a new reality in one go. A larger area might better be reduced incrementally, to spread the effort and the design issues over two or three years.

The first step should be to plan for replacing the lawn grass with another ground cover that would require much less water. It is all about the strategic selection of plants. This individual design decision could focus on meadow grasses, wildflowers, or drought-tolerant plants, e.g., California natives or Mediterranean climate plants. Some people have opted for cacti and succulents, which can be very interesting, but that’s a challenging move, design-wise.

There are many very attractive possibilities for a drought-tolerant landscape. Visit ongardening.com for resources to help with this planning.

Then, remove the grass. This can be done with solarization: over several weeks, a plastic cover uses the summer sun to heat the grass to extinction.

The operation of a sod cutter, probably rented, is much faster, but this method could remove enough soil to require importing topsoil.

In any event, avoid killing the grass with chemicals, which are not good for gardens. Also, avoid rototilling the soil, because that will bring buried weed seeds to the surface. A rake would be the preferred tool to smooth the soil.

Once the grass is gone, install the landscape you have designed. After a couple years of planting, watering and inevitable weeding, you will have a landscape that will survive during the coming drought years with minimal care, and look great.

More

Once you have made the decision to replace a traditional lawn with a drought-tolerant alternative, you can consider several options. Here are resources to explore:

Full disclosure, the Lose the Lawn website was created by a friend, Alrie Middlebrook, owner of Middlebrook Gardens. It has been available for quite a while, and is more relevant than ever today.

Sunset Magazine web resources includes 24 Inspiring Lawn-free Yards.

An excellent book on this subject is The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn, by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt (2009).

An eloquent call for California native plants is found in Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices and Designs, by Carol Bornstein and David Fross (2011).

A best selling book, Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, by Pam Penick (2013), provides a new look in book title punctuation.

A search of Amazon.com for “lawn alternatives” or “drought-tolerant landscaping” will yield several additional titles for books that you might find in a local library or bookstore. There’s no shortage of ideas!

Finally, you might have heard that southern California residents so far this year have a poor record for reducing their water usage, compared to people on the central California coast. Here’s an image that provides a clue for that failure to cut back on landscape irrigation. This shows a part of Rancho Mirage, which is between Palm Springs and Palm Desert.

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The grey areas are sand! If you believe the drought is a hoax, you might be interested in living on this human-created oasis. Contact Magnesia Falls Real Estate, which has this photo on its website. (An even more dramatic aerial photo of this community is in the current issue of Time magazine.

 

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