A new paradigm for home gardens is starting to take hold in California, one that emphasizes native gardens that mimic nature rather than try to control it. Many homeowners have begun to question the utility of manicured lawns, and increasing numbers are eliminating or significantly reducing lawns in favor of a more environmentally friendly, economical and aesthetically beautiful native-plant garden.
Originally inspired by the grand estates of rainy England, Frederick Law Olmstead introduced and democratized the suburban lawn in 1868. A lush lawn is now the iconic landscape of suburban America. We have some 50,000 square miles of lawn nationally on which we spend an estimated $30 billion annually.
Lawns rely on overcoming local conditions to thrive. Because the geography and climate of California is poorly suited to turf grass, it requires frequent irrigation, mowing and chemical applications. In stark contrast to the chemical and water dependency of a lawn, a California native garden prospers without intervention because it is already suited to grow here due to thousands of years of adaptations to climate, soils, topography and wildlife.
Alrie Middlebrook, founder of the California Native Garden Foundation, has outlined the top five reasons to replace your lawn with a native garden:
1. Aesthetics: Native gardens are beautiful year-round with blooms and green color as long as you pick the right palette of plants. Ample information and resources are available to help you plan and install your garden.
2. Environment: Water is one of our most precious natural resources, but currently 60 percent of household potable water is wasted on lawns. Most native plants require very little or no summer watering after getting established, usually about three years. Others require some summer watering, but still far less than lawns or non-drought-tolerant ornamentals. And natives require no fertilizers or pesticides, which leach from the ground into storm drains, surface creeks and the Bay.
3. Ecology: Native gardens meet the needs of native wildlife. Native plants attract native birds and butterflies and other important pollinators, creating a miniature ecosystem in the yard. You will be doing your part to restore a little bit of California's native landscape.
4. Economics: Manicured lawns and gardens take a lot of time, money and water. Native gardens save homeowners money by cutting water bills dramatically and requiring far less maintenance and no chemicals. With many local counties already rationing water, conserving water may become essential. Existing overhead lawn sprayers can be easily converted to more efficient, water-saving drip irrigation lines for the native garden, and rebates are available.
5. Ethics: Many believe that doing what's right for the environment and conserving natural resources is ethically correct. In addition to taking steps to reduce energy use, consumption of goods, driving habits and more, we need to consider the environmental impact of how we landscape our yards – it is significant.
Certainly, some families may want to keep a small lawn area for children's play. But consider how much space you really need. Front lawns in particular are not always functional.
Start planning your native garden now, and let the grass go thirsty this summer. It's easier than you think.
Vicki Moore, a Los Altos resident, is a garden-based education consultant for the Los Altos School District, a board member of the California Native Garden Foundation and a member of Cool Los Altos.
Native plant resources
â€¢ www.LosetheLawn.com shows how to transform your lawn into a native garden.
â€¢ www.gardeningwithnatives.com offers a list of local resources for design, consultation, installation, maintenance and nurseries.
â€¢ The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers rebates through the Water Efficient Landscape Rebate Program of up to $1,000 to homeowners who take out their lawns to replace with native or drought-tolerant gardens. For more information, call Kurt Alvert at (408) 265-2607, ext. 2205, or visit www.valleywater.org and click "water conservation." Rebates expire this year when funds are used up.
â€¢ Middlebrook Gardens, 76 Race St., San Jose. (408) 292-9993. www.middlebrook-gardens.com. Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, or by appointment other days.
â€¢ Capitol Wholesale Nusery, 2938 Everdale Drive, San Jose. (408) 239-0589. www.capitolwholesalenursery.com.
â€¢ Yerba Buena Nursery, 19500 Skyline Blvd., Woodside. 851-1668. www.yerbabuenanursery.com.
â€¢ Native Revival Nursery, 2600 Mar Vista Drive, Aptos. (831) 684-1811. www.nativerevival.com.
â€¢ "Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens" (University of California Press, 2007), by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.
â€¢ "California Native Plants for the Garden" (Cachuma Press, 2005), by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien.
â€¢ "Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California's Native Landscape at Home" (University of California Press, 2007), by Judith Larner Lowry.
â€¢ California Native Garden Foundation, www.cngf.org. Its mission is to demonstrate the beauty, garden worthiness and ecological appropriateness of California native gardens and to advance knowledge of native plants.
â€¢ California Native Plant Society, www.cnps-scv.org. Offers information on native plants and public native gardens to visit.