L.A. at Home

Design, Architecture, Gardens,
Southern California Living

« Previous Post | L.A. at Home Home | Next Post »

The Dry Garden: 'Reimagining the California Lawn'

Maybe you want to remove your lawn. Maybe you want to shrink it to make way for flowers, food plants or a shade tree. Maybe you don't know what you want. A new book written by three of California's most knowledgeable horticulturists lays out options.

Reimagining-lawn-cover It would be disingenuous to treat “Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-Conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs” like any other garden book. It's not. The authors have close to rock-star status in California horticulture, something they possessed even before the publication of their first book in 2005, “California Native Plants for the Garden.”

Carol Bornstein, now a Central California garden designer, was for years director of horticulture of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The heart-stoppingly beautiful meadow there is her work. In 1976, David Fross co-founded Native Sons Nursery in the Central Coast city of Arroyo Grande and has since been the Johnny Appleseed of dry gardening. Bart O'Brien, for years director of horticulture at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, now its special projects director, is among the most knowledgeable plantsmen in the country. Once, when interviewing a homeowner by phone, I mentioned that O'Brien was outside, and she screamed, as if he were not one but all four Beatles, straight from Liverpool.

There are as many reasons for this reaction as there are microclimates in California. The most important is that as the need for more durable plants and more sustainable garden practices has steadily increased during the last three decades, these three people have been at every turn with solutions for our state.

Reimagining-lawn-flowers Most plants in our nurseries and most garden books in our stores are pitched at nationwide audiences. A book with loving depictions of what is possible on the Maryland shore is as much use to Californians as a camel's hair coat is to a desert tortoise.

By contrast, Bornstein, Fross and O'Brien have kept their focus stubbornly local. They've identified the best plants from our native flora and countries with similar climates. Through their botanic gardens and nursery, they helped to breed these plants into garden cultivars.

This new book, published by Cachuma Press, is a primer on how to use those plants instead of opting for turf.

Like any book on the subject of lawn, “Reimagining” opens by describing the environmental cost of conventional grass landscapes — in grooming lawn, fertilizing it and finally, most disastrous for California, watering it. Yet rather than say we shouldn't have lawn, the book instead offers more responsible ways to keep it, along with examples of lower-impact green spaces involving sedges or native grasses that they call “greenswards.” Also included are models for meadows, succulent gardens, multicolored and textured groundcover treatments called “tapestry gardens,” and kitchen gardens. For good measure, they include green roofs.

To put these gardens' efficiency in perspective, the greensward is like a sedan getting more than 35 miles per gallon. Tapestry gardens and meadows are hybrids capable of 50 mpg. The succulent and food gardens are electric cars. The green roof is a unicycle.

The difference between a greensward and a meadow is probably most simply defined by whether one wants to run through it barefoot. For a meadow, you might need hooves. The pages dedicated to meadows have many of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of an earlier book on the subject, “The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn” by ornamental grass merchant John Greenlee. Seen in long shots, the loveliest meadows in Greenlee's book look as if they belong to estates, not suburban gardens. However, to its credit, “Reimagining the California Lawn” is a little more down to earth in depicting what's possible between curb and porch. I just longed for more on one of the trickiest lawn traps of all: the strip between the sidewalk and the street.

The sections on succulent, tapestry and food gardens are all inspiring. I defy anyone with a small, sloped front yard not to find themselves considering our native lilac or dwarf manzanita in lieu of lawn. Those looking to turn to edible gardens as lawn alternatives will also benefit, though they should also investigate Rosalind Creasy’s 2010 book, "Edible Landscaping." If “Reimagining” turns you onto succulents, then you should probably also check out Debra Lee Baldwin’s "Designing With Succulents."

“Reimagining the California Lawn” is a long-needed tool to reduce carbon and water footprints while preserving beauty and utility. The book is for Californians by Californians. No other author or imprint can rival Bornstein, Fross and O'Brien's careful selection of species, plant profiles, clear pictures and reliable notes about where each type of plant will thrive and what it will need. Within weeks of buying this book, a motivated beginner could have a plan, a plant list and a set of affordable, achievable goals. The upshot over time would be thousands saved on water, fertilizer and lawn care, and a blooming corridor far superior to grass.

And so, to the three amigos, gracias. Now start thinking about those sidewalk strips.

-- Emily Green

Reimagining-lawn-modern Reimagining-lawn-recycled





Lecture schedule

Authors of “Reimagining the California Lawn” — Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien — will be lecturing throughout the state in the coming weeks:

April 2: Native Sons Nursery, Arroyo Grande

April 9: Bellefontaine Nursery, Pasadena

April 16: Assn. of Professional Landscape Designers, West Hollywood

April 16: Descanso Gardens, La Cañada Flintridge

April 17: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont

April 30: Sam and Alfredo Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, Alta Loma

April 30: Southern California Spring Garden Show, Costa Mesa

May 12: San Diego Botanic Garden

May 14: Tree of Life Nursery, San Juan Capistrano

May 16: California Native Plant Society, San Diego chapter

June 9: Southern California Horticultural Society, Los Angeles

June 12: G2 Gallery, Venice

June 16: California Native Plant Society, Orange County chapter

Photo at top of post by John Evarts. Photo of "greensward" with recycled conveyor belt as a path by Saxon Holt. Other photos from Cachuma Press.


Comments () | Archives (12)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Great review! I'm looking forward to getting this book, which sounds tremendously useful. There are so many wonderful climate-appropriate and water-thrifty choices available today to California homeowners.

Enjoyed the review!
This talented trio of horticultural experts could only create a terrific go-to inspiration for all sorts of plant enthusiasts whether a pro or weekend gardener.
How could people not be excited to remove their uninspired, thirsty lawn and experience the beauty and water thrifty benefits of a "reimagined lawn"?
I also appreciate the fact that the plant choices are for Californians and our climate.

I removed my lawn 5 years ago and my neighbors were horrified. Now, they love it and the city is offering incentives to those who cut back on sod in favor of natives! This book looks so inspirational!

I am going to use as much water as I want. I don't care how much it costs.

In the midst of the rush to put low water plants and rocks in place of lawns in Southern California, I want to speak for lawns. Lawns are functional. Kids play on them, kick around a soccer ball on them, you can pull a chair onto them and have a seat or you can just sit on the grass. You can put a table and chairs on a lawn and enjoy a meal. You can fold a sail into a sailbag on a lawn, you can organize camping equipment, you can have a Cub Scout meeting and do a craft. I could go on.
As for the "sidwalk strips", called parkways, you can step from a car onto a lawn. Try that in a space filled with 12"-36" plants and rocks and gravel. Liability issues, anyone? Additionally, lawns require less maintenance than drought tolerant replacements which have to be keep up weekly, getting out leaves and grooming plants. There are examples all over town of drought tolerant lawn replacements that have not been kept up and they can look weedy and unkempt.
Lawns look cool and serene and they have their place. The answer is to water them a lot less and to find turf grasses that require less water. Yea, lawns!

I remember playing out in the front lawn of our apartment, but truthfully, how often do we see people out in their front lawns? I rarely see people putting out tables and chairs and eating outside, let alone playing on a front lawn. When we converted the back lawn into a food garden, my family(including the cat) spent more time out there. It's a good thing that people are thinking in water conservation, whether they have a lawn or plants or flowers or both.

Sandy Davidson's comment that lawns are useful is absolutely correct; and therefore they should be installed where needed to facilitate use. Unfortunately, the preponderance of residential lawns are installed to decorate front yards and are only "used" by the guy who mows them.
Contrary to Davidson's suggestion that lawns are appropriate for parkways; many city officials can tell you about the lawsuits that have resulted from high heels sinking into overwatered turf parkways as well as trip-and-fall accidents from parkway sprinkler heads. Permeable paving is the best surface for parkways.

amount of lawn in the U.S., 40.5 million acres.
put together, the lawn in the U.S. would cover the state of Wisconsin.
amount of fertilizers used on U.S. lawns annually; 3 million tons.
total amount spent annually on lawn care; $30 billion.
ratio of pesticides per acre by the average homeowner versus the average farmer; 10 to 1
source; Duke University

When I moved into my house, there was a semicircular drive around a dead space of gravel, dirt, weeds, and what seemed to be old ox bones, fossilizing where the previous tenant threw them.

Mucking all that out to put in six inches of earth and a watering system was more than I could stand.

So I sowed California poppies, do some weeding after rains when the packed soil is the softest, and ... voila! I have a little patch of Antelope Valley right at home.

It needs no extra water, and it looks like heaven, year after year. The poppies self-seed.

Go natives!

We removed our front and backyard lawn 14 years ago and do not regret it. The abundance of birds, insects and wildlife has been the greatest benefit, even in the middle of Los Angeles! It just takes a little bit of weeding and replacing mulch once in awhile. I never see any of my neighbors "enjoying" their have baked lawns, except for their gardeners.

EMILY: Regarding that "sidewalk strip," wasn't it you, in this very column in its early days, who recommended decomposed granite for that area? That was the very first step I took after having my front lawn and sidewalk-strip turf removed a little over a year ago. It's not as picturesque as plantings -- but it IS user friendly for people getting out of cars.

I’m looking forward to reading the book, though I’m disappointed by the designs pictured here. They look singularly uninspired, and not what I consider good examples of aesthetically pleasing or inspiring alternatives to lawns. I see the use of contrasting colors and textures to create interest, and I applaud it. However, it appears heavy-handed. Horticultural expertise, doth not necessarily equate with design expertise. Not that one has to have a formal education, or training, as a horticulturist to execute excellent designs. I’ve seen amateurs water conserving garden designs that were absolutely stunning.

I want to see the book for the value of the horticultural information it most probably contains, for design expertise or inspiration, I’ll most probably look elsewhere. Anyone can refer to himself or herself as a garden designer. A real designer is more that a name or “rock-star” status.


Recommended on Facebook


L.A. at Home in Print

In Case You Missed It...

Hot Property


Recent Posts
New home for L.A. at Home |  July 17, 2012, 3:45 pm »
The Scout: What's new on Pico Boulevard  |  July 13, 2012, 8:22 am »
Review: Insteon remote-control LED light bulb |  July 10, 2012, 8:28 am »