Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Archive for September, 2011

The Lawn is Gone

Lawn Converted to Low Water Plants

Just in time to stay with the topic of lawn coversions, a friend of ours in Los Angeles sent us photos of a project we helped with. He’s a former roommate of Anita’s from the years when she was in grad school; he is now married and living in Los Angeles, and he recently bought a home with one of those terrible Southern California front yard lawns. He sent us some photos, asking for a planting plan to replace it. He and his wife wanted to keep the existing citrus tree and Brugmansia, they liked lavenders and succulents, and they wanted to do the work themselves. We sent him a drawing with some big caveats about how we had never gardened in Los Angeles so he would need to double check the plant suggestions with the local nurseries.


That was last winter. This week he emailed us photos of the project, now completed. We had argued for taking out the red walkway heading straight to the door. We suggested replacing it with a DG path, figuring it would be easy to install and easy to upgrade to tile or flagstone in the future. They went ahead and installed the upgraded path right away, hiring a contractor for that part of the project and doing the rest of the work themselves. Most of the plants vary from the ones we suggested (probably a good thing), but they follow the basic layout of the drawing.

The Layout We Suggested

When we named our lawn-conversion/sheet-mulch class Lawn Begone, we were joking about how sheet-mulching can have a certain magic to it, that it’s the closest thing you get to just pointing a wand at the lawn and casting some kind of goofy Harry Potter spell. This project — before and after photos appearing in our inbox, the not-quite-real quality it has because we never physically saw or visited the site, I never saw any of the work happen — takes the magic even a bit further. I’m about as skeptical of designing over the internet as I am of Harry Potter, but in this case it feels a little like we cast a spell and it worked.

Lawn-o Begone-o!!!

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.

Salt Pond Kite Photos

Salt Pond Montage by Cris Benton, click to see it larger

I meant to post this with my photos of the Salt Ponds, but I got caught up in a bunch of projects and didn’t quite find the time. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. The true master of Bay Area salt pond photography — putting my efforts with a camera merely held in my hand to shame — is UC Berkeley architecture professor Cris Benton who has taken thousands of photos of the salt ponds using kites. Really good stuff, both the images and the fact that he is sending his camera up on a kite. He has slideshows all over the web. There’s a long one here, another one here, a shorter one here, and an interview at ConservationMaven that includes a video about how he uses the kites. He has a blog, Hidden Ecologies, specifically devoted to his salt pond project. Kite photos of salt ponds seems like something that would do well in a contest for the ‘most obscure but interesting’ blog topic on the internet.

Fort Cronkhite

Fort Cronkhite, Marin Headlands

I spent this past weekend out at Fort Cronkhite in the Marin Headlands renewing my Wilderness First Responder (first aid) certification. I needed the certification while I was leading trail crews. I probably don’t need to stay certified now, but I’m afraid to let it expire. It’s not the most enjoyable class. It tends to make me relive every past illness, injury, and other bodily misfortune, but it’s good stuff to know and it was great doing it out at the Headlands. Classic foggy California landscape goodness.

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