Tuesday, July 22, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Brave new gardening for brave new climates

Gardening-Going Sustainable

Ann Savageau of Davis stands in the sustainable drought-tolerant garden in front of her home. The new landscape — which replaced the family's traditional Kentucky bluegrass lawn — features a variety of cacti and agaves, fescues, sages and California fuchsia, pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia Capillarias) and Mexican feather grass (Nassella Tenuissima). As many parts of the country struggle with drought, heavy downpours and rising water bills, the move toward sustainable gardening is picking up steam, experts say. Michael Savageau/AP photo

By
From page A1 | July 17, 2014 |

By Katherine Roth
Ripping out the front lawn and its bordering rhododendrons and replacing them with a landscape of native grasses, groundcovers, succulents and rocks once seemed an unfathomable act of defiance. No longer.

As many parts of the United States grapple with drought and rising water bills, “the thought of an English garden in the Central Valley of California is sheer madness. It wasn’t meant to be, and it’s sucking up precious groundwater we need for agriculture,” said Ann Savageau, a design professor at UC Davis, who recently traded in her lush green lawns for a desert look.

Instead of scoffing, neighbors stopped to ask her landscaper for his business card. Other California towns, including Sacramento and Menlo Park, have begun offering rebates to homeowners who remove their lawns.

Gardeners nationwide are feeling the effects of climate change. In the East, and other areas where heavy downpours have become more intense, a sustainable garden might include native grasses and other plants that do well in heavy rain and the dry weather that can follow.

“Awareness is changing in a way that is here to stay,” said Brian Sullivan, a vice president for landscapes at The New York Botanical Garden. “Yard by yard, region by region, the overall environmental impact of this trend, which I think is very positive, is substantial.”

Mowing and watering a traditional lawn requires a lot of time, money, water and fertilizers. Increasingly, many home gardeners want to focus instead on edible gardens, and rethink the rest of their landscaping in a more environmentally sustainable and low-maintenance way.

It’s sometimes hard to know where to begin, however, and few people have the funds or time to tackle a total garden makeover all at once.

Some strategies:

* Take it in steps.

“Transitions should be made at your own pace and you do these things in small steps,” Sullivan said. “Lawn has utility. We play on it, sing on it and look at it. You can still enjoy your lawn, but cut it down by a third or half, or go with groundcovers you can walk on. They’re not the same, but it’s about shifting expectations.”

Susan Middlefield, horticulture editor for the Vermont-based National Gardening Association, said “less lawn means you’re putting less carbon into the atmosphere. Lawns are fertilizer hogs, and a lot of fertilizer also contributes to oxygen depletion in local waterways.”

Savageau retained a small circle of lush lawn about 12 feet across for her grandson to play on. It’s surrounded by agave and desert grasses.

* Consider your site.

When taking your yard in a new direction, experts say, the first step is to know your site. Do you have a slope? Is it shady or sunny?

Plants on the top of an incline will be drier and plants at the bottom will be wetter. But when the water dries up, the plants at the bottom need to be fine when it’s dry, too.

* Talk with local experts.

Many arboretums, botanical gardens, native plant societies and local extension services offer brochures, online help, and classes on suitable plants and landscapes for various climates and regions. Many also maintain native plant gardens to inspire home gardeners, and some communities offer incentives to homeowners making the shift toward more sustainable yards.

Melanie Sifton, vice president of horticulture and facilities at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in New York City, suggests that homeowners start with Landscapeforlife.org, an interdisciplinary effort toward sustainable gardens led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

* Consider a rain garden.

Rain gardens are “a great idea for any part of the country. … You take out a small area of lawn and make a depression into which you direct the rainwater coming off your roof. Instead of rainwater running down the driveway and overwhelming sewers, it goes into an area planted with occasionally heavy downpours in mind,” explained Middlefield.

In Vermont, she said, rain gardens often include summersweet, inkberry, shrubby dogwoods and purple coneflower.

“When there’s a big thunderstorm, you know all that water will be going somewhere useful,” she said.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new rain gardens, planted with varieties of blue star, switch grass and black gum trees, have been successful and provide stunning fall color, Sifton said.

* Where lawns are viable, think sustainable.

“In areas with sufficient water, I’m not anti-lawn,” Sifton said. “Just be aware of water use, use organic fertilizers and aerate the soil a lot.”

Sustainable lawn varieties being used successfully in New York City include tall fescues mixed with Kentucky bluegrass, she said.

* Compost.

“Composting yard waste and putting out a bucket for rainwater are huge in their environmental impact, and are both very easy ways to start gardening more sustainably,” Sifton added.

The Associated Press

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 4 comments

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  • B. CarfreeJuly 17, 2014 - 9:24 am

    Let's not ignore the secondary effects of these glorified rock gardens. Plants cool the air around them by evaporating water. If we replace all that cooling with largely reflective materials, then we have heat island effects. Since we don't mandate proper insulation and passive cooling in our building codes, that means more air conditioning, which also means more heat. I'm reminded of the time I was in a friend's yard in east Davis and there was a power outage at 4:15 PM on a warm summer day. The thermometer read 104F at that time. Thirty minutes later, with all those air conditioners still silent, the temperature had dropped to 92F! Yes, those trees in some of the older neighborhoods can really be effective at cooling the area if we don't overwhelm them with other heat sources. Of course, those glorified rock gardens also don't absorb rain water as well as leafy plants, so we will have more rapid run-off issues when it does rain. Also, they generally aren't as effective at removing air pollution. I'm no fan of lawns, but xeroscaping has at least as many downsides as the worst lawn. How about we encourage people to plant edibles?

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  • ...July 17, 2014 - 12:17 pm

    My neighbor's front yard landscaping is all rock with a few trees. Once a week a crew arrives with their gas blowers to blow the dust and dirt off of the rocks. The dust goes into the air , all over the street, covers our cars , but darn it all, those rocks are dust free.

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  • Nancy hildenJuly 21, 2014 - 9:29 am

    It can be green, check out our landscaping, 5610 Cowell. A few houses east of the one in the article. See my comments below. Nancy Hilden

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  • Nancy hildenJuly 21, 2014 - 9:25 am

    We too have only a small backyard lawn and the rest of our landscape is drought resistant. We have done this in two Davis homes for the last 40 years. Regarding fertilizing lawns, we never have. If you do not collect the grass clippings, and cut the grass high (3+ inches), and use a mulching mower, it doesn't need fertilizer and needs less water. We also can cut it ourselves in about 15 minutes with an electric lawn mower which is very quiet. No little piles of grass in the street, either. Many of the rest of the homes in this area are mowed by a service which uses commercial mowers with deafening motors. We all need to rethink landscaping that is unsuitable for this climate and maintainable only with weekly services and noise.

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