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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.

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

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.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 195693P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-23 11:07 AM

It would be nice to win this book, but I will buy it if I don't win it. ;-) I have Bermuda grass in need of dethatching, gophers, moles, rabbits, deer and chiggers. No irrigation system, no time, and no space in my garage for the mower. Other than The Bambi herd, I think this book will provide ideas for nice looking alternatives.


 COMMENT 195763 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-23 01:49 PM

There are MANY sins in Florida as well. I am in the process of assessing my situation here in the middle of a drought, fighting chickweed, nursing St Augustine grass, loving aloe and Century plants more and wondering, Why am I fighting the obvious? Am discovering more native plants @ every trip to the local Farmers Market. Brave New World? I wonder. Signing off: Needing all the help I can get in the Redneck Riviera...


 COMMENT 195788 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-23 03:07 PM

I've already changed my bad-boy lawns to flower and vegie garden, with naturals and succulents. My gal pal, however, is in need of this book. She retires very soon, and will be needing ideas and help to change her ways. Thanks, Billy!



 COMMENT 195797 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-23 03:42 PM

That hotel really would see a boost in eco-tourism if folks could watch the hummingbirds & butterflies as they sat outdoors.. Nice.

I've always thought the first step to restoring natural environment is with the lawns of suburbia!


 COMMENT 195873 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 06:59 AM

My front and backyards are completely lawn free, planted with drought tolerants. Now I am about to remove my nemesis, the swimming pool, from my backyard. Once done, I wonder how I can re-landscape using the ideas from this book with the added challenge of being a dog-friendly yard?


 HOLAZOLA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 07:39 AM

That looks likes like a very useful book! I have two lawns, but I still have kids and dogs romping around upon them. Maybe I don't need so much? hmmm.


 COMMENT 195886P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 08:10 AM

We have a cottage in downtown Carp. It would be lovely to remove our front lawn, but we have some challenges such as a narrow driveway and no walkways other than a thin concrete path from the driveway. We'd need some logical paths, and they'd need to be ADA as we want to age in place. In the back yard, we'd be able to remove probably 1/2 the lawn, and just leave a small patch for the occasional banquet table or something.


 COMMENT 195887 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 08:12 AM

I have a lawn, but since it it all crabgrass and oxalis, I doubt it would ever be anything else. So I solved the problem. I don't water it !


 COMMENT 195888 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 08:18 AM

I have a big portion of my front yard now ice plant and ground cover that sprung up by itself. In the back it's ground cover and I'm throwing out clover seed in all the bare spots. We need something green for the dogs to walk/run play on.

I would like more ideas though to use but we're not fans of desert type plants.


 COMMENT 195889 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 08:18 AM

Carol designed my front yard - gone is the grass, and in its place, beautiful, low maintenance, low cost landscaping with a meadow feel. If you want to know the address so you can drive by and admire or ask questions, let me know!


 TROLLEY TOM agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 08:23 AM

We need to redo a large section of our front yard. A friend said that it is like a blank canvas, ready for a whole new concept. The book sounds perfect for us!


 COMMENT 195892 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 08:26 AM

Your article is much appreciated and I wholly agree with your assessment of lawns and their negative environmental impact. Since a quick google check on "Greenswards" produced no results other than the fact that it is a term for grasslands or grassy steppes, could you perhaps indicate where one might learn more about this? I gather that it is an artificial product and I would be very interested in replacing a strip of lawn with such material or converting the lawn to a meadow. However, since it is the only flat area around my house, it does need to tolerate foot traffic and be level enough to permit setting up patio tables, etc.
Thank you again for a most informative article.


 COMMENT 195911 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 09:04 AM

How about replacing your lawn with an edible garden? Veggies, herbs, fruit trees? Anyone?


 COMMENT 195915 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 09:08 AM

I too am fairly anti-lawn. Since buying my house I have removed about half of the grass in the back, but the big project will be replacing the front lawn with something that reduces maintenance and water usage while improving curb appeal. This book could be just the inspiration I need to again pick up my shovel!


 COMMENT 195928 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 09:27 AM

Great article, Billy. I agree that this is a great book with a multitude of inspirational ideas.
195911, we took out our front lawn and replaced it with a 'backbone' of drought-tolerant Mediterraneans and a few natives against the house, and a swath of rosemary, lavender, and succulents along the front. In the 'center' is an eclectic mix of fruit trees, veggies, fruit, herbs, and flowers. It looks nice year-round, has dramatically cut our food bill and improved our diet, and we know most of our neighbors and trade veggies for avocados and other things. A native grass lawn can be useful for kids and dogs - check out the Buffalo grass lawn at UCSB's Loma Pelona center in Manzanita Village.


 COMMENT 195933P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 09:37 AM

Kitkatbar, I'd like to drive by for a glimpse of meadow. I'm in the mulling it over stage and could use guided inspiration. Thank you, and thank you to Billy & book authors.


 COMMENT 195935 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 09:46 AM

Yikes! Just getting ready to tear out some lawn tomorrow. Would love to hear ideas on getting rid of grass for the larger section 0f lawn that will be removed in the future.


 COMMENT 195952 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 10:38 AM

I replaced part of my grass with a vegetable garden. Come over today to see it at the Westside Garden Exchange from 2-4. 603 W. Islay. We will be having a speaker from 2:30-3:00, music, refreshments and fruits and veggies, seeds, plants & cuttings to share.


 COMMENT 195973P agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 11:18 AM

What an entertaining and informative article! We don't have a lawn and never have. My husband thinks it's ridiculous to even consider having one where we live, and I agree. Not to mention that our soil is horrid so it wouldn't grow anyway. With the exception of a few plants, we can go weeks without watering and our plants are fine. That said, the majority of our backyard is barren because we're not sure what to do with it.


 WAHINE agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 11:19 AM

Even if I were to win this book, I'm buying one for my neighbor to leave anonymously on his doorstep. In his retirement years he's apparently too busy to water his yard himself, so twice a day (even when it's raining), his sprinklers come on.


 SBREAL agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-24 02:02 PM

My other pain in the landscape is Santa Barbara's infatuation with eugenia or pitisporum hedges. What a waste time, water, energy and money to plant and maintain these gobblers. 5 years ago we toarout the 7 ft hedge and created a nice sunny spot where we planted a lovely succulent garden. We now feel more secure with the house fully exposed to the street. We have a small lot so the additional garden space is a bonus. We also see our neighbors regularly. So my recommendation is to chop the hedge and improve your property.


 COMMENT 196289 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-25 09:25 AM

I really want to replace our lawn by my husband insists that we need it for the dogs. I don't necessarily agree with him that the dogs need a grassy expanse, but any suggestions on what to replace lawn with so that the dogs are happy too would be much appreciated.


 HDB agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-25 10:51 AM

This book looks lovely and I hope to have a space someday where I can rip out the lawn and put these nice plants (and veggies too!).

Pick me! Pick me!


 COMMENT 196394 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-25 12:34 PM

My little Westside patch-o'-weeds is the scourge of our cute little block. It used to be grass but now it is dandelion heaven. I have been picking up the pieces of my life little by little over the past year. First the inside of the house, next the garage, now my yard. My friend took me by the hand this weekend to the gardening store to get ideas for a "makeover." This book sounds like the PERFECT how-to manual to transform my yard!


 COMMENT 197837 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-28 07:51 PM

I just picked two and a half pounds of green beans on a patch of land that was lawn one year ago. It took three years to get rid of all the grass because I dug it out myself and composted it. 58 when I began. 61 now. Never too late. Beans were delicious.


 COMMENT 198227 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-07-29 05:15 PM

I think this article should be printed and hung on half the doors of Southern California homes and businesses. As always, delightfully written, Billy!


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