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Spring Is Here! Lose Your Lawn
updated: Mar 17, 2012, 9:15 AM

By Billy Goodnick

I WANT MY MUSTARD! This is supposed to be the season when the hillsides explode with brilliant bursts yellow flowers courtesy of Sinapis hirta. It's not there.

I've been driving the coast between Santa Barbara and Ventura a lot lately, and looked forward to seeing the slopes come to life in early spring. But as I cruised through earlier this week it struck me: The landscape is still dominated by last year's parched brown stems. Wazzupwiddat?

Simple: No rain. The weather folks are saying we'll get some this weekend, but it's looking like too little, too late for mustard season.

It's got me worried about summer and fire season. It's got me thinking about why in the hell people still nurture useless swaths of thirsty lawn in a semi- desert climate. I usually wait until summer to beat up on lawn lubbers and water wasters, so pardon me while I mount my high horse a few months early.

Solution #1: Murder Your Lawn

The most effective place to conserve water is that ubiquitous emblem of civilized SoCal living, the lawn. Sure, kids and dogs gotta play on something soft and it's not likely you'll carpet your garden with old mattresses pulled from an Isla Vista dumpster. But if your lawn still dominates your yard because you can't think of anything else to do in that space, there's hope.

Can't imagine your yard without turf? I recommend reading Evelyn J. Hadden's new book, Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives. I just reviewed it at my Fine Gardening blog, so rather than repeat myself here, let me offer an excerpt…

"This book has it all: a compelling rationale for ignoring the siren song of the ‘perfect' lawn, inspirational stories from gardeners and designers enthusiastically embracing this timely trend, and step-by-step instructions for creating easy-care, planet-friendly patches of paradise." Read the rest of the review, and leave a comment before March 31 for a chance to win a free copy.

Another source of fresh ideas is author, designer, nurseryman, and crusader for lawn alternatives, John Greenlee, who is leading a nationwide charge to convert lawns into natural meadows. Adopting his approach bestows diversity and beauty on a garden while reducing maintenance and conserving resources. The photos are seductive and there's lots of get-your-hands-dirty DIY info as well. Here's another book review that will give you a

taste of what you'll find between the covers.

And if you missed my July 2011 Edhat mention of Reimagining the California Lawn, you can get an informative local approach from Carol Bornstein and crew.

So please don't fall into the trap of thinking that turfgrass is the essence of a residential garden. There's plenty of great info to dispel that notion.

Solution #2: Every Drop is Sacred

I don't think it's risen to the level of an unhealthy obsession, but I'll admit that my pulse doubles and my adrenal glands kick into hyper-drive when I see water waste. I don't care if it's a poorly adjusted sprinkler system sending whitewater rapids coursing down the gutter, or some lazy bonehead chasing one leaf down a 50-foot driveway with hose; it drives me nuts. Whether due to ignorance or indifference, there's no excuse.

If you're a do-it-yourself gardener and want to make the most of every drop, there's free help out there. Contact your water purveyor through SBWater.org and schedule a FREE water check-up visit with their conservation experts. For those who have a gardening service, if you think your gardener is looking out for your checkbook (and water karma), think again. Do not assume that just because someone has a truck filled with mowers and blowers, they know anything about water management. Some do, but most don't have a clue.

Solution #3: Learn Enlightened Lawn Care

Ever since I caught the horticulture bug in the 70s, my best source of information has been the Sunset Western Garden Book. These folks are always at the forefront of gardening information and their just-released, totally updated ninth edition is loaded with not just the hottest new plants, but pages of planet-friendly gardening advice, too.

If you're not ready to send your turf to its final resting place, at least take an enlightened approach to its care and feeding. Did you know that setting your mower to the correct height saves water? Or that adjusting your irrigation controller to come on a couple of times for shorter periods assures that water sinks down where the roots grow, instead of running off? Sunset's Grow Lawn Grasses section (pgs. 676-7) has lots of water-conserving management tips.

What else do I hate about lawns? The noise, stink, and danger of power mowers. Fiskars™ is a company that's always impressed me with their innovative, sophisticated designs. At a recent garden show I "test drove" a manually powered StaySharp reel mower that looks like something George Jetson might own. It's quiet, amazingly easy to push (it's self-sharpening, so it doesn't "choke" on stubborn blades), and the only thing you smell is the aroma of fresh baked bread. Okay, fresh chlorophyl - even yummier! Another mowing innovation is a

powered mulching mower, which holds the cut grass in suspension long enough to pulverize it into tiny pieces that invisibly fall back onto the lawn. These little bits act as an insulating mulch layer, reducing evaporation from the soil and eliminating the need for disposal.

So I guess I'll have to get this year's mustard fix from a Costco hotdog (with sauerkraut) and hope that a lot of spring sprinkles give our gardens and native hillsides a good drink. That way we can hold off on opening the spigot for a few more months. But if not, you might want to turn your attention to that boring relic that sucks up your water, money, and weekends, and take a fresh look.

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

 COMMENT 265176 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-17 10:30 AM

I may be sorely mistaken, but isn't this mustard a highly invasive species that suppresses CA natives chemically and is considered wildfire fuel????


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-17 11:05 AM

Commentor: yes, mustard is a non-native plant, rumored to have been introduced by the Spanish missionaries -- something in the bible about spreading mustard seed (or maybe I'm thinking of a Grey Poupon commercial).

I'm not saying it's a good thing -- just that it's my harbinger of spring and is beautiful, despite it's negatives. In this instance, it's my canary in a coal mine.


 COMMENT 265212P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-17 11:51 AM

Hate the mustard. It is pushing out far more beautiful native plants of many species. It has to be eradicated. We are eliminating biodiversity with huge swaths of "monoculture".

"Homogocene: the term ecologists and evolutionary biologists use to describe the current era, when ecosystems are becoming more homogenized, when tough generalist species take over large portions of the globe."


 COMMENT 265319P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-17 05:36 PM

I'm looking for a dog-friendly lawn substitute. Any suggestions? We don't have a large lawn, but the dogs, um, "use" the lawn. They also dig holes if a gopher appears. It's not a very nice looking lawn. Something that stands up well to dog traffic would be great.


 COMMENT 265366P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-18 07:19 AM



 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-18 12:05 PM

Check out Billy's suggested reading on lawn alternatives. Some grasses, like Korean grass, are tough and I think harder for a dog to dig. Traps are best for gophers, I like the box ones.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-18 01:26 PM

Flicka's got it right. The reason I posted this story is to guide readers to great sources of information. But as long as I'm here, I've been working on a big project in Montecito, converting close to an acre of former lawn into a mostly native meadow, dotted with larger grasses, CA poppies, and flowering perennials. The "base" for the composition is a mass planting of dune sedge (Carex praegracilis) and so far, it's withstood four labrador retrievers, two of them pups when it was installed. The key is keeping them off it until the plants have a chance to defend themselves.


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