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They Said Goodbye to Thirsty Lawns

July 12, 2008

By Pat Rubin, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 12–Neither days of blasting, furnace-like heat nor hours of relentless sunshine can harm the water-efficient, California native, Mediterranean landscape in Rick Soehren’s front yard. His plants can take whatever Mother Nature throws at them during long, hot California summers.

Even now, where there was once a broad lawn, Mexican sage is sending out long stems clothed with velvety purple flowers. Lantana covers the ground with its dark green leaves and round clusters of multicolored — orange, yellow and red — flowers. The thyme walk across the front of Soehren’s house is a haze of purple, and California poppies spread their cheerful orange blooms throughout the garden. Fat, shiny black carpenter bees visit flower after flower.

Despite setbacks like recurring patches of nut grass, Soehren applauds his decision to take out the lawn at his Land Park home.

“It’s a wonderful way to save water and resources, and have a more manageable workload. There will be things to learn, and don’t worry when an occasional plant dies. And there will be delights throughout the year, whether it’s beneficial insects you didn’t know existed, or the hummingbirds that hang around the Mexican sage flowers at Christmas time.”

According to the Department of Water Resources, “a homeowner in a warm inland area of California who replaces a 1,000-square-foot lawn with appropriate California native plants and other low-water using varieties can expect to conserve about 24,000 gallons of water per year, enough to fill a swimming pool.”

The opportunity to relandscape sans lawn came about three years ago when Soehren discovered the mulberry tree roots were buckling the irrigation system and the neighbor’s sidewalks. The tree had to be removed, the stump ground out. Much of the lawn was destroyed in the process. Looking back, Soehren says he’s glad he switched from swath of front lawn to a water-efficient landscape.

“I don’t have to mow or maintain a lawn every week all summer,” he says. “There’s little maintenance now, a big pruning once a year, but you can do it according to your schedule. And it’s so beautiful.”

Arden Park residents Tina Cannon Leahy and Brian Leahy tore out the front lawn and most of the back. “I knew people were going to have to make lifestyle changes to protect the environment,” she says. “I work for the Department of Fish and Game, and Brian works with the Department of Conservation, so we decided if we were going to talk the talk, we needed to walk the walk.”

They visited water-efficient landscapes like the Ruth Risdon Storer Garden and the Mary Wattis Brown Native Plant Garden at the UC Davis Arboretum, and attended California Native Plant Society plant sales. They bought books about drought tolerant plants, drew up their own plan and turned their front landscape into a mixture of California natives and low water users.

“We have a profusion of poppies. The tiger lily was absolutely beautiful. We sit outside with a glass of wine and watch the garden, the birds and the bees. It’s great.”

There’s no doubt, of course, a front lawn can be beautiful. But for most people, a front lawn is simply the default setting. Planting grass is what first comes to mind when designing the front yard. The question is whether it’s appropriate for our dry summers.

“Overall, (grass) is pretty much an environmental disaster. Of all the plants in the garden, lawn is the thirstiest,” says Nan Sterman. She teaches a class called “Bye Bye Grass” in San Diego County and is the author of “California Gardener’s Guide, Vol. II,” (Cool Springs Press, 2007, $24.95, 271 pages).

Fritz Haeg, an artist who is turning front lawns into edible landscapes across the country (www.edibleestates.org), calls the front lawn isolating and unwelcoming.

“It’s important to keep in mind that a front lawn is an industrial landscape. There’s nothing remotely natural about it, and it sort of is indicative of the way we live today,” he says.

“Having grass makes less sense as water gets more precious,” Sterman says. “It takes more fertilizer and more water than anything else, regular pruning — after all, mowing is pruning. People use gas powered mowers, which contribute to greenhouse gases, and then send the clippings off to the green waste, so you’re spending more petroleum resources and generating more greenhouse gases.”

“People tell me they plant grass for their kids or their dogs,” Sterman says. “But kids don’t use it very much and dogs are happy to pee and poop wherever they can. Grass is an easy decision, but the upkeep and cost to the environment is huge.”

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