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The Dry Garden: Replacing that lawn along the sidewalk

June 18, 2009 |  1:06 pm

Parkway  

Lawn-busters, take note: Emily Green weighs in on the best alternative to turf for that troublesome patch of dirt between the sidewalk and the street. Here's a hint: In her view, water-sipping perennials aren't necessarily the best choice. To find out why, read the latest installment in her drought-tolerant gardening column posted after the jump.

-- Craig Nakano

By Emily Green

There may be a drought and tough watering restrictions, but there has never been a better time to tackle the knottiest problem in Los Angeles landscaping: How to plant parkways?

Parkways are now and always have been a headache. No matter who owns that strip of land between curb and sidewalk, for safety reasons, two city of Los Angeles agencies call the shots over what may and may not be done with it. The Urban Forestry Division oversees the plants, and the Bureau of Engineering handles "hardscaping," or the paved parts. But the homeowner is responsible for tending them.

Traditionally, most parkways have been planted with grass to match frontyard lawns. But under the new drought ordinances, when lawn sprinklers on parkways create run-off, homeowners face warnings, then fines.

It’s a measure that’s both unfair and long overdue. No tweaking of parkway sprinklers is likely to end run-off, and yet end it must. As the trickle from sprinklers accumulates in gutters and storm drains, it is steadily draining our water supply and poisoning the Pacific.

So dolphin-respecting, law-abiding, lawn lovers are left with the option to water the parkway by hand — or get rid of the grass.

Removing the grass feels right but too often looks wrong. Lawn on parkways offers visual consistency. Interrupt the strip of green with a sudden eco-preserve of gravel and succulents and it can look motley. (Moreover, gravel is not an approved parkway ground cover by the city.)

That doesn’t mean that the turf should stay. And the new ordinances forbidding run-off combined with cash-for-grass rebates begs a third option. This is for collective makeovers of parkways. If every house on any given street applied for individual rebates with a collective succession planting plan in hand, the results could be stunning.

The most durable and elegant succession plan would be to refresh or install the street trees. No sprinklers required: They’re actually not a good way to water trees.

The cost-benefit profile of parkway trees is so high that the city and the L.A. nonprofit TreePeople promote tree-planting as drought-smart measure. Add to that, lawn can’t shade your car.

Choose the tree option and there are more freebies in the goodie basket. The L.A. Department of Water and Power is still funding its tree giveaway program in conjunction with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Million Trees LA drive.

To investigate getting a street tree, call 311 for the Urban Forestry Division or go to Million Trees LA, or contact the DWP. They work together.

Finally, there is the matter of ground cover around the trees. There may be a better choice than decomposed granite, but it’s hard to imagine. It is water permeable, elegant and tough. It’s pedestrian friendly. You would get no tickets for sprinkler run-off. DWP rebates apply to it. It doesn’t need mowing, and a meaningful savings would appear on your water bill every month.

Decomposed granite does require an "A" permit from the Bureau of Engineering, but that can be readily acquired online or in city offices.

There will be only one big loser if block clubs jump on the opportunity. Without sprinkler run-off into the gutter, mosquitoes will be unable to breed in the sewer.

Green's column on drought-tolerant gardening appears weekly on this blog. For past columns, click on "Dry Garden" in the category cloud.

Photo: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times

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