Designing Naturalistic Landscapes

Landscape design has been analyzed, discussed, and written about by many people, and from several angles. Most treatments of this subject consider the built landscape as part of built environment, which contrasts with the natural environment. Generally, they describe landscapes as vignettes or vistas that please the beholder’s eye by combining forms or colors from an aesthetic perspective. Aesthetics determine whether a garden is Victorian, Italian, Japanese, modern, white, classical, etc. Often, this approach results in random groupings of favored plants, with the only design principle being “tall plants in back.”

There are more horticultural perspectives for thinking about landscapes. For example, we have the idea of companion planting, in which proximities affect plant vigor. Then, we have generic groupings, as with small or large collections of roses, cacti, irises, or some other plant genus. Another horticultural approach involves grouping plants with similar needs for moisture. Such “hydrozoning” responds to the horticultural needs of plants and incidentally organizes the gardener’s irrigation tasks. A tropical landscape focuses on plants with an exotic look and a continuing thirst (not a good choice in the land of persistent drought).

Moving further into horticultural considerations, we encounter climate-oriented landscaping, with emphasis on plants from the world’s Mediterranean or “summer dry” regions, which of course include the Monterey Bay area. This landscaping approach supports plant development and vigor and eases the gardener’s workload.

The attractive subset of summer-dry landscaping is landscaping with California native plants, which combines the climate-oriented approach with the ecological compatibility of flora and fauna.

The more naturalistic form of landscaping with California native plants is landscaping with California plant communities. There are various ways to define this state’s several plant communities but essentially, the coast, the mountains, and the deserts are different horticultural environments, and therefore support different plants. A very useful book on this topic has been provided by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).

The next level of appreciating the difference between built and natural landscapes can be found in the book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015). This book has been called “inspiring,” “masterful,” “groundbreaking,” and a “game-changer.” Reviewers have also praised it for “lyrical, passionate, and persuasive writing” and “lavish” illustrations.

Planting in a Pot-Wild World - coverThe authors deplore the ways in which typical gardening and landscaping practices have ignored the ways in which plants thrive in natural combinations, and present A New Optimism: The Future of Planting Design. They state, “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”

The book (which we have just begun studying) advocates planting in interlocking layers of plants, which reflects the dynamic way plants grow together in nature. There is much to learn about this approach. The authors envision improved plant labels that provide more useful information about how a plant grows and recommend relevant resources as the http://www.cnps.org/cnps/grownative/California Native Plant Society.

Both aesthetic and horticultural approaches to plant selection have significant impacts on the success of gardening and the amount of work involved in maintaining a garden. If your gardening involves mostly keeping plants alive, replacing plants that have died, combating weeds, and wanting the garden to look better, it could be time to give more attention to plant communities.

Growing Dahlias

Dahlias are among the easier blossoming plants to cultivate in the garden. As natives of Mexico, they thrive in the Monterey Bay area climate and bring drought-tolerance as well.

As mentioned in today’s article about the upcoming sale of the Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, dahlias are available in many different blossom forms and colors and can be a fine addition to the garden.

This column offers basic practices for growing dahlias after you have selected tubers at the Society’s sale.

The first consideration is to select a location will full exposure to the sun and good drainage. Dahlias, like most flowering plants, grow best with six hours of sun each day, and in well-drained soil. Sandy loam is fine, but clay soil will require substantial amendment with organic material.

Dahlia with Bee

Dahlias can be planted any time between the last day of frost (which is not a concern in this area) and as late as mid-June. The local tuber sale is scheduled around the time when last season’s tubers are ready to be dug and divided, so the day of the sale represents a good beginning for the local planting season. If you are not ready to plant, store your new tubers temporarily in a cool, shady environment.

Most dahlias will need staking, so it’s a good practice to position a sturdy stake for each tuber, and to install the stake at the same time that you plant the tune. Inserting a stake later runs the risk of stabbing the tuber.

If you don’t want bare stakes in the garden while the plant develops, you could install a short piece of plastic pipe with the top at ground level next to the tuber, then, when the plant grows to need staking, insert a thin stake (bamboo?) in the plastic pipe and tie the plant to the stake.

Plant the tuber several inches deep, with the “eye” (the growing point) facing up. Some tubers might lack such an eye, and will not sprout, but well-selected tubers will have viable growing points. The eye can be difficult to confirm, so selection can require some experience in identifying tubers that are ready to grow.

Separate the tubers from each other by about two feet.

Protect the sprouting plants from snails and slugs. A good practice is to visit your plants in the night (with a flashlight) or in the early morning to remove any crawling pests that have discovered them. Regular applications of an organic snail control, e.g., Sluggo, also works.

Control flying pests with insecticidal soap or other organic pesticides.

Generally, soil with ample organic content will provide sufficient nutrients for dahlias. If your soil seems “lean,” regular applications of high-nitrogen, organic fertilizer would be helpful.

As each plant grows, tie it to a stake to ensure that it remains upright. The first tie should hold the main stalk loosely to the stake; later ties could connect branches to the stake.

Each branch generally will produce three buds. To produce large blossoms, many gardeners remove two of these buds when they appear. This disbudding process allows the plant to direct nutrients to the remaining bud, with positive effect. If you have several dahlias growing in the garden, you will still have lots o blooms.

At the end of the season, the top growth dies back, and the plant produces several new tubers. The gardener can remove the top growth, and can either dig and replant the tubers or leave them in the ground. In the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate, dahlias grow quite well when simply left in the ground. After two or three years, they will become crowded and will benefit from dividing.

Enjoy your dahlias! They are wonderful additions to the garden.

Rediscovering Eco-cultural Gardening

Gardening is a very old activity. The word “garden” has its roots in an Old English term meaning “fence” or “enclosure,” and the earliest enclosed outdoor space discovered was created about 12,000 years ago.

We are still learning about gardening.

More accurately, we are rediscovering ideas that earlier gardeners understood thousands of years ago.

One of the earliest ideas, evidently, was that a fence keeps some hungry animals from the vegetables and (later) from the flowers.

The most basic principle for successful gardening is compatibility with Nature. We are advised occasionally that humans developed instinctive behaviors, e.g., Fight or Flight, at an early stage of our history, and evolved to thrive with a diet that consisted of a combination of foods that grew naturally in our local environment.

By the same token, plants and animals evolved over long periods to thrive in specific regions, together with each other. As a result of this co-evolution, we have interdependence between plants and animals that grow naturally within a specific environment. We even have interdependence between those plants and animals and certain aspects of the environment itself.

Ancient civilizations that understood these relationships intuitively gardened—and lived—in harmony with Nature. “Eco-culture” is today’s buzzword for the connection between ecological and cultural practices.

Some aspects of the environment appear not to interact with the plants and animals: the weather, elevation, and sunlight operate under their own rules, but the soil microbiota has close relationships with the flora and fauna.

Gardening is easiest and most successful when we recognize and respect these natural relationships. Good practices include gardening organically and growing plants that are native to the local environment.

The more recent history of gardening, however, has included many attempts to rewrite Nature’s rulebook. For example, as people traveled the globe, they added plants from exotic environments to their gardens and developed adaptive practices, including irrigation systems, greenhouses, and indoor gardening.

Also, as gardeners desired plants that would grow faster or larger, taste better, or look better, they developed hybridizing methods, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Such departures from Nature’s ways are often successful in achieving certain objectives, but they often have negative consequences, as well.

The clearest downside of attempts to “fool Mother Nature” is that gardening requires more time, energy and expense. If you find gardening to be burdensome, try converting to plants that are native to your environment.

When large-scale, commercial gardening (“agriculture”) adopts new technologies, the disruptions of Nature’s processes also grow larger in scale. Widespread applications of synthetic agricultural chemicals are damaging the soil biota, are poisoning the soil, killing birds, bees and butterflies, contributing to climate change and threatening our health.

Historically, ecological traumas began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 1940’s (with at the start of World War II), particularly in uses of synthetic chemicals.

Today, a growing number of non-profit organizations are sounding alarms about these practices and advocating alignment with Nature’s ways. Consumers increasingly demand organic foods, and intuitively resist genetically engineering foods. These groups and individual gardeners are rediscovering eco-cultural gardening.

Our roots are showing!

More to come: links to consumer-oriented non-profit groups related to eco-cultural gardening.

Here’s a related article (with an inappropriate title), “The dirty little secrets of a Native American garden,” from the San Francisco Examiner.

Basics of Low Maintenance

For many gardeners, as they create or recreate their gardens, their objectives include minimizing maintenance. Let’s consider the “why” and “how” of low maintenance gardening.

The motivation for minimizing maintenance requirements begins with the press—or the appeal—of other priorities, and the perspective is that gardening is drudgery that steals time from higher priority pursuits, and should be avoided whenever possible.

Some of us have unavoidable demands on our time, it’s true, but in reality, maintaining a garden does not require large chunks of one’s schedule.

In addition, gardening has unique rewards to be appreciated and even sought after: time for meditating, exercising a bit, and absorbing vitamin D, as well as communing with Nature and making an individual contribution to ecological balance.

Avoiding drudgery and securing those rewards requires both a positive attitude and a well-designed garden.

With those elements in place, gardening can be easy not burdensome, and satisfying rather than frustrating. Here are basic guidelines for creating a low-maintenance garden.

Establish Realistic Goals

The size of your garden should be manageable within your available time, physical capacity and financial resources. In this assessment, consider your gardening partner or partners, including family, friends and contractors.

Your horticultural knowledge and skill are also important, but because you can increase them, they are not limitations. If you have a large property, define an appropriate size of your garden, and leave the rest to Nature. If you have less space than you would like, develop an interest in container gardening, or community gardening.

If your gardening plan includes regular “mow, blow and go” assistance, it’s likely that you are not really gardening, and not gaining those unique rewards. Take another look at the design of your landscape, with a focus on eliminating the lawn.

Work with Nature

This core idea reaches into all aspects of gardening. Gardening and landscaping amounts to imposing on Nature, which has powers that are not be denied. For this reason, gardening should be pursued in ways that are compatible with, and supportive of, Nature. Those who challenge Nature must commit to high-maintenance gardening., but will, in the long run, lose.

Gardeners could challenge Nature in many ways, beginning with the selection of non-native plants, especially those that have evolved under significantly different environments. Choose plants that have evolved under your garden’s conditions, including climate and precipitation, elevation, soil type, wildlife habitat, etc.

Another strategy for challenging Nature is the monocrop, i.e., limiting large sections of the landscape to a single kind of plant. In residential gardens, the most familiar monocrop is the lawn. Such landscapes do occur in Nature (think of Midwestern prairies) but lawns are inhospitable to wildlife, and costly to maintain in acceptable condition. Mixed plantings work better, can be very attractive, and are easier to maintain.

A related issue is the use of synthetic chemicals in garden maintenance. This practice might seem to mimic Nature, but truly natural ways to feed the soil and the plants are based on the growth and decomposition of organic materials. The use of synthetic chemicals leads to the accumulation of inorganic salts that eventually poison the soil. Short-term impacts from chemicals may be welcome, but organic compost yields the best results in the long term. In addition, the birds and the bees will thank you.

There are more ways to achieve low maintenance gardening. These two basic guidelines are a good start.

Enjoy your garden!

Evolution of the Community Garden

I never expected to be impressed by a housing development in the San Jose area, but late in September of 2015, the City of Santa Clara launched an extraordinary project that City Council member Lisa Gilmor said is“…the first of its kind for Santa Clara. I don’t think we’ve done anything like this in the past.”

The Council selected a developer, The Core Companies, to lead master planning and development of a six-acre site on Winchester Boulevard, near the Valley Fair and Santana Row shopping centers.

Win6 Project - conceptual

Core/CNGF Project – Conceptual

The project concept combines housing with several familiar elements: a small organic farm, community gardens, a children’s garden, California native plant edible landscaping, roof gardens, solar energy production, a farmer’s market, a rainwater garden, an outdoor kitchen, and much more.

Overall, the project qualifies as an “agrihood,” a newer idea that focuses residential housing on a working farm, rather than a pool, tennis court or golf course. An agrihood also engages the residents in creating a sustainable food system for the entire community.

This concept could be appealing to people of all ages, but the United States has only a short list of existing agrihoods (for examples: http://tinyurl.com/ox4to7h). The Santa Clara project appears to be the only agrihood in an intensely urban environment, and an exceptional showcase of several ideas in sustainable gardening.

The City of Santa Clara selected this project among eight competing proposals because of its creativity, vigorous community support and the history of the site, which had been part of an agricultural research station operated by the University of California, beginning in the last 1950s.

A visionary neighbor, Kirk Vartan, galvanized community support for this project. He found a creative and knowledgeable ally in Alrie Middlebrook, a landscape designer and leader of the California Native Garden Foundation, a non-profit group that demonstrates innovative gardening ideas and supports the development of school gardens. Middlebrook’s ideas are evident in the rich array of gardens in this agrihood, which has been called the Core/CNGF project.

The California Native Garden Foundation will be involved in managing the project’s urban agriculture open space. (Full disclosure: as a long-time member of the CNGF’s board of directors, I have had both opportunities to monitor this project’s development during the past several months, and a very limited role in its creation. The CNGF board’s primary role is to review schools’ applications for the planning and development of learning gardens.)

Agrihoods could become the evolutionary next step beyond community gardens and community-supported agriculture. Through this project in nearby Santa Clara, we can see the leading edge of innovative strategies for relating research-based gardening and community relationships.

Right Time, Right Plants

Tom Karwin

Each spring, many gardeners seek new plants for their gardens. That’s understandable, since that is when gardens spring into new life (sorry about that!).

The spring can be a good time to plant seeds for annuals, but the fall is by far the better time to plant perennials because our rainy season, beginning historically around mid-October, hydrates the plants while they establish roots and prepare for the following spring.

For this reason, we have excellent plant sales during the fall, offered by non-profit garden groups that support your gardening success, and of course want to earn money for their activities.

These sales offer California natives and other plants that thrive in the Monterey Bay area’s summer-dry climate and that align very nicely with your plans to build soil health in your garden.

Two early sales happen Saturday, October 3rd.

  • The Monterey Chapter of the California Native Plant Society will have its annual plant sale from 10:00 to 1:00 at the Hilton Bialek Habitat at Carmel Middle School. Info: http://montereybay.cnps.org/
  • Watsonville Wetlands Watch will host its 3rd annual Pajaro Valley Backyard Habitat Festival and Native Plant Sale from 9:00 to 4:00 at the Fitz Wetlands Educational Recourse Center, at Pajaro Valley High School. Info: http://watsonvillewetlandswatch.org .

Two more sales have been announced for the following Saturday, October 10th.

The Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the UCSC Arboretum will hold their sales together at the UCSC Arboretum’s Eucalyptus Grove. The entrance to the sale is on High Street, is across from Western Drive, on the edge of the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Both sales are open for members from 10:00 – 12:00, and for the public from 12:00 – 4:00. Memberships for both organizations will be available at the gate on the day of the sale.

Info for the CNPS sale: http://www.cruzcnps.org/

Info for the Arboretum sale: http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/ (click on “Events/Recurring Events”)

The Arboretum’s sale includes selections from dry-summer climate regions in California, South Africa and Australia, offering opportunities for venturesome gardeners to add exotic plants to their landscapes. As one example, Melinda Kranj, Curator of the Australian Collections, has shared her knowledge of an iconic Australian plant in “Banksias Breath New Life for a Fall Garden” (click on “News” on the Arboretum website). She wrote, “The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is currently growing about 50 species, and many different varieties and cultivars” and will have several Banksias available at the sale.

Banksia victoriae

Banksia victoriae

Incidentally, the generic name of this plant honors English botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who collected the first Banksia specimens in 1770, while on Captain James Cook’s first expedition into the south Pacific.

These plant sales are scheduled at the right time, and they offer plants that are right for our regional climate. As always, the gardener should install new plants in the right place in the landscape. Consider mature size and sun exposure, as well as garden aesthetics.

Restoring Soil

Several people commented on last week’s column on the carbon cycle. All endorsed the concept of restoring garden soil, to support its natural ability to sequester carbon.

One reader had questions about how to go about restoring garden soil. This is a Big Topic and you, good reader, might have your own questions, but you also might share his interests. My brief responses are below. Visit gardening.com for more details, including plant suggestions.

Q. Plow the grass under?

A. Losing the thirsty lawn is a good first step, because such monocultures are not appealing to wildlife. Plowing, however, could both promote re-growth of the grass and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. A better approach is to kill the grass over several sunny weeks by covering it with clear plastic (solarization), or with newspaper or cardboard (smothering).

For information on Soil Solarization for Gardens & Landscapes, visit the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management webpage on the topic. The presentation emphasizes pest control; in this context, unwanted turf grass amounts to a pest.

The California Native Plant Society has Detailed lawn removal advice.

Q. Plant different grass?

A. Yes! California native grasses can provide the basis of an attractive meadow, which is more casual than a manicured carpet of turf grass. A meadow has unique aesthetic appeal; supports a variety of wildflowers and wildlife; requires little water, infrequent mowing, and no chemicals; and helps to restore the soil.

Kids on Native Grass Lawn
JACQUELINE RAMSEYER —
BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

Lily Baker’s front yard in San Jose
features a native grass lawn.
California native grasses help restore the soil.

For information on several California native grasses, visit the Tree of Life Nursery’s web page, “Masses of Grasses.”

A very good book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien is Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs (2011).

Q. Grow more trees?

A. Absolutely! Trees and large shrubs are attractive additions to the landscape, valuable participants in the carbon cycle, and welcomed by all forms of wildlife. Invest a little research to select trees will thrive in your climate, and grow to an appropriate size for your landscape. Again, California natives are good choices.

A good introduction to California native trees and larger shrubs is available from the non-profit Nipomo Native Garden, which has produced a web page, “Native Trees for Landscaping and Wildlife.”

Q. Eliminate ground cover in favor of something with deeper roots?

A. Ground covers are any plants that hug surface or rise to any height up to four feet. Most importantly, they protect soil and soil microbiota from baking in the sun, or eroding. During the fall and winter, plant seasonal cover crops that draw nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots. Examples of such “nitrogen-fixing” plants include peas, beans, and clover. In the spring, before your cover crop sets seed, till the plants under to decompose and release their nitrogen into the soil to support the growth of other plants.

Deeper roots mean better drought-tolerance: deep-rooted plant can find moisture far below the surface. Such plants are generally preferable in the landscape, all other factors being equal.

The depth of roots varies among plants, reflecting adaptation to the plant’s environment. Among weedy grasses, for example, Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua) has roots only about right inches deep, while Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) can grow to 60 inches deep in search of water.

Infrequent, deep irrigation encourages all plants to develop deep roots and drought tolerance. A common error with automatic irrigation systems is to schedule frequent, brief periods of watering. This practice encourages shallow roots, ultimately increases overall water usage and leaves plants vulnerable to dry periods.

Q. Shallower roots?

A. The advantage of shallower roots is that plants growing in arid climates have immediate access to occasional rains. Succulent plants have adapted to such conditions by developing shallow roots and the ability to store scarce moisture in their leaves, stems or roots. For this reason, gardeners often appreciate succulent plants for both drought tolerance and landscape appeal.

The New California Garden, which we envision here, features meadow grasses and succulent plants: a good time to start is now.

Designing a Drought-tolerant Landscape

When planning your garden for the long term, today’s important considerations include drought tolerance. Gardeners should be open to changing their gardens from time to time, as ideas change, new plants attract attention and—let’s face it—some older plants move to the compost heap in the sky.

Still, when we must anticipate prospects for long-term drought, it makes sense to base your landscape design on plants that can thrive without lots of water, or even regular irrigation.

Landscape design can be a challenging enterprise, but also could be quite approachable, given planning ahead and narrowing your focus. Assuming that you wish to change your current landscape from thirsty to drought-tolerant, or from boring to interesting, here is one path for a short distance between your present and future gardens.

First, select your target area. This might be all of a smaller yard or a high priority, not-too-large section. The front garden might be a good candidate.

Then, study the area’s characteristics: exposure to sun and wind, soil texture (sand, clay, loam), and topography (flat, sloped, hilly). This will determine which plants would be appropriate for your garden’s conditions.

Very important: choose a theme to guide plant selections for your new landscape. A theme of well-defined, limited theme will lead to study of plants that meet your criterion and add to the character of the landscape.

Plenty of plants are drought-tolerant, particularly plants from the five Mediterranean (or summer-dry) regions of the world, and succulents. For this model approach to design, we focus on California native plants; an even better theme would be plants that are native to your local plant community. California’s native plants have evolved to succeed in the soils and climates of their native growing grounds, and to enjoy symbiotic relationships with the local flora and fauna.

Secure ready access to at least one good reference book. Several good choices are available, but here is my short list:

  • The New Sunset Western Garden Book, 9th Edition (2012), edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel;
  • The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-care Plantings (2015), edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel;
  • Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (2007), by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook; and
  • Growing California Native Plants, 2nd Edition (2012), by Marjorie Schmidt and Katherine Greenberg, with illustrations by Beth Merrick.

Select a small number of plants, for development of clusters or swaths of the same plant for optimum visual appeal and design coherence. Most gardener designers favor landscapes with plant groups or repeats, and avoid collections of isolated single specimens.

Check out local garden centers and nurseries to locate good inventories for your thematic design. Just about any plant is available by mail order, but the more common California native plants should be readily available from local sources.

Brodiaea, California Cluster Lily

click to enlarge

 

The plant in the photo is the California native bulb, Brodiaea californica, which has the common name, California Cluster Lily. Brodiaea plants once Triteleia plants, which have been identified as a separate (but related) genus.

Here are the botanical and common names of short lists of well-liked California native plants for a drought-tolerant landscape that has good exposure to the sun.

Trees: Arbutus (Madrone), Aesculus (California Buckeye), Quercus (Oak)

Taller Shrubs: Ceanothus (California Lilac), Rhamnus (California Coffeeberry), Rhus (Lemonade Berry)

Shorter Shrubs: Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), Artemesia (California Sagebrush), Baccharis (Dwarf Chapparal)

Perennials: Dudleya (Live Forever), Penstemon (Beardtongue), Salvia (Sage)

Bulbs: Allium (Onion), Brodiaea (Triteleia), Calochortus (Mariposa Tulip)

Groundcovers: Epilobium or Zauschneria (California Fuchsia), Eriogonum (Island Buckwheat)

All of these plants require watering after planting and until they are established. Such variables as soil texture, air temperature, and rainfall will determine the amount and frequency of watering, but the objective is to maintain soil moisture until there any danger of wilt has passed. Once the plants are well rooted, they will benefit from being watered during seasonal growth periods, but will survive nicely on their own during our future drought.

More

To learn more about the plants suggested above, check any of the books listed, or other general reference garden books. Most good books will provide important information such as mature size of the plant (always important in planning a landscape).

Another approach is to enter the botanical name in a search engine, e.g., Google.com, and click on “Images.” This will yield numerous photos of the plant, often showing considerable variation within the genus.

Gardening during Drought

Californians are agonizing over our severe drought and its probable future. Those going through the greatest stress are homeowners maintaining verdant lawns and gardens in southern California’s deserts, farmers using 80% of the state’s surface water, and policy makers working to move the state’s burgeoning population toward life styles and businesses that use our limited water wisely.

This will be a lengthy slog.

The good news for Monterey Bay area residents is that we have already made excellent progress in reducing water usage to the target level, which is 25% below the usage of February of 2013.

We all need to conserve more to reach that target, but not nearly as much as people in southern California, especially in desert areas, where water usage is double the state average.

Growing grass and common perennial plants in sand unavoidably requires unusual cultivation methods, including lots of water. Such gardening ignores the first rule of gardening: right plant in the right place.

The primary strategy for drought-tolerant gardening, then, is to grow plants that are native to your own patch of land. The corollary strategy is to grow plants that are similar to plants that are native to your site. For the Monterey Bay area, this means plants from the world’s regions with a summer-dry climate. These include (if you need yet another review) the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, Chile’s central coast, Australia’s southwestern coast, and of course, much of California, especially the central coast region.

Keep in mind that each of these regions includes a range of microclimates, so it is still wise to know the particular conditions within your garden, and to favor plants that thrive in those conditions. That is the crucial method for low-maintenance gardening.

I have just received Sunset’s latest book, which addresses this point in a timely, effective and attractive manner. The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings has chapters on Gardens, Beds and Borders, Succulents, Groundcovers, and Containers. Other sections provide an overall introduction and seasonal tips.

Sunset Book Cover

Click to Open

 

Kathleen Brenzel edited this book, and has edited several earlier books that merit a prominent place on California gardeners’ bookshelves. This new book includes advice from such experts as John Greenlee and Robin Stockwell, who know all there is to know about grasses and succulents, respectively, and who have shared their knowledge with gardeners often over the years. During Robin’s 2014 Succulent Extravaganza, for example, I enjoyed John’s presentation of a companion planting of grasses and succulents.

California’s drought results from the combination of several factors: cyclical weather patterns, climate change, population growth, and agribusiness expansion. It is a complex picture, to be sure, and avid gardeners need to adapt to changing conditions.

My initial scan of The Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings impresses me as a good source of guidance and inspiration for that adaptation. I welcome the opportunity for learning from each chapter, and anticipate enjoying the experience, which surely will motivate even more sustainable gardening.

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.