• Lawns Begone!

    Xeriscape planting for modern lawns: Pacific Grove-friendly

    by Dana Goforth

    The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. —Marcel Proust

    Several years ago, I was dividing an overgrown clump of grass (Stipa arundinacea ‘Scirocco’), when a very soft voice said, “Excuse me?”

    I looked around, but not seeing anyone, I shoved the hand spade deeper into the root ball.

    “Hello!” came the voice again. I looked around. No one. For a moment I thought the garden fairies were messing with me… at the very least the elves were at it again. I went back to work.

    For a third time, the voice spoke: “Excuse me!”

    With that I stood up. In front of me was a small tuft of curly red-brown hair attached to a face that just barely peeked over the top of my garden fence.

    “Hello,” I said, somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a fairy, but happy to find the face that went with the voice was not elfin.

    “That is a lovely plant. What’s its name?” the small person asked.

    “It’s a scirocco,” I said, and with that I met my wonderful neighbor Suzi.

    When Suzi moved into the house around the corner, her front yard was entirely covered with well-compacted Bermuda grass. Over several months, she removed the entire mess and had begun planting drought tolerant plants. After our meeting, she included several clusters of my sweet scirocco. Her challenge: to create a beautiful garden where once there was none.

    A landscape, whether in a small yard or a large commercial space that is designed to conserve water, is called a xeriscape. Xeriscape, (pronounced zēri skāpe), is derived from the Greek xeros meaning dry, and quite literally translates to dry landscape. Sometimes it’s referred to as a “dry-scape.” A xeriscape garden design not only protects the environment, but is also practical and can be extremely attractive when groupings of plants compliment each other.

    History of the Lawn

    The roots of the modern day lawn stretch back to medieval England and the nobility class. Lacking the common mow and blow maintenance practices used today, sheep and other herd animals grazed the lands surrounding the nobles’ mansions, providing free upkeep and fertilizer. Since England had a great deal of rainfall, the lawns were green and lush year round.

    In post WWII America, the suburban housing boom demanded a “nice” front yard, complete with a patch of green and a few trees lining the street. Whether it was to mimic the wealthy Europeans or introduce something other than a vegetable garden and chicken coop, lawns became extremely popular and often an obsession. At the same time, the unrestricted use of toxic chemicals (DDT and diazinon!) to achieve the perfect lawn, spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. Over-fertilization and the misuse of pesticides caused serious environmental damage, (including algae bloom from runoff water), not to mention numerous health issues.

    As an early advocate of natural landscaping, Lorrie Otto spoke out against lawns by calling them “sterile,” “monotonous,” and “flagrantly wasteful.” Her outrage in the late 1970s inspired the first grassroots anti-grass movement called the Wild Ones (www.wildones.org).

    It’s interesting to note that none of the grass seeds and turf commonly available for lawns is native. Bermuda grass is from Africa, Kentucky bluegrass comes from Europe, and Zoysia grass is native to Asia. Some fescue species, which are common for golf courses, are toxic to humans and often used as livestock fodder. (An excellent article on lawns, Turf War by Elizabeth Kolbert, was published in The New Yorker, July 21, 2008.)

    Going Native

    All plants, like people, need moisture to survive. A plant that is adapted to living in a dry environment is called a xerophyte. When Suzi first heard this word her eyes, like mine, crossed. Now, two years later, she is flinging the word around with ease. More common terms are drought-tolerant, drought-resistant, and even low-water-use. Fortunately, California has many wonderful native plants that are colorful, fragrant, and as an added bonus, support butterflies and bees in many ways. In addition, numerous plants native to our coastal areas thrive on the moisture in fog. It’s free and there is usually loads of it!

    Some of the most popular local plants include wild lilac ceanothus spp.; manzanita arctostaphylos spp.,; sage salvia clevelandii or leucophylla; and a personal favorite, matilija poppy romneya coulteri. For delicious flower and seed color, add Oregon grape berberis aquifolium (yellow); toyon heteromeles arbutifolia (red berries); California fuchsia epilobium (red); Pacific Coast iris (white and purple); and several penstemon spps. (centranthifolius); ‘Scarlet Bugler’ will attract humming birds.

    Many non-native plants will do very well in your new garden as well, especially plants native to South Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean region. Most species of euphorbia, rosemary, cistus, and grevillea prefer little water. Don’t forget to add a grass or two. California buckwheat eriogonum spps., will liven up a quiet spot in the breeze. (Suzie’s fairies like it, too).

    Other Features

    Many drought-resistant plants have an amazing visual texture that can make any landscape more interesting. Leaf size and type, unusual bark color, stem and branch structure are just some of the things to look for. Grevillea spp., have wonderful feather-like leaves that seem to change color daily, and some types of manzanita have red, curling bark.

    Stepping away from the plants for a moment. Large stones or boulders placed in strategic places can add grace and harmony. Think Japanese Zen gardens. Support local artists by purchasing a ceramic or metal sculpture as a focal point for your garden. As with grasses, kinetic sculptures add the interesting element of movement. Flagstone or gravel paths also create an attractive element and can enhance showy groupings or color spots. Instead of a direct pathway to the front door, try a curved route that features a favorite plant. Suzi added several brightly glazed containers, which draw the eye to certain areas.

    A low-maintenance xeriscape doesn’t necessarily mean no-maintenance, but it does minimize the output of water, which is good for your pocketbook and the environment. Many plants are easily divided and shared with friends and you might just meet a kindred soul in the neighborhood. Oh, and don’t forget to invite the fairies to your new garden; it’s the elves you have to watch out for.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 28, 2013

    Topics: Diggin' It

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