By Jim Downer
The drought has California in a four-year grip of water shortages. The governor has mandated cutbacks and water districts are imposing conservation restrictions. This accompanies the already accelerating cost of water. The value of that patch of green lawn in front of most residences is in question.
Front yard turfgrass for coverage and appearance is being reassessed by homeowners all over Ventura County. Some water districts are actually encouraging turfgrass conversions by paying per square foot of turfgrass converted to low water-using landscape plants. Compensation or not, more and more homeowners are converting lawn to mixed perennial plantings. While this saves water, it also creates a new set of problems.
One problems is with trees. While lawn can be rapidly re-established if rains return and water becomes plentiful, trees take decades to mature and provide the environmental enhancements unique to them. Landscape conversions that eliminate turfgrass irrigation also eliminate water supplies for mature trees that rely on over-irrigation of turfgrass swards. When turf is eliminated and replaced with decomposed granite or other surface mulches, trees often decline. In some cases, water loving trees such as willow, alder, birch and sycamore will succumb to drought unless irrigation is specifically provided.
Often turf conversions involves planting shrubs and other plants and then mulching the entire landscaped area. Mulches are great, but not all alike. Some mulches have weed seeds or propagules in them. If used they provide a source of difficult-to-control weeds. Yard waste mulches should be thoroughly composted to control exotic weed propagules. The best mulches to cover newly landscaped soils are freshly chipped tree trimmings. There is no need to compost tree trimmings as they do not contain weeds or pathogens toxic to landscape plants.
Another way to limit plant water use and increase landscape visual impact is to utilize more hardscape. Gates, pathways, garden sculptures, walls, rocks and benches use no water and add interest to landscape. Meandering pathways in an “S” curve are highly aesthetic and add charm. Sculpture, while highly subjective and individualized, may compliment and increase dramatic visual effects of chosen plants.
A final note should be made about the plant choice. Plants can be drought tolerant and yet grow quickly and beyond their allotted space. This necessitates pruning in which most home gardeners are poorly trained. One of the great problems of landscape conversions is that “mow-blow-n-go” gardeners don't have a framework for maintaining these new landscapes and tend to prune everything into a ball or square for lack of knowing what else to do. The key to a beautiful landscape is choosing enduring plants. Enduring plants are slow growing, long lived, require little pruning and are usually pest free. While they take longer to attain maturity and fill in, they also require little maintenance and very little pruning. In a future blog I will discuss enduring plants and how to select them for your landscape.