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Imagine: No Lawns (but maybe a free book?)
updated: Jul 23, 2011, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

If you've been lounging in the Garden of Ed(en) for any time, you know that I'm vehemently anti-lawn (Keywords: wasteful, boring, destructive, sterile). So, this week I'm sharing a great book that like-minded, lawn-averse California gardeners should find inspirational and instructive. But first, let me take you back to this morning, when my button got pushed in a big way.

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I learned in design school that it's good form to start by saying something positive when critiquing a classmate's design. It makes them more amenable to the pending evisceration, so here goes…

The Encina Lodge and Suites, near Cottage Hospital, is to be commended for having their gardeners sweep the pavement with palm fronds instead of gas-powered blowers.


Now I can share the anger and frustration I felt this morning, triggered by the sight of a fast-moving stream of water coursing down the gutter on, ironically, Bath Street. The only thing missing was a Tidy Bowl man rafting the surge. This gusher's source was the motel's irresponsibly designed, poorly managed sprinklers sheeting off the grassy parkways three blocks upstream.

Today isn't the first time this otherwise lovely guest lodge put my boxers in a bunch. The identical scenario caught my attention two years ago, leading to a water conservation diatribe (It's Like Road Rage, Only Wetter) at my Fine Gardening blog. Sadly, not much has improved. No, I take that back: They've replaced the 1950s-era sprinklers with a shiny new, but just-as-poorly designed system: sprinklers showering me and Biff as we waded up the sidewalk; streams of water smacking into shrubs, then overflowing the beds; over-pressurized pop-ups sending clouds of mist drifting far from their intended target.

I'm not here to single out the Encina Lodge. (Sorry, did I use their name again?) There are scores of businesses and residences around town - and throughout the arid western states - wasting precious water on these anachronistic, unnecessary green baubles. The Lodge just happened to be today's trigger.

The core of this water waste is the knee-jerk decision to plant grass where it has no business growing, especially in narrow, curbside planting strips that can't be watered efficiently. I understand why lawns might appear convenient from a maintenance point of view: Crank up the mower, run a few laps around the sod, whirly-bird a bag of Scotts' Something-Or-Other now and then, and you're done. (I hope you skip a trip to the emergency room: Power mower accidents accounted for 80,000 hospital visits in 2010.

It doesn't get much sillier than this tiny strip of grass along East Los Olivos St.

So let's say you're the motel's proprietor and one day you wake up and see the light, embracing the water conservation message local agencies have been broadcasting for the past few decades. Where is the inspiration and instruction you need to make a fresh start?

That's where Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs (Cachuma Press), by local horticulturist and author Carol Bornstein, comes to the rescue. Co-written with David Fross and Bart O'Brien (horticultural luminaries in their own right), Reimagining lays out an inspirational, reasonable, detailed approach to rethinking the siren song of the perfect lawn.

"The book is written not just for people who already appreciate the importance of creating California-appropriate gardens," Carol Bornstein said, in a recent phone interview. "We also wrote the book to inspire those who are warming up to the idea."

The introduction offers readers a range of motivational arguments, from the altruistic rationale of practicing enlightened environmental stewardship and resource conservation, to the purely pocketbook-driven incentive of lowering their water bill.

"When the next drought cycle comes, and it will," says Bornstein, "people who rethink their landscapes now will be glad they did. Unfortunately, water is still ridiculously cheap. When the price truly reflects water's cost, then people will start using it more wisely."

Carol and crew explain the origins of lawns ("…initially limited to the estates of the wealthy…"), and how that garden aesthetic migrated west as settlement patterns spread from wetter climates, where grass grows easily, to drier regions, where we're forced to put them on life-support.

The authors felt it was important to focus not just on specific low-water-using plants. Chapter one, offers seven design approaches:

Greenswards, the most lawn-like substitute, tolerates foot-traffic.
Meadows, a bit lumpier and bumpier than a typical lawn, is described as "ablaze with wildflowers, graced by swaying grasses, and filled with butterflies, birds, and beneficial insects."
Rock gardens, using gravel, boulders, cobbles, pebbles and other mineral-base materials with plants, in contemporary or classic stylings.
Succulent gardens, desirable for their sculptural appearance, as well as being extremely drought-tolerant and safer in high-fire areas.
Carpet and tapestry gardens, a "flexible category" appealing to "gardeners with diverse goals for their landscapes."

Lawn substitute: Blue moor grass, blue fescue, and blue oat grass are paired with succulents in a flowing design by Ventura landscape architect Jack Keisel

Kitchen gardens, which require more irrigation, but repay gardeners with homegrown produce, just-picked freshness, and peace of mind.
Roof gardens, or green roofs, a growing trend providing insulation, increased biodiversity, and addressing a host of environmental issues related to urban development.

Each section, richly illustrated with photographs, includes a brief background and history about each design approach, imaginative design and installation ideas, maintenance requirements and special issues, and a selected palette of plants appropriate to the category.

If the book stopped here, it would be well worth the $27.95 cover price (discounted at their website) but the remaining two-thirds of the book includes clearly explained how-to instructions for managing, reducing, or removing your existing lawn, hundreds of California native and non-native, water-wise plants with detailed information about their appearance, and how to match the right plant to the right place.

And what's a landscape design book without lists? "Recommended Plant Selections" contains 17, grouping plants by their practical attributes like aromatic foliage, fast-growing, hummingbird attractors, tolerating poor drainage, et cetera. Two especially useful sections are the list of Sunset Western Garden Book climate zones where each plant can grow successfully, and suggested readings that expand on each section of the book. Bottom line: If you and your garden are ready to make a change for the better, or if you've already started and want to fine-tune your knowledge and skills, buy this book.

As for the Lodge, as they blithely rain on people, pooches, sidewalks and gutters: Imagine the great public relations eco-tourism boost they'd receive from reimagining their ribbons of turf into mini-greenswards, darting with ruby-throated Anna's hummingbirds and flitting with speckled Monarch butterflies.

:: :: :: :: :: ::

Post a comment for a chance to win a copy of Reimaging the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs. This contest is open to all registered Edhat users. Leave a comment telling Ed why you would like to win a copy of this book. Your name will be entered in a random drawing for a copy of the book. Entries will be accepted until midnight, Saturday, August 6. Winner will be announced in my August 21 blog post.


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