Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Posts Tagged ‘lawn conversion’

Reimagining the California Lawn

This weekend, I went to a talk at Annie’s Annuals by Bart O’Brien, co-author with Carol Bornstein and David Fross of Reimagining the California Lawn. I bought a copy when it first came out, as their previous book California Native Plants for the Garden is pretty much the gold-standard book about California natives and one which I use all the time. I haven’t really read the new one yet. I looked through it enough to look make sure that I wanted to keep it, but that’s it so far. I’m teaching our Lawn Begone class at Heather Farms again this year, October 22, so I’ll go through it more carefully when I’m prepping for the class.

In the meantime I was interested to hear one of the authors give a talk on the subject, and I was also just generally interested in what he had to say as he’s one of the prominent figures in the native plant movement and a director at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which I’ve been wanting to see for a long time now. I haven’t been to any of the other talks at Annie’s, but it was pleasant sitting there in their demo garden, listening.

He started with some info about California’s mediterranean climate and then talked about the Garden/Garden project in Santa Monica, pretty much the best comparison of a traditional front yard and a sustainable one. Basically, the city of Santa Monica had two side by side properties and decided to install a lawn/mow-and-blow yard for one and a native garden for the other. They’ve been tracking the results for 6 years now, and it’s of course unfavorable to the mow and blow yard. The native garden uses one fifth of the water, generates less than half as much green waste, and requires much less time and money to maintain. Plus the traditional garden looks like a relic from the 1970’s. I linked to a Sustainable Sites Initiative report on it back in the early months of this blog, but he said the city’s website was really good, and he’s right, it gives a lot more details, including plant lists and construction photos. Worth checking out if you haven’t seen this project before.

He listed 7 design possibilities for replacing a lawn:

Greensward — His term for a no-mow lawn. He liked Carex praegracilis as a no-mow lawn substitute. He said Carex pansa and Carex divulsa were fine, too, he just happened to have the most experience with C. praegracilis. Interestingly, he said that high-elevation carex varieties tend to rarely bloom at lower elevations.

Meadow — An open expanses of grasses, sedges, annual and perennial wildflowers, and bulbs

Rock Garden — Traditionally made of alpine plants but in California just a planting with rocks and low plants

Succulent Garden — Self-explanatory

Carpet and Tapestry Garden — A broad category meant to include most plantings of mixed perennials, grasses, succulents, and shrubs

Kitchen Gardens –Edibles! More relevant for backyard lawns around here.

Green Roof — He joked that this got included because his co-author David Fross is a green roof expert.

He listed 4 ways of eliminating the lawn:

Sod cutter — A lot of work and it doesn’t get rid of the problem weeds of the Bay Area: Bermuda Grass, Oxalis, and Bindweed

Sheet-mulch/Lasagna method — He was rather neutral about it. Not skeptical or dismissive, but not as enthusiastic as I am. (I think it’s far and away the easiest and best way to remove a lawn.) The book says to cover the layer of newspaper with at least 12 to 24 inches of organic matter, which is excessive. The general consensus is that 4-6 inches of organic matter is the right amount, and I’ve done it successfully with just two or three inches of mulch when it wasn’t practical to mound any higher because of grading issues. He didn’t discuss the process in depth during his talk.

Solarization — He says it takes three months to solarize the soil for the wildflower meadow at Rancho Santa Ana. It’s most effective at combatting annual grasses, actually increases germination with some things like lupines, and is not likely to work well in cooler parts of the Bay Area.

Judiciously applied chemicals — He removed his own lawn years ago by letting it go brown, then watering it to stimulate growth of the Bermuda grass, and then spot-spraying the growth. He repeated this cycle for three years to completely eradicate his deeply-rooted Bermuda grass. Personally, I don’t have that kind of patience, but I admire someone who does.

He said that he let his garden go completely dormant once, as an experiment, one year when Southern California had only 2.7 inches of rain all winter. Almost all of his plants survived but they looked dead and he was cited by the city for having such a brown unattractive landscape. The city backed off when he told them about his credentials and what he was doing.

He finished by talking about individual plants that he liked and he gave out a list of recommendations which was rather varied, ranging from Dudleyas to Sedums to Buckwheats to Wild Grapes. His focus was on native plants, though I like that the new book gives info on a lot of non-natives too. There were a lot of questions from the audience and he said other things I’m not remembering at this moment and by the end everyone seemed gung ho to go right ahead and remove their lawns. Good stuff.