Low-Maintenance Lawn Landscaping

a garden scene with blooming...
Shutterstock / Zigzag Mountain Art
Ellen Stanley of Poway, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, moved with her husband into their home in 1995. "Our yard was very typical of yards planted in the seventies - when our house was built," she explains. "Lots of grass, a pine tree and lots and lots of juniper with oleander."

The Stanley's maintained their lawn for 11 years. Until one day, Stanley's husband came inside after a vigorous afternoon of yard work, which included weeding and most of all watering -- 15 minutes worth a day -- and declared that this would be the last time he would put that much effort into what had become an endless and frustrating task. He was even done with mowing the lawn.

So the Stanley's did something surprising -- they tore up their grassy lawn and replaced it with native plant species.

"We use much less water now," she explains, "We water in the summer but only about every 9 days for 15 minutes. When we had grass I believe we watered every other day in the summer for the same amount of time."

With water becoming increasingly precious the world over, "xeriscaping" or waterless landscaping (also known as "smart-scaping" or "native plant landscaping") has become an increasingly viable option for homeowners."Those expansive green grass lawns we've come to expect, came with the American immigrants from Western Europe," says Mike Evans, founder and current owner of Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, CA. "It's almost in our DNA to landscape with that in mind."

However, as arid states like California grew in size, so did those water-guzzling green grass lawns. In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was, at one point, offering up to $2,000 in rebates for people willing to tear up the turf in favor of drought-tolerant native plants or permeable surfaces.

But xeriscaping isn't only for people living in the hotter climates of the American Southwest. In fact, the term itself was coined in Denver, Colorado in the 1970's as a method of gardening using primarily native species ("xeros" is Greek for "dry"). According to Evans, it's an altogether outdated word. "People heard `Zero' in xeriscaping and took it to mean an empty space, when really it's about creating a habitat. Here we call it `California friendly.'"

As the country as a whole becomes increasingly thoughtful about water conservation, it can't hurt to take a few simple steps toward creating a visually appealing and habitable landscape that doesn't require a hefty water bill.

Native Plant Landscaping 101

Saving water is at the root of xeriscaping, so look for ways to reduce any unnaturally applied water. In other words, if your yard can't survive principally on rainfall, see if there aren't ways you can alter the landscape to better fit the climate in which you live.

  • Seek out plant species native to the area. Local nurseries and landscape architects are great resources when deciding what to plant in your yard.
  • Look for natural drainage patterns in the land(lower areas are naturally wetter, whereas higher areas are drier). This will help you to avoid erosion as well as help you highlight visually interesting valleys, crests and plateaus in your landscape.
  • Pay attention to sun patterns across your yard. Take note of which areas get the most sun and will subsequently require more water-or more drought-resistant species of plants. Then plant accordingly.
  • Consider the method by which you plan to water any growth that requires additional watering (other than rainfall). For example, if you intend on using a sprinkler system, a narrow patch of growth will prove more difficult to water without significant water-waste.
  • Use well-aerated soil (compacted or well-trod soil that is occasionally churned up). It's high in organic materials through added compost, and conserves water. Many plant species (other than most cacti) will appreciate a wet, dense soil.
  • Consider alternatives to grass and turf. By using stones, brick, mulch, sand and native plant species in place of turf -- or to minimize it -- you will find you need far less water, not to mention maintenance, when it comes to your yard.
  • Learn how to properly irrigate. By replacing crude hoses and sprinkler systems with modern irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation (which limits waste by dripping small amounts of water directly to each plant), a yard can thrive with limited or zero water-waste.
Creating a habitat-rather than a yard-using native plants, can be livable and enjoyable. Although grasses and trees and bushes alien to the climate in which you live tend to be your landscape's biggest water-suckers, minimizing water waste doesn't mean you have to sacrifice a beautiful landscape.

"We love our front yard so much we are getting ready to get started in the back," remarks Ellen Stanley. "I cannot even describe how beautiful it smells to walk up our driveway. My grandsons love exploring and the lizards, hummingbirds and butterflies which are quite abundant."

By planting a native habitat in your yard, you will conserve water, create an eco-friendly space and perhaps find yourself living side by side with the beauty inherent to the land on which you live.

As Stanley points out, "It is beautiful and fragrant because it is what California is supposed to look like!" Evans concurs, "It's even more beautiful because it looks like it fits."
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