Although the Central Valley of California has long been known as a region of no summer rainfall, the past several years’ lackluster winter rains and even more critical, very low winter snow packs in the Sierras, has heightened our water awareness, both residential and agricultural, and is moving us to take seriously the need for less thirsty landscapes. Gardeners in my valley have been living a fool’s dream for many years. We live in an area which receives less than 13″ average annual rainfall, with half of that being concentrated in the months of January, February and March. We have built our dream gardens in a veritable desert with relatively cheap and available water–at least available in our minds. I can remember my mother talking about city outdoor watering restrictions as far back as 20 years ago. I have not an ounce of the requisite science to tell you why things NOW have gotten to critical mass–I just know that seems to be our current state. My city limits outdoor watering to 2 days per week during very specific hours, other cities in my valley have total outdoor watering bans. Water rates are still reasonable compared to some other localities but increases are inevitably, on the horizon. New homes now offer synthetic lawns or very limited square footage of lawn. Cities are offering monetary incentives to remove turf and replant those areas with drought tolerant plants, mulch and rocks. We are bombarded from all sides to move into the arena of low water landscapes.
I have long held some gardening principles which dance around the edges of water conservation;
I keep my more delicate and thirsty plant materials clustered close to the house where it is easy to give them a bucket or two of water if needed.
I recognize the benefit of creating shade, both with trees and structures.
The Raywood Ash below, planted from a 15 gallon can in 2010, is large enough now to cast some very nice pools of shade on plants which would normally be brutalized by the sun all day due to their south and west exposures. The two crape myrtles, formerly pruned to their knobby knees in search of increased bloom, are now pruned lightly after their first flush of flowers and a bit more in January with an eye toward developing a nicely branched small canopy (yes, this does decrease bloom to an extent.)
We added trellis-work to our backyard pavilion to grow Eden climbing roses. The trellis, long since planted, provides needed support for the roses and some sun protection for the plants added below. Eventually the massed roses will increase that protection. The back of the pavilion receives the shade benefit of the foliage from 3 mature Bradford pear trees.
We work really hard to provide optimum growing conditions by double digging for new beds, amending our soil and adding compost to our beds yearly. Yes, that is me behind the jack hammer!
I try to focus on plants suited for our hot and dry conditions. Plants native to Mediterranean areas and the American plains are good candidates.
On the not so successful side…we have found it a challenge to even condsider converting to drip. We have an about 1/2 acre and 14 lines totals. As we have enlarged beds and eliminated small amounts of turf over the last 8 years our lawn and bed lines overlap each other in some parts of the garden and we lack good coverage in others. We are just not willing to incur the expense or do the work to entirely replace our automatic sprinkler system. An even greater challenge is my unwillingness to become an ornamental grass and rock girl. I love my roses and much of my existing evergreen shrubbery. I have found most mature plant material to be more adaptable to reduced irrigation than we give it credit for. I have all ready rid myself of things I did not want in my garden and so now I’ll have to find a way to add in moderately waterwise plants which will not be too out of sync with the look I want and I level of care I am willing to give.
Our 2016 waterwise initiative has been to reduce the amount of turf the front garden. Living on a corner lots results in a lot more front yard than is easily cared for. We targeted 4 areas for turf removal-2 small and 2 large. While our front lawn is of the Heinz 57 variety, the bulk of it is common bermudagrass. Permanent elimination of bermudagrass pretty much requires a chemical component. I expect that when the permafrost starts to melt in those northern reaches the scientists will find viable roots from bermudagrass and when they go out for lunch they will return to a fully established lawn! As such, we needed to wait for the bermuda to break dormancy in order for the herbicide to be fully taken down into the roots. Our weed control expert treated the areas in June and all was looking pretty bad within a couple of weeks. Meanwhile I got a bit impatient and we actually dug out one of the small areas (about 25 square feet) before the grass was fully dead. That area is pictured below. It has been replanted with 3 Knock-Out roses which I have found to be very unfussy about water after their first year. The roses are underplanted with a single purple trailing lantana to act as a gound cover. We did reconfigure the existing sprinklers to provide enough water for the roses to establish and then 2 of the 3 heads will be capped off. These plants look remarkably well considering our hot July and only about 5 minutes of water twice a week!
Looking for that feeling of satisfaction from actually completing something (you know like when you pay off the smallest of your credit cards so that it is gone then move on to the next smallest rather than putting all your money on the huge balance but still getting that bill, now a wee bit smaller, next month) we moved on to the second of the small sections. All of you who have been to my home will recognize this stupid little piece of stand alone turf right by my front step. With the backdrop of a well established and very healthy 3 foot high boxwood hedge this little 3/4 moon shaped area has the potential to be a showy little seasonally planted little bed. I am just not sure I really want to go there! We dug out the dead grass–much easier to dig the roots than when they were only half dead as in the first area–and my husband exposed and temporarily capped off the sprinkler lines. The bed was then double dug to a depth of about 18″, the soil being amended as it was returned to the bed. I added a 15 gallon ‘Natchez’ crape myrtle. My heart’s desire was a pale pink blossomed tree to complement the stone and my purple front doors, rather than the white flowers of ‘Natchez’, but the small planting area with sidewalk on one side dictated a smaller cultivar. In true garden ninja fashion I dug this tree in on a day when the temperature topped 109. The tree responded by dropping every one of its leaves but you can see some new foliage emerging after about 10 days. Hope springs eternal in the garden world! The jury is still out on what will go below the tree. This small area had 3 existing sprinkler heads which we changed from lawn pop ups to risers. We left the three for now and will evaluate the removal of 2 as time goes on.
After these two smaller areas exposed the ins and outs of doing a good job removing turf and preparing these heavily compacted areas for replanting, my shovel loving-rototiller disparaging husband may be wavering on some mechanical aid for the two larger sections to come.
The driveway circle area has an irregular strip of turf about 6 feet wide and 60 feet long if you stretched it out in a line. He has exposed the sprinkler heads and capped them off in preparation for the big dig. The strip of lawn on the side of the house starts out quite wide at the driveway edge then narrows to about 5 feet wide. It extends about 80 feet beyond this large blue juniper. I’ll keep you posted on our progress!
“Let’s just get rid of the lawn.” rolled off my tongue in last March. Easier said than done. Especially if you want the greatest possibility for successful new plantings. Two other gardening friends are working through this process as we are. The questions and concerns seem endless. How do I blend these new beds (with hopefully waterwise plantings) with my old beds to create consistency and rythym? I see great new plants at the garden center that supposedly need no summer water–how can I integrate those in areas having some sprinkler coverage? How do I keep the mulch from washing off my raised areas? I see lots of ideas in magazines and books. Why can’t I find those plants in my retail nurseries? We definitely have more questions and answers!